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Photo: ‘Mission: Impossible’/Paramount Pictures
The ‘Mission: Impossible’ films started off as heightened espionage flicks then gradually progressed into being blistering celebrations of full-throttle action. Brian de Palma, Brad Bird, J.J. Abrams, John Woo, and now Christopher McQuarrie have all tried their hand, with each lending a different take. It’s the franchise that used Tom Cruise’s acting chops, repurposed them for action-hero stardom, and now owes its success to his bravery.
Yet, it seems like Cruise still doesn’t get the full credit he deserves from critics. In the immortal words of Vince Staples, Cruise is still underrated because “The mission was impossible, and he still completed it. Three times”. Well, he’s now done it six times and he’s probably going to do it a few more, despite being in his late fifties. Incredible.
‘Mission: Impossible’ is a franchise that does the basics well, and increasingly so. It knows that the focus is less on plot (narratively, each film is basically interchangeable with the others) and more on providing a thunderously exciting spectacle. It’s the rare franchise that found its true identity late on and continues to get better and better. Let’s look back on its evolution in chronological order.
‘Mission: Impossible’ (1996), Brian De Palma.
In the franchise’s first installment, Ethan Hunt must go on the run after a disastrous operation reveals the presence of a mole in his organisation.
The first ‘Mission’ has a surprisingly auteurial touch. Brian de Palma (of ‘Scarface’ fame) stamps his signature on the franchise by filling the film with beautiful, classic-looking cross-dissolves and sumptuous colour. The first sequence is breathtaking, as is the Langley infiltration – when it takes its time to build suspense, ‘Mission: Impossible’ is breathtaking.
‘Mission: Impossible’ is notable for being far more plot-focussed than the other films – it is filled with a double-crossing and silent threat (until it isn’t, and were faced with a very silly helicopter chase). Though it’s refreshing to see an entry in the franchise that mostly doesn’t rely on action, its plot is convoluted, a trait which De Palma often confuses for intrigue. It’s fine for a film to be complicated but the complexity has to be interesting – ‘Mission: Impossible’ struggles to make its central mystery engaging enough.
Still, ‘Mission: Impossible’ has some excellent moments and lays the ground-work well. It stands out more for being different from the others than for being better, but it’s still pretty good.
‘Mission: Impossible 2’ (2000), John Woo.
The best sequels tend to depart significantly from the original – so do the worst. John Woo’s supremely silly follow-up to ‘Mission: Impossible’ sees Ethan return to face a maniacal, virus-spreading baddie.
The second ‘Mission: Impossible’ is by far the worst in the franchise. It abandons all of the original’s subtlety and tension for brash, cheap thrills. The dialogue is laughable, as is much of the acting and story choices.
That being said, I’d be lying if I said ‘M:I 2’ isn’t entertaining in a so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. It’s inherently interesting in being a complete departure from the first film’s poise and espionage-heavy focus. The action is already significantly dialed up, and Ethan is presented as a James Bond-esque playboy rather than a motivated problem solver. The entire film feverishly perpetuates now-outdated action movie stereotypes skewered in parodies like ‘Hot Fuzz’ – a slow-mo shot of Cruise shooting two guns whilst sliding sideways into glass specifically brings the classic comedy to mind.
‘Mission: Impossible 2’ is more notable for edging the franchise closer to action and away from espionage. It’s got some good action scenes, but it offers little beyond guilty pleasure laughs.
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‘Mission: Impossible 3’ (2006), J.J. Abrams.
Before taking over ‘Star Wars’, J.J. Abrams tried his hand at ‘Mission: Impossible’. In ‘M:I 3’ Ethan is in love and living a normal life, but his newfound sanctity is swiftly disturbed by the emergence of a new mission.
As always, J.J Abrams brings a frenetic pace to proceedings – ‘M: I 3’ is high-octane from the get-go, and also contains a better focus on character than its predecessors – though giving Ethan a wife seems like a lazy attempt at drama on the surface, it actually works well. For the first time, Ethan’s got something to lose, and you actually feel afraid for him. This sense of fear is helped by the franchise’s best villain to date: Phillip Seymour Hoffman is genuinely threatening as the big baddie.
Though ‘Mission: Impossible 3’ undeniably improves over its predecessor, like the majority of J.J Abrams’ work, it suffers from lack of respite – it is supremely entertaining in the moment but its frenetic pace makes it rather forgettable because there is little time to digest anything. The camerawork is nowhere near as crisp or as daring as later installments, so it also falls short of later entries in terms of action.
‘Mission: Impossible 3’ is about as good as the first film – those who prefer an espionage-focus will opt for De Palma’s original, but Abrams’ actioner brings more in terms of pure entertainment.
‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’ (2011), Brad Bird.
For many (myself included), this is where the franchise really stepped it up. The plot, as always, is familiar: Ethan and his crew must go it alone to chase an evil Russian warmonger after the IMF is disavowed. But the execution is where it differs.
‘Ghost Protocol’ is immensely exciting and shot with real skill – each set piece is crisply and carefully constructed. Brad Bird lends a steady hand to proceedings and does away with J.J Abrams’ close-up reliant, heavily-edited style. The Burj Khalifa climb is one of the most daring action sequences in the history of cinema, and arguably Tom Cruise’s most iconic stunt. This scene and the rest of the film mark the first time the franchise really fully committed to dangerous, exhilarating action, which is now what it’s known for – ‘Ghost Protocol’ signalled the nature of the franchise’s new identity. Because of this sense of heft, the action scenes have tension, which is something that was lacking in previous entries – ‘Ghost Protocol’ establishes a nice balance between the dexterity of the first film and the energy of the third. It’s also got more of a sense of humour than any of the others – it knows that it’s just silly fun, and it owns it.
The film’s by-the-numbers plot is no better than any of the others – its worst feature is its weakly written, entirely forgettable villain. Still, as aforementioned, execution is key. ‘Ghost Protocol’ is narratively unremarkable but it far exceeds expectations in terms of visceral excitement.
‘Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’ (2015), Christopher McQuarrie.
The fifth entry in the franchise finds Ethan on the run from the CIA (again) whilst fighting a threatening new organisation called the Syndicate.
Somehow, ‘Rogue Nation’ manages to up the ante yet again – the opening scene (in which Cruise really strapped himself to an airborne jet) is another astonishing, history-breaking set piece. The film doesn’t peak with its best stunts, arguably unlike ‘Ghost Protocol’ – the plane takeoff is followed up by a brilliant opera scene, which is then followed by one of the best motorcycle chases put to film. ‘Rogue Nation’ is also slightly more espionage heavy than its predecessor’. It feels a little more grounded than the third and fourth entries in spite of the brazenness of the action. One of the film’s hidden gems is Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust – her character and performance are a highlight throughout.
Though it doesn’t have the game-changing Burj Khalifa scene, ‘Rogue Nation’ has a better villain – Sean Harris imbues Solomon Lane with enough evil to make him interesting beyond his limited characterisation. Though the plot is engaging enough, it remains the franchise’s main weakness in this entry too – the narrative is perhaps too close to previous films.
Aside from these trappings, ‘Rogue Nation’ maintains the resurgence brought about by ‘Ghost Protocol’.
‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’ (2018), Christopher McQuarrie.
Not many films reach their peak in the sixth entry, but I think this might just be the case with ‘Mission: Impossible’. McQuarrie’s second film reprises the storyline from ‘Rogue Nation’ as Ethan and the team continues to hunt down the Syndicate.
‘Fallout’ takes the franchise’s usual structure and perfects every element – the villain(s) is familiar but genuinely threatening. The set pieces are unbelievably exciting and manage to top what the franchise has served up so far. The IMAX skydive and helicopter chases are exhilarating, and of course, done for real. Even the music is better than usual, with Lorne Balfe doing excellent work on the iconic theme. Simply put, ‘Fallout’ is the best film in the franchise. Henry Cavill’s appearance is now infamous for the industry-chaos caused by his mustache, but he is also very effective as August Walker. ‘Fallout’s plot is surprisingly intriguing and even more surprisingly emotional. It really feels like the offering where more than ever, there is an effort on all sides to make something memorable.
The usual criticisms of the franchise’s lack of variety in regards to the story still stand, yet ‘Fallout’ never feels tiresome because each familiar element is executed so well. It is one of the best action movies of the decade as well as being the best ‘Mission’ yet.
Mission: Impossible 7 is set to release on November 7, 2021.
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Amhara Chamberlayne is a graduate in English Literature from Warwick University who shares Hollywood Insider’s passion for cinema. When he is not watching films he is writing about them. Uninterested in gossip and agenda, Amhara instead believes in sharing his honest individual reaction to cinema. He enjoys the multi-variant reactions films elicit and believes his take is just as valid as others. For Amhara, the joy lies in the exchange of opinions.