Light the Fuse: A look back at the ‘Mission: Impossible’ franchise
Good day InSession Film reader. By reading this you have accepted a mission to explore what I would call is the best ongoing franchise by any major Hollywood studio. Running through three different decades and six films later, this adaption of the once beloved TV show has turned into the franchise that has consistently been the most entertaining and consistent collection of action films to be put together. Threaded together by its star leading man Tom Cruise, Mission: Impossible has shied away from going too dark like the Bond or Bourne series, keeping theseries fresh and fun. Cruise and company always puts all the effort and passion you would want a franchise to make and leave it on the screen, making audiences want more. And with Fallout coming at the end of the month, I decided to take a look back at all the entries in the franchise and get everyone ready for the biggest entry yet in the adventure of Ethan Hunt and the IMF.
(Also spoilers for all the movies beyond this point)
By the year 1996, Tom Cruise was becoming another elite Hollywood leading man. With films like Top Gun, Cocktail, Rain Man, A Few Good Men, The Firm, The Color of Money, and an Oscar nomination for Born on the Fourth of July already under his belt, Cruise went to the next thing phase of his career, looking for a franchise he could call his own. Cruise had wanted to make Mission: Impossible a franchise since he fell in love with the series when he was a kid, so he called Paramount Pictures and Cruise, along with his producing partner, Paula Wagner, and got a deal done for a 70-million-dollar budget. Wagner and writer-director Sydney Pollack worked out a story and Cruise got legendary director Brian de Palma to direct the first installment. While the first film has some ties to the original television series, this franchise was without questions Cruise’s baby.
The first Mission: Impossible centers on the I.M.F, Impossible Mission Force, a covert team of
operatives that’s sole mission, if they choose to accept which they always do, is to basically stop the world from being destroyed and they are the last line of defense. The team is led by Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), the main character of the original television show, and his team are sent to retrieve the NOC, a list of names that are non-official covers for the CIA. The team realizes the that the list is fake and one by one, they start to be picked off by assassins, leaving only Ethan Hunt(Cruise) alive. Hunt then meets with the IMF director and discovers that the job was a set up to uncover a mole working within the IMF.
With Hunt being the only one left alive, he is assumed to be the mole and Ethan escapes from
their meeting, leading him on a mission to uncover who the real mole is and clear his name with
the IMF. While Ethan assembles a team of his own to go into the CIA and steal the real list to
give to the mole to then give to his buyer, very complicated but makes a lot of sense. Within this team is Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), who becomes Ethan’s closest friend and a series regular from here on out. Ethan steals the list, which is the iconic shot of Ethan hanging from wires to get the list, a shot that will follow Cruise and this franchise around for long after they are gone. He gets the list and discovers that mole is Phelps and that he faked his own death so he could then sell the list for millions. The movie then turns into a cat and mouse game of epic portions that leads to Ethan proving that Phelps was the mole, getting Phelps’s seller arrested, and clearing his and Luther’s names for good. The film plays more like a noir thriller than a generic spy film and that’s the point Cruise wants to make with this franchise. Cruise wants directors with their own unique visions to come in and play with this franchise and that’s exactly what De Palma does. It set a high bar for itself, a bar that would be commercial successful as well as inventive within the spy genre.
Mission: Impossible 2 (or M:I 2):
Four years later, Hunt returns, this time with director John Woo at the helm for what is a fun, forgettable, and untimely a step back for the franchise. Hunt and his team, including Luther, must stop a deadly virus from being spread by a former IMF agent Dean Ambrose (Dougray Scott, remember when he was a thing). In order to find out what Ambrose’s plans are for the virus, and for the cure that he has in his possession as well, Hunt must recruit his Ambrose’s ex-girlfriend Nyah (Thandie Newton). While in the recruiting process, Hunt and Nyah fall for each other but the new IMF director (Anthony Hopkins, who is weirdly brilliant in this small role) tells Hunt that send Nyah to Ambrose and have her spy on the inside and relay him information on Amrbose.
