Our mission, which we accepted, was to watch the Mission: Impossible films

Our mission, which we accepted, was to watch the Mission: Impossible films

With Run The Series, A.A. Dowd examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment. Fair warning: Spoilers are inevitable.

At its very worst, a blockbuster franchise is a conveyer belt: It offers a steady supply of sameness, of reskinned models designed to replicate the appeal of old ones. At its best—and this is much less common—a blockbuster franchise can serve as a sandbox for its participants, allowing real artists to shape familiar conventions into something distinctive. The Mission: Impossible series, like the Alien series before it, is the rare big-budget Hollywood franchise that can be honestly described as auteur-driven, because each new installment is handed off, baton-like, to a different director. If the M:I constant is Tom Cruise and his reliable box-office draw, the X factor is the man behind the camera.

Though they’re all loosely based on the same popular television series, every one of the four Mission: Impossible movies carves out its own conceptual and stylistic identity. The sequels don’t feel like sequels, but high-concept reboots, as though the gatekeepers of the series were so nervous that their hit formula would go instantly stale that they sought to rewrite it with each subsequent entry. As a result, the nature of Mission: Impossible depends entirely on who’s in the director’s chair.

Brian De Palma, the New Hollywood veteran who brought M:I to the screen in 1996, offered a paranoid surveillance thriller about distrust of old heroes. Hong Kong heavyweight John Woo, who took the reins next, downplayed espionage in favor of balletic action, fashioning another of his enemies-as-brothers thrillers (this one featuring an enemy so brotherly that he “doubles” for his rival). Moving from television to movies with his contribution to the series, J.J. Abrams shaped Mission: Impossible III into a big-screen Alias, again examining the attempts of a covert operative to balance professional and personal lives. And Pixar’s Brad Bird, in his fledgling foray into live-action filmmaking, crafted a characteristic ode to exceptional people (à la his The Incredibles), applying a playful animator’s touch to various feats of courage and strength.

Setting aside thematic thrust, every Mission bears the visual mark of its maker, discernible in any random five-minute stretch of running time. Who but Woo could have made the very turn-of-the-millennium Mission: Impossible II, with its constant slow motion, its double-pistol gunfights, its white doves emerging from a fiery inferno? Who but De Palma could have made the original, flush as it is with split screen, POV shots, and dramatic zooms into faces? Mission: Impossible III proved that Abrams was nuts for lens flares long before Star Trek, while the car-factory finale of Mission: ImpossibleGhost Protocol is a dead ringer for the climaxes of several Pixar movies. Close your eyes and just listen to these films. Their scores—the inappropriate whimsy of Danny Elfman’s, the swelling bombast of Hans Zimmer’s, the third-time’s-a-charm urgency of Michael Giacchino’s—betray a specific time period and sensibility. Whatever one thinks of the individual movies, there’s no mistaking one for another.

That’s not to say that there’s no commonality across the franchise. Beyond the perennial presence of Cruise’s daredevil superspy, Ethan Hunt, the Mission: Impossible movies employ a collection of recurring tropes, several pulled from the original television series. There’s the audio message that self-destructs in five seconds, the elaborate disguises, the fevered hacking of a mainframe. Without fail, a character (usually Hunt) will take a vertical leap off a building, or through a building, or into a booby-trapped room. Turncoats and double agents are a common problem at the films’ fictional intelligence agency, IMF—so much so that the organization ought to consider adopting a more thorough screening process. And there will always be a MacGuffin: the NOC list, the Chimera virus, The Rabbit’s Foot, the nuclear device and its launch codes. These are the basic building blocks of the franchise, the raw material each filmmaker molds into a flavorful escapist fantasy.

In their best moments, the Mission: Impossible films are pure-cinema contraptions, designed to visually enthrall, not to dramatically satisfy. The plots tend to be complicated, but easy to ignore: All the dry shop talk between specialists—what the international threat is, why it’s a threat, how to stop it—is just connective tissue between bravura set pieces. De Palma, the king of using plot as an excuse to gloriously show off, established that approach with his inaugural chapter. He’s said to have gone into production without a locked script; in his mind, the story would serve his set pieces, not the other way around.

The biggest hit of his career, Mission: Impossible was the culmination of De Palma’s brief heyday as a Hollywood hit maker. (Just to try to imagine him getting a summer tentpole gig like this today.) But it’s no anonymous sell-out move: From its opening scene, which conflates government surveillance with the voyeurism of cinema, the film is unmistakably the work of the same director who made Blow Out or Dressed To Kill or any of those fabulously stylish, psychosexual ’80s thrillers. By asserting his authorial personality upfront, by conforming this franchise launcher to his own obsessions, De Palma set the precedent for the series. From here on out, the Mission: Impossible films would smuggle personal preoccupations into their crowd-pleasing packages.

After its cold open, Mission: Impossible launches into an homage to the original show’s credit sequence, teasing scenes from the forthcoming adventure with a fast-cut montage of enticing imagery. The callback proves to be a red herring; not long after, the movie throws reverence to the wind by having all but one member of the IMF squad slaughtered—the loud-and-clear message being that, unlike its small-screen predecessor, this Mission: Impossible won’t be a team exercise. Going one step further, De Palma and his writers (the Hollywood dream team of Steven Zaillian, David Koepp, and Robert Towne) later reveal the hero of the TV series, Jim Phelps, to be a double-crossing traitor. The controversial revelation announces that catering to the diehards will not be a goal of this franchise. Today’s geek-friendly adaptations, slavish in their loyalty to The Text, could learn something from the brazen infidelity of Mission: Impossible.

Naturally, fans—and original cast members—greeted these affronts to the show’s legacy with anger. Consensus among the incensed seemed to be that De Palma’s movie had not only butchered the source material, turning it into a vanity project for Cruise, but had also applied the Mission: Impossible brand to a soulless Hollywood action flick. That criticism is a bit baffling, frankly. Yes, there are some pyrotechnics, especially during the speeding-train climax, heavily excerpted in the trailers. But in De Palma’s hands, Mission: Impossible is largely an exercise in suspense—in bombs under the table that don’t go off, as his hero Hitchcock might put it. The movie’s most memorable moments, like the undercover op during the party and the famous hanging-from-the-ceiling Langley infiltration, are models of escalating tension. Stealth is privileged over confrontation—a trend that would blessedly continue throughout most of the series.

In fact, the main reason that Woo’s installment now feels like the low point of the franchise is that it abandons the ethos of the original, essentially earning the accusations that were lobbed at De Palma’s movie. Whereas the first film boasts a Hitchockian wrong-man plot, with Hunt framed for a crime he didn’t commit, Mission: Impossible II riffs on Notorious—but only until about the midpoint, at which point Woo hijacks his perverse sleeping-with-the-enemy scenario in favor of some very Woo-ish adrenaline rushes. M:I 2 is a moronically caffeinated extreme-sports highlight reel, its story a thin pretext for rock-chord machismo and shots of its shaggy-haired star striking “badass” poses. (Even more so than the previous film, this one is basically The Cruise Show.) Still, there’s plenty of dumb fun to be had with Woo’s hilariously excessive approach, especially when the director pushes both his own and the series’ trademarks to their self-parodic limits.

Later entries would return Mission: Impossible to its ensemble roots, though only Ving Rhames joins Cruise for every sequel—and only for a cameo in Ghost Protocol. The team makeup is constantly reshuffled, with new actors filling archetypal roles: Depending on which Mission you cue up, the slinky sex appeal will be provided by Emmanuelle Béart, Thandie Newton, Maggie Q, or Paula Patton. There are dashing right-hand men, like Jonathan Rhys Meyers in part three and Jeremy Renner in part four, as well as oddball comic relief. (In Woo’s film, John Polson preemptively occupies the “Simon Pegg part,” as though the filmmakers somehow anticipated the latter’s role in future sequels and cast a generic, available alternative.) Abrams collaborators worked on the scripts for III and Ghost Protocol, which explains why both rely less on Cruise’s star power and more on the snappy banter among their auxiliary players. Like fellow boob-tube escapee Joss Whedon, the Lost creator gets off on interpersonal conflict and team dynamics.

Love him or loathe him, Cruise is a fine fit for Mission: Impossible, mostly because the series leans on his charisma more than his chops. The role of Hunt is physically, not dramatically, demanding: Cruise performs many of his own stunts, which adds an edge of authenticity—and empathetic immediacy—to his performances. (He’s really up there on that building in Ghost Protocol; that’s a real blade inching towards his exposed eyeball in Mission: Impossible II.) If there’s any kind of actual arc linking each M:I film, it comes down to the development of Hunt’s character. Introduced as the platonic ideal of an agent—devoted to his work, as icy in his professionalism as the movie around him—he transforms into a hot-blooded lothario in Woo’s film, only to be domesticated by Abrams in the third chapter.

Therein lies the not-so-fatal flaw of Mission: Impossible III, which miscalculates in its assumption that a “this time, it’s personal” angle is what the franchise needed. These films work best as tributes to process, when they’re observing the detail-oriented business of breaking into an impregnable fortress or pulling a technology-abetted heist or going undercover using extremely realistic rubber masks. The job is all that matters. By pulling Hunt out of retirement, and then throwing his new bride (Michelle Monaghan) into peril, Abrams drags the M:I formula into more conventional damsel-in-distress territory. The filmmaker asks us to care about a relationship he never has time to dramatize and a character who exists only to be stuffed in a fridge. Hunt, meanwhile, is more compelling as a body in motion than a harried husband. He has no interior life, so why give him an exterior one?

Saddled with unnecessary personal stakes, M:I 3 is still fleet entertainment, mostly because Abrams is smart enough to keep the thing humming along. He gets into the nitty-gritty of the mask-making process during a crackerjack kidnapping scene in Vatican City, and stages an apocalyptic air assault on a bridge. (As an initial leap from television to movies, the film is surprisingly surefooted—though the Lost pilot was plenty cinematic, in scope, budget, and running time.) Abrams also pits Hunt against a worthy adversary, a coolly arrogant sociopath played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. As the scene below demonstrates, he’s most threatening when “safely” in custody—a quality borrowed from Hannibal Lecter and later adopted by the Joker, Loki, Khan, and that sexually ambiguous sadist Javier Bardem plays in Skyfall. Hoffman’s heavy is clearly the series’ finest, though that isn’t saying much: His competition is either too over-the-top (Dougray Scott in part two) or too subdued (Jon Voight in part one, Michael Nyqvist in part four). This series doesn’t do villains well.

Hunt reverts to a Bond-ish bachelor in the superlative Ghost Protocol—easily the best of the series. What Bird understands about Mission: Impossible is that it functions most successfully as a perpetual-motion machine, delivering one pleasure high after another. Having apparently studied his predecessors’ work and learned from their mistakes, Bird loses the convoluted plotting, the melodramatic romance, the brooding—just about anything one might wedge between scenes of spectacular spy work. In fact, the only time the movie’s infectious energy ever flags is when the characters start fretting about past traumas or mistakes. The scenes in which Renner’s suspiciously skilled “analyst” grapples with his guilty conscience grind Ghost Protocol to a stop. Again, the IMF members are most compelling as wisecracking ciphers, their personalities revealed through their work. Backstories are just a distraction.

Thankfully, most of Ghost Protocol is nothing but joyously virtuosic spectacle, mounted by a director whose years in animation have apparently granted him a breadth of visual imagination. It’s next to, well, impossible to pick a best in show among the film’s numerous thrilling sequences. Is it the opening prison break? The car chase in the sandstorm? That inventive business with the high-tech mirage screen (or whatever it is)? The safest bet is probably Cruise scaling the world’s tallest building, a scene that’s so cruelly queasy it’s hilarious.

What Ghost Protocol has in spades is character, a quality that can never be taken for granted when talking about mega-budget Hollywood product. In truth, all four entries in the series benefit from the distinctive predilections of their makers; which of them you favor is mostly a matter of personal taste. What’s great about the Mission: Impossible franchise is that it requires no homework, no investment in an overarching story, just a desire to be seduced by slick, apolitical spy games. As blockbuster entertainment moves closer to a kind of interlocking, comic-book crossover approach in its franchise building, the self-contained nature of Ethan Hunt’s exploits looks increasingly like a gold standard. Whether Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) was the right choice to take the baton next is up for debate. (Personally, I’d love to see David Fincher, once attached to direct a sequel, get his shot at the IMF.) But if the previous installments are any indication, part five will look nothing like parts one, two, three, or four. That’s an exciting thought to have about the fifth entry in any series.

Watch: Mission: Impossible; Mission: Impossible II; Mission: Impossible III; Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol

Skip: None of them

Outside canon: All 171 episodes of the CBS/ABC television series are available on Netflix to stream—though, as fans of the show have griped, these talky, plainly directed outings bear very little resemblance to the movies they inspired. There are also novels, for those whose interest in Mission: Impossible has anything to do with the plots, and video games, none of which are especially well received.


Next up: The Thin Man