Mission: Impossible is arguably the most consistent movie franchise going. Sporting some of the most incredible practical stunt work in movie history, the franchise has jumped from strength to strength and has only grown in quality and scale. With the sixth film arriving in cinemas next week, I thought I’d take this opportunity to look back and review the franchise so far.
Mission: Impossible (1996) – Directed by Brian DePalmer
Kicking off the franchise, ‘Mission: Impossible’ presents a suave espionage thriller. Everyone remembers the wire-hanging scene, which has engrained itself in pop culture as the ‘iconic mission moment’. However, despite some great set pieces, the plot is pretty thin and the plot twists don’t quite hit big enough to save the story. There are also some fairly major plot holes that make no sense and unlike later missions, the practical stunts aren’t quite as proficient (the train sequence is all CGI, and looks it). The interspersed action is very needed, because a lot of the film is quite slow, and honestly, mildly boring (Look no further than the ‘exciting’ five-minute sequence of Cruise scrolling through the internet and reading the Bible). That said, the wire hanging scene is a fantastically tense sequence and does wonders to spice up a fairly bog-standard mission.
Mission: Impossible II (2002) – Directed by John Woo
Possibly the weakest in the franchise, Mission: Impossible II sees Ethan try to thwart the plans of an ex IMF agent after he steals a biological weapon. The story is fairly simple and the script’s dialogue is horrifically written; at one point Anthony Hopkins says “this isn’t mission difficult Mr. Hunt, its mission impossible”. Ouch! In another moment, Nyah says “what’re you gonna do? Spank me?”. The script is unfortunately littered with these Bond’esque moments, and it really feels out of place. Mission is about exactly that, the mission. It’s not about James Bond style sexual tension and trying to save the girl.
With John Woo directing, there is also waaaaaay too much slo-mo used, but what saves the film from complete disaster is some incredible action scenes. Opening the film, Tom Cruise climbs rocks in Utah with no harness; during the film is a short but gripping car chase, and closing the film is a fantastic motorcycle chase followed by a knife fight that ends with Tom Cruise having a knife mere millimeters from his eye (a stunning practical stunt that has you flinching). Unfortunately, the film falls more into rock and roll action that suave espionage and this is what lets the film down. Too much style, not enough substance.
Mission: Impossible III (2006) – Directed by J.J. Abrams
In my mind, Mission: Impossible III is the most forgettable of the franchise. Despite it sporting some great sequences, and being a major improvement on its predecessor, it also begins to forget what the ‘Mission’ franchise is all about.
In Mission: Impossible III, Ethan Hunt is married (yeah, already an odd move) but is still working as a spy behind his wife’s back. The tone very quickly switches between dark, intense action and light-hearted rom-com banter. I have to say that for me this did not work. The tonal shifts occur far to swiftly and it really jars with the storytelling.
The action takes us from Germany, to the Vatican City, to Shanghai. The Vatican City heist is a great sequence, but we are cheated out of the second heist in Shanghai. They establish how difficult it will be, show Ethan entering the building, and then establish twelve minutes have instantly passed before showing him leaving. As far as I’m concerned, that’s cheating. Mission: Impossible is all about showing the impossible happen. You can’t just skip past that part.
J.J. Abrams directs in his usual gritty style with lens flares galore, and with Michael Giacchino scoring, we have some great musical cues. However, sometimes his quirky sound mixed with the gritty visuals again jar the tone and confuse how the audience should be feeling. Mission: Impossible III is a pretty decent film, and was most exciting in the franchise at that point, but the tonal shifts do unfortunately let it down.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) – Directed by Brad Bird
NOW things are starting to get interesting. The style of this film is a noticeably different take on the franchise. Director Brad Bird has made a film that is much lighter, much more humorous and much, much bigger, all while maintaining the intensity and threat of previous missions. The story takes us from Russia, to Dubai, to India, all while giving us some incredible practical stunts. Tom Cruise climbing the Burj Khalifa sounded a step up in his stunt work, pushing the boundaries of what was possible in filmmaking, and also setting a bench mark for what he’d have to outdo in the next film.
A brilliant stroke of genius was to bring Benji (Simon Pegg) into the field. After being introduced in Mission: Impossible III by J. J. Abrams, Simon Pegg has been a very welcome addition to the reoccurring cast, and after Ving Rhames and Cruise, is the third longest serving cast member, having appeared in four of the six films.
The story again is a fairly bog-standard affair, but it does its job perfectly well and serves the film as it needs to. It provides twists when they are necessary, emotion when needed, but importantly never dies out completely when Tom Cruise needs to do his thing. One key strength of the franchise is the establishment that major stunts and heists are what Ethan Hunt does. With the establishment that anything is possible, your disbelief is suspended and the story can take you wherever will provide the best spectacle.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015) – Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
So here we are, by a country mile the best in the franchise (though early reviews for Mission: Impossible – Fallout suggest that title is under attack). Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation has it all, a fascinating story, beautiful cinematography, a sweeping classical score and several of the most impressive set pieces ever put to film. In my eyes, Rogue Nation is a masterclass in action filmmaking, and is the one of the best spy films ever made (though again, Fallout may manage to topple this).
Opening the film, Tom Cruise hangs off an actual aeroplane during takeoff; he has a fight at the Vienna Opera House; he holds his breath for 5 minutes while underwater; then he weaves through Morocco in a car and on a motorcycle, and to finish he has a foot chase through a foggy London. This really is an action film of the highest class. With everything being done practically, you feel the film so much more. The excitement and intensity cannot be faked and your heart is racing throughout. The only thing that lets the film down is a weaker villain, Solomon Lane, who isn’t quite fleshed out enough as a character. Though his actions are given some justification, we don’t quite learn enough about his character to make him fully believable. However, with Lane returning in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, we can hope that this will happen, and we will learn more about his reasons for creating the syndicate to destroy IMF.
Crucially though, it is Ilsa Faust (played by Rebecca Ferguson) that stands out the most. Director/Writer Christopher McQuarrie stated that Tom and himself set out to create the best female lead the franchise had seen and boy did they. Ilsa is shrouded with mystery, her actions are brooding, her character is slow at revealing her intentions. The relationship between her and Ethan Hunt is a beautiful take on a love story, whereby it is built on respect and understanding. The fact the two of them don’t have to share a kiss at the end of the film shows just how strong a character and an individual she is.
This film is a clear love letter to the classic espionage films of the past. Cruise admits that he wanted to wear a grey suit as he clung to a plane to echo Cary Grant’s outfit in ‘North By Northwest’. It’s the small details like this that make the film such a joy to watch. It demonstrates how the newest technology can be used to echo the beauty of films from the last century.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation has proven that sequels and franchises don’t have to be lazily made as a quick cash grab. They can continue to grow the franchise, expand the characters and build on the past films, rather than just try to copy them.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout comes out on the 25th of July and I for one cannot wait to see how it continues this saga. I have no doubt that it will maintain the thrills, stunning set pieces and fantastic performances that make this franchise one of the strongest in Hollywood.