To be honest with you guys, the plot of this movie is terrible and the movie is a slog to get to the end, which has one of the most insane endings ever just by how crazy, stupid and nonsensical the action is. It’s one of those films that you watch it and realize, yep that was made in the year 2000 and someone should have actually read that script. While you can really see John Woo’s style on full display, it never really works within the franchise and when you watch this movie alongside the other entries, M:I 2 sticks out like a sore thumb. The film does have some memorable bits, like the beginning of the film with Cruise rock climbing (to which he torn his shoulder when he jumped from one cliff to another. The gun fight in the lab towards the end of the second act and motorcycle chase in the third act, but in terms of how this films plays into the larger story of Ethan Hunt, it doesn’t and feels more like a James Bond film with the characters from Mission: Impossible. While it does feel like I’m trashing the film, this film does hold a special place in my heart as one of the first PG-13 films I got to see in the theater. And while the eight-year-old Ryan loved this movie, the older model couldn’t wait till it was over.
Mission: Impossible III:
While M:I 2 was a huge money maker, the follow up to it took a long time to get back on the screen. After many directors dropped out of doing the third MI film, including David Fincher, Cruise looked to television again and found the writer-director-producer that would make this franchise what it is today, JJ Abrams. Before Star Trek and The Force Awakens, J.J Abrams was the biggest name in television with Lost and Alias, the latter of which got him the opportunity to director this film. Cruise binged watched the first two seasons of Alias and after he finished them, he knew who he wanted to carry on the franchise.
The third installment picks up years after the events of MI2, where we find Ethan Hunt retired from field duty and looking to settle down with his finance Julia (Michelle Monaghan). When one of his first trainees (Keri Russel) is captured by a black market dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Hunt assembles Luther and the rest of the team again to get her back. Upon the rescue, the trainee dies but not without leaving clues for Ethan to hunt down and stop Davian from retrieving something called the “Rabbit’s Foot.” Hunt must then juggle his old life with his new and go head to head with the best villain that the franchise has had. While M:I 2 felt like a misstep, III felt like a huge step forward, with Abrams focusing more on Ethan as a human than just a persona of Cruise put on the screen. The action set pieces are good, within the mission at the Vatican being my favorite within the film, as well as the ambush on the highway, and of course, the long shots of Ethan running to save Julia at the end of the film. Adding Monaghan’s character as well as new comer Simon Pegg as the franchise’s own version of Q made for nice touches taken from Alias. And while you can feel the elements of this television shows up on a much bigger scale, Abrams took the best bits and married them together with real human elements to make something truly special and made us want more.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
This is the film where Cruise must have just thought, “Let’s do some crazy shit and see if we can get away with it.” With Abrams now as Cruise’s producing partner on the films, they brought in Brad Bird to direct what is widely discussed as the best installment of the franchise. We begin with Ethan Hunt being broken out of a Russian prison by two IMF agents (Paula Patton and Simon Pegg’s Benji from the III). Once broken out, Ethan and his team find out their mission is to infiltrate the Kremlin and steal Russian nuclear launch codes before former Russian nuclear scientist Kurt Hendricks gets his hands on them and releases chaos around the world. When their mission is compromised and the Kremlin is destroyed, the IMF secretary (Tom Wilkinson) and his aid William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) inform Ethan that the president has issued “Ghost Protocol” and once again Ethan and his team have been disavowed. But the secretary orders Ethan to go after Hendricks, and along with Brandt and his team, Ethan goes around the world in order to stop Hendricks and clear the name of the IMF.
While the plot of the film is pretty generic, it’s the action that is the main focus of this installment. The best action set piece in this franchise, and possibly of all-time, rests upon Ethan climbing the Burg Khalifa, the world tallest building in Dubai, from the outside. Knowing that Cruise did this with very little assistance and having seen it too many times to count, it is truly amazing. So amazing that you tend to forget about the great opening with the prison break set to Dean Martin’s Ain’t That a Kick in the Head, to the scenes in the Kremlin, to the chase scene in the sand store right after the Khalifa set piece, which are all fantastic scenes set shot within IMAX cameras that make the film look one of a kind. This is also the first film that directly links back to the previous installment, with Benji playing a bigger role now that he is in the film, with Renner’s character connected to Ethan and Julia’s relationship, to having Luther and Julia make cameos at the end of the film. It also sets up the next installment in the franchise, with Ethan gaining his new mission, to hunt down a new organization called the Syndicate.
Mission: Impossible – Rouge Nation
What has become my favorite entry in the franchise picks up after the events of Ghost Protocol, and once this movie starts, it never let’s go. Ethan is tracking the Syndicate, a mythical organization that works in the shadows as an anti-IMF. While this is going on, the IMF is being questioned for Ethan’s prior judgements in missions, including the one in Ghost Protocol, leