The Mission Impossible franchise

There have not been as many action franchises which have lasted so long as Mission: Impossible, with the same person as its face. The Die Hard movies reached just short of 25 years with Bruce Willis at the helm, but due to his health issues, it seems almost certain there will be no more entries. Indiana Jones and Harrison Ford will reach a remarkable 42-year span when the newest film in the series comes out at the end of next month – but I think it is fair to ask how much action Ford will genuinely be doing, considering he is now in his eighties. Probably the legitimate crown belongs for now to Sylvester Stallone, who reached 30 years with Rocky, before handing the headliner’s role to Adonis Creed.

However, a close challenger comes from Tom Cruise and his Mission: Impossible franchise. By the time the second part of Dead Reckoning is released next year, it will be 28 years since a fresh-faced Cruise first chose to accept his mission. It has been announced that these films will be a send-off to Ethan Hunt – let’s face it, Cruise is now in his sixties too. But action movie stars are like pro wrestlers: they very rarely “retire”, so it wouldn’t surprise me if Cruise does not go quietly off into the sunset. In the meantime, let’s take a look at a series which has redefined the genre over the course of its six entries thus far, and will no doubt continue to do so going forward. We’ll be posting a new review every day this week, so check back…

However, one thing we noticed is that, while the various entries may blur together after a while, there is always one signature element which can be used to remember where about you are in the series. So, with apologies to Friends:

  • Mission: Impossible: The One with the dive into the vault
  • Mission: Impossible 2: The One with motorcycle jousting
  • Mission: Impossible III: The One with Philip Seymour Hoffman
  • Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol: The One in the Burj Khalifa
  • Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation: The One with Ethan hanging off a plane
  • Mission: Impossible – Fallout: The One where Tom broke his ankle.

Mission: Impossible (1996)

Rating: C+

Dir: Brian De Palma
Star: Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Béart, Henry Czerny

There were only a couple of things I could remember about this one. It had a bit at a strangely deserted Liverpool Street Station, about 200 yards from where I worked at the time in Devonshire Square. And it had Emmanuele Béart, who was top-tier EuroTotty back then. Oh, yeah, and the bit with the vault heist, Cruise descending on a wire to a heavily-guarded room inside Langley. It’s still inspiring knockoffs 25 years later. What I really couldn’t recall was anything about the plot. There’s good reason for that. The final credits have just rolled… and I still couldn’t tell you the plot in detail. It’s a convoluted mess of cross, double-cross and betrayal in which nobody except square-jawed hero, Ethan Hunt (Cruise), is what they seem.

Basically, the Macguffin is a list of undercover operatives, which Hunt and his team, under Jim Phelps (Voight), is supposed to stop being stolen. Except, it’s a mission they are intended to fail, with Hunt and Phelps’s wife Claire the only survivors. Hunt is “disavowed” as a suspected traitor, and puts together a team of similarly burned agents to obtain the real list, in order to lure out the real traitor. As you can imagine, this inevitably leads to him dangling off the back of a train, trying to fight the real traitors. The train is whizzing through the Channel Tunnel, with a helicopter (piloted by Jean Reno, whom I’d forgotten entirely was in this) tied to it.

The funniest stuff here is definitely the technology on view. It may have seemed cutting edge at the time: floppy diskettes, searching Usenet groups and monitors the size of tank engine blocks, have not dated well. I had also forgotten this was a De Palma movie (it was originally going to be Sydney Pollack), though compared to much of his work, it’s considerably more restrained. In terms of what was to come, the stunts are restrained, with the green-screen work on the train sequence very obvious. These days, Cruise would likely be, “Get me a train, I’m doing that shit for real.” Here, the riskiest bit of action is probably him avoiding 16 tons of water, after blowing out a mammoth fish-tank with some explosive chewing-gum.

There’s no doubt that the vault scene remains iconic, and is a masterclass by De Palma in the generation of tension. The entire Langley heist is well-assembled, using the skills of the entire team (even the generally underused Claire),reaching a peak as Hawke descends into the noise-, heat- and pressure-sensitive chamber (top). One of the factors that makes it stand out is the silence in which it largely unfolds. If you do not find yourself holding your breath during it, you may well be dead already. The rest of the film, though? Largely meh. De Palma seems to want it to be Hitchcock with giant fireballs. Not a combination I was personally demanding, but I guess close to half a billion in worldwide box-office revenue can’t be wrong.

Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)

Rating: C

Dir: John Woo
Star: Tom Cruise, Dougray Scott, Thandie Newton, Ving Rhames

I think it’s safe to say Cruise and the other makers wanted to go in a different direction for the sequel. That’s the only reason to explain why they replaced the relatively grounded style of Brian De Palma with the batshit insanity of John Woo. Reportedly, Woo chose not to speak English on the set, which maybe explains why the performances here feel more arduous than last time around, and secondary to the action. On the plus side, the plot is considerably easier to follow, and the excess of the final half-hour is undeniably memorable. On the other hand, not much between that and the opening rock-climbing might stick in your mind. Also: Thandie Newton.

On reading our original review, I winced: surely she couldn’t be that bad, could she? Oh, yes. Yes, she is. If you’re familiar with her mostly from an excellent performance in Westworld, this will probably come as a shock, because she’s terrible here. Her top-shelf thief Nyah Nordoff-Hall is supposed to have both hero Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and villain Sean Ambrose (Scott) falling for her, but there’s nothing there to explain why they would. Nyah’s personality is abrasive, Newton is shot in a way which does her no favours, and after a reasonable enough introduction, the character serves precious little purpose except to act as a human incubator for the bioweapon at the centre of proceedings. I guess she might also help assure the audience Hunt isn’t gay. Just like Cruise isn’t, of course.

The early stages show some promise, setting her up like one of the more independent Bond girls. However, any further development is sidelined, replaced by Hawk and Ambrose tussling over the lethal virus, Chimera, and the antidote for it, Bellerophon. Both items were developed by a company called Biocyte, with the aim of profiting from having the cure for their disease. Ambrose plans to steal  Chimera from Biocyte HQ and release it in Sydney, having previously shorted the company’s stock. Hunt intends to get there first and destroy the virus, leading to what feels like a knock-off of the vault heist from part one. Although this being a John Woo film, with considerably more sliding across the floor, holding a gun in each hand.

Problem is, up until then, there’s very little of note. We get a sequence at a race-course which feels like it runs on for ever without going anywhere in particular, and Sir Anthony Hopkins showing up for a few minutes, to collect a likely sizeable cheque. Outside of checking off Woo’s trademarks – and there is an amusing moment involving Hunt and a white dove – there’s not much to distinguish it from any similarly vacuous Hollywood action film, such as Gone in Sixty Seconds, which followed it at the top of the North American box-office. The longer Woo stayed in Hollywood, the more generic his output became, and the first three-quarters of this definitely continue that unfortunate trend.

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Rating: B+

Dir: J.J. Abrams
Star: Tom Cruise, Michelle Monaghan, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ving Rhames

This installment had a rather tortured path to the screen, going through both David Fincher and Joe Carnahan as directors, before being handed to feature rookie Abrams. Of course, he had plenty of experience with spy shenanigans on TV, and a sense he was recycling those tropes was my major criticism at the time (below). Now, with Alias so much dust in the wind, and as forgotten as Jennifer Garner’s career, that isn’t an issue. This has dated very well, we found, despite – or perhaps because – I couldn’t remember much about this on the way in, to be honest. It’s the one where Simon Pegg showed up, isn’t it? That was about my recollection. But after struggling to find itself in the first two entries,  it feels like this is the entry where the franchise finally hit its stride.

The various elements come together to the form we now know, with a slew of blockbuster action set-pieces, interesting characters and a plot which hits the sweet spot between simplistic and unnecessarily complicated. It’s just a lot of fun. The viewer’s attention is grabbed immediately, with villain Owen Davian (Hoffman) appearing to shoot the wife of Ethan Hunt (Cruise), and we then flashback to see how we got there. Hunt has “retired” from active service, to be a trainer and is now engaged to Julia (Monaghan), who knows nothing about his job. When he goes back into the field to rescue an agent, it opens a can of worms, which leads Ethan to a quickie wedding.

Silly spy: has he never seen On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? That way always lies trouble. And so it proves here, with Davian making very specific threats against Julia after his capture, then escaping and working to deliver on them. This adds a personal edge to the very Macguffin-like “Rabbit’s Foot” everyone is chasing. Spoiler alert: we never do discover what it does, or why it’s such a threat. Though to be fair, it doesn’t matter much. You will be more than entertained by Hawke breaking into the Vatican, a hellacious firefight on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, a Shanghai heist, and Cruise doing his weird running thing beside a Chinese river.

The supporting cast are good, including Film Blitz favorite Maggie Q as well as Pegg. Hoffman clearly relishes being able to get his teeth into a good, villainous role in the kind of blockbuster part usually reserved for British thespians in need of a new house. Abrams proves highly capable of expanding his vision to fill a movie screen, and justifies the studio’s confidence in handing him somewhere north of $150 million, then a record budget for a first-time feature director. You can’t claim the money isn’t on screen, and outside of a couple of digital effects that are a little bit of their time, this is as entertaining as any contemporary action film.

[May 2006] Abrams, creator of TV show Alias, must have laughed all the way to the bank. He gets much better production values, like actually going to Shanghai, rather than showing stock footage before cutting to an LA set [Though German windfarms look curiously like California…], and needn’t write a script, just take a discarded two-parter and replace “Sidney Bristow” with “Ethan Hunt”. That’s not so bad – we like Alias – but the structure, ideas and characters here are scarily familiar. Start with a dramatic moment, then flashback to the events before it? Check. Secret government agency, hunting those who supply weaponry to bad guys? Check. Boss you perhaps can’t trust? Check. Geeky tech guy who rambles on, in his own world? Check (here, played by Shaun of the Dead‘s Simon Pegg, so we enjoyed that).

If it’s not a contradiction, this is solidly fluffy: it’s summer entertainment, and is instantly forgettable, but is a pretty good time, as Hawke (Cruise) scurries from one perilous situation to another. However, as in War of the Worlds, there is no genuine sense of peril; as the biggest star on the planet, you know nothing terrible will really happen to him. Due to this, the same applies to the film’s most shocking moment, which my brain immediately rejected as fake. The supporting cast is solid: Hoffman is a good villain, just not around enough to make much impact. While they give Hawke a backstory, and a fiancee/wife (Monaghan), we get no real feel for them as a couple, and so emotional investment is slim, at best. Abrams handles the action well enough; he brings his horrible choppy editing with him, as well as way too much wobbly-cam, but there were enough “Ooh!” moments in there to keep us entertained. And that’s all we expected, or wanted. C+

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

Rating: B

Dir: Brad Bird
Star: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton

Despite a decline in box-office for part three, a global take of almost $400 million made it an easy decision to greenlight a fourth installment. While J.J. Abrams was unable to direct, he remained on board as a producer. Bird was an interesting choice to direct, having only previously helmed animated features, including The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. [I imagine if this had been made after John Carter, the studio might have gone another direction] He was a classmate of Tim Burton on CalArts’s animation course, and their classroom number, A113, crops up in a couple of places here, e.g. on Ethan Hunt’s ring, as an Easter Egg of sorts.

Part III opened with the disconcerting sight of Hunt’s girlfriend apparently being killed, and it’s not long into this before we discover the couple apparently split up, due to the stresses of his work. As in III, the key word is “apparently”. The truth may (or may not) be far worse, and connected to why Hunt starts the film locked up in a Russian prison. Guess nobody wants Hunt to be happy. Sprung from there, it’s not long before all of IMF is disavowed – the “ghost protocol of the title” – yet he’s still on the trail of the components necessary to launch Russian nuclear missiles. Turns out you need codes, a launch device and a rogue satellite, leading to a globe-hopping scavenger hunt. At what point would I, as an insane wannabe terrorist, find an easier option for my lunatic destruction?

Speaking of which, the biggest step back here is the lack of a memorable villain. I watched this last night, and still had to look at the film’s Wikipedia page to remind me who the bad guy was. It’s not the fault of Michael Nyquist, who plays the villain. The character of Hendricks just isn’t giving much to establish him, beyond a rambling speech about how nuclear war might not be all bad. This might be a result of a script rewrite by future franchise director Christopher McQuarrie, after shooting had started. He said, “What I did was about clarity. The mystery had to be made simpler.” I wonder if reducing Hendricks to a human Macguffin was part of that streamlining process.

In general, the original assessment below remains accurate. There’s not the same intensely personal nature to the conflict which we saw in III, instead replaced by an overall concept that feels like an unused Bond plot from the eighties. That said, the execution is absolutely top-tier stuff. The Burg Khalifa sequence is arguably the finest action set-piece the series has to offer, and that’s going up against some very stern competition. Normally, I’m reluctant to pull back the curtain on movie-making. Here, though, right after viewing we headed to YouTube to look for behind-the-scenes videos, and were not disappointed. While there may not be much to generate any emotion beyond slack-jawed amazement, it’s capable of doing that on multiple occasions.

[January 2013] It’s interesting to watch this at the end of the year, and see how, in some ways, it pre-shadowed the “back to the future” approach taken by Skyfall: in some ways, going back to its origins, while in others, rushing forwards with the accelerator pushed to the metal. As in the very first film, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is framed for a crime he didn’t commit – here, the bombing of the Kremlin – and has to fight from out of the shadows to clear his name. However, this ramps up the technological aspects, with a near-blizzard of gadgetry, supported by an enhanced role for Pegg, as IMF’s “Q”, Benji Dunn.

Also part of the underground team are an IMF agent (Renner) who feels responsible for the death of Hunt’s wife and (likely so Hunt wouldn’t look gay), Jane Carter (Patton), who zip around the globe, from Moscow to Dubai to Mumbai, in search of a renegade villain who wants to trigger nuclear war because… Er, let’s just leave it at that, shall we? It’s really the kind of film that’s much more enjoyable at the time, rather than when you look back and realize how little depth is given to most of the characters. Bird, better known as one of Pixar’s guys, makes the shift from animation to live-action with aplomb, and gives the action sequences a fresh look and a lot of energy, most notably an extended sequence in the world’s tallest building, which combines climbing, running, fighting, the aforementioned technology and a sandstorm to impressively-kinetic effect.

Indeed, it’s so good that the actual climax, when it arrives, is somewhat underwhelming by comparison. Pegg is, as ever, a joy to watch – it’s clear producer J.J. Abrams thinks so, having used him both in this series and a not-dissimilar role in Star Trek. I’d have been happy to forego Cruise entirely, who is little more than a clothes-horse, on which cool action and gadgets can be hung. Still, the results are undeniably entertaining, though without any real emotional heart to lift it up into the true top tier for the genre. B

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

Rating: B

Dir: Christopher McQuarrie
Star: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Sean Harris

Full disclosure. I watched this on my birthday, and was about a bottle of wine in, plus an extra helping of Chris’s lasagne. I’m not sure my critical faculties were therefore exactly at their sharpest. That said, I still enjoyed this, with Tom Cruise giving its all, from the opening sequence which sees him genuinely strapped to the outside of a Russian aircraft. You can only admire that kind of commitment to the cinematic process, which harkens back to the glory days of Jackie Chan, or even before it, to Buster Lloyd. Whatever you may think about Cruise and Scientology, he can only be respected for a willingness to go the distance for his audience.

Here, he’s going up against The Syndicate, led by Solomon Lane (Harris), a previously official group of black ops agents, who are now operating on their own terms, towards a generally obscure goal. However, they must be stopped as usual, and Hunt (Cruise) has  allies such as Benji Dunn (Pegg), and perhaps ally Ilsa Faust (Ferguson), who helps Hunt escape near the beginning, despite apparently being part of the Syndicate. Oh, who am I trying to kid? She’s an undercover British agent, though her own bosses in MI-6 aren’t entirely on board with her mission. Yet Faust is still the most-rounded female character in the franchise to this point. While there have been reasonably interesting candidates previously, she has a depth and complexity, previous bits of M:ITotty could only dream of.

It bounces around the globe, from Vienna to Morocco to London, with a series of extravagant set-pieces. My main complaint would probably be that it peaks with the underwater heist near Casablanca. I defy you to hold your breath for as long as Cruise does. According to the stunt coordinator, he was underwater for just over six minutes. That triggered Chris’s disbelief, until I showed her a YouTube video of the Guinness World Record holder… who held his breath for more than twenty-four minutes. It’s probably a case where the cinematography, being edited, doesn’t do the performance justice.We needed a single, unbroken shot of Cruise underwater, to be able to appreciate the effort.

However, both this and the Vienna Opera scene which preceded it, are so well-executed as to make the finale in London which follows, somewhat disappointing, albeit only in comparison. It does also feel like about the third film in a row where either Hunt or the entire IMF organization gets canned. I’m beginning to think that disavowals aren’t what they used to be. McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects) does a good job of mixing things up and keeping them fresh. Cruise hanging on to the side of a plane as it takes off, has to be one of the most attention-grabbing pre-credit sequences in cinema history, and the film rarely lets go of you thereafter.

[August 2015] An exceptionally solid piece of action entertainment, it helps that the “Tom is on the outside of the plane!” footage of which we were heavily aware, shows up in the first five minutes. When you’re expecting that to be the climax, turning it into the film’s curtain-jerker is a radical adjustment of audience expectations, and for the great part, it delivers on these. I can’t help feeling I’ve seen this story before though, with the IMF again closed down, forcing Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his band of motley associated – Ving Rhames about the only survivor from the original, almost 20 years ago – as they whizz around the world in search of… stuff. Let’s just leave it at that.

It plays like a more sociable version of classic Bond, all globe-trotting, gadgets and girls, though the latter, in the form mostly of improbably-named MI5 operative Ilsa Faust (Ferguson), steals the show in a way not seen by an action heroine since… Er, about two months ago, in Mad Max: Fury Road, to be honest. If this is a trend, it’s one I’m happy to endorse. The variety of characters does allow for a bit more range in tone than Bond movies; Pegg delivers the most amusing lines, such as “Join the IMF! See the world! On a monitor. From a closet…” Renner, as the man tasked with trying to keep Hunt in check and fend off the predatory CIA, had a nicely world-weary air, though you do occasionally wonder how much longer Cruise can keep going as the ageless wonder.

The action is highly competent on all fronts, and only occasionally succumbs to obvious 3-D pandering, most obviously in the sequence set in the underground, water-filled chamber. This is also heavily CGI’d, so much less effective than the stuff which is actually done – such as the excellent car- and motorcycle-chase through the streets of Casablanca, or the extended sequence of human chess in the Vienna Opera House, played out to the strains of Turandot [a.k.a. that song by the fat bloke with the beard, for any cultural Philistines]. It’s well over two hours long, yet doesn’t feel padded in the slightest and you can’t argue you’re cheated out of value, since this is definitely one to see at the cinema. Just give Pegg and Ferguson their own franchise and I’ll be happy. B

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

Rating: C+

Dir: Christopher McQuarrie
Star: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson

I’d definitely seen the sixth entry before, yet it appears I never wrote a review. This slightly disturbed me as I settled down to watch it, before I realized why I hadn’t bothered. The truth is, this is startlingly generic fare. Well assembled, to be sure. It just doesn’t have much on which to hang a review, because it seems incapable of generating a strong reaction. It’s a surprise, since the last two entries didn’t have any real trouble creating a sense of engagement in me. Many of the same people are back, including for the first time in the franchise, the director. Yet the script here feels like a retread – or “throwback”, if you’re feeling charitable.

This came home to me particularly at the end, when Hunt is engaged in a fist-fight with a villain, while feet away, a nuclear device is counting down towards zero. Hang on… wasn’t that the climax of Goldfinger? What I’ve enjoyed about the show is the way it has pushed forward and innovated. While it may share the name of a sixties spy series, that’s about all. We’ve been watching the original series, and it’s remarkably static and talky. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s just very different to the adrenaline-driven movies. Seeing it clone (or more appropriately, carbon-copy) a climax from a movie over 50 years old feels lazy. The same goes for rather too much, including August Walker (Cavill), who could hardly be more obvious if he waxed his mustache and twirled it occasionally.

There’s something of a familiar feel to the villainy as well, with Solomon Lane still the subject of much attention, even though he was captured at the end of the last film. Now, his acolytes, the Apostles, are plotting to obtain a trio of plutonium cores and use them in terrorist attacks, in conjunction with an individual known only as “John Lark”. Hunt and colleague Walker, are tasked to stop him, along with other returnees Benji Dunn (Pegg) and British agent Ilsa Faust (Ferguson). She needs to get her hands on Lane in order to regain the confidence of her employers. It’s all lightly engaging, yet there’s a lack of intensity when compared to its predecessors.

I do think we may have reached Peak Hunt Running here though, with a foot-chase from St. Paul’s Cathedral across the Thames (top) to the Tate Modern. Cruise runs funny. Trust me. Once you notice it, you’ll never be able not to see it. This sequence is where he broke his ankle leaping from roof to roof, an incident which reportedly cost $80 million in costs, as everyone still had to be paid for a couple of months while he healed up (insurance covered it). Yet it perhaps says something that the misfire is likely more memorable than any of the action here which goes right, though the helicopter stuff at the end has its moments. Let’s hope the franchise gets back on track for the two-part seventh entry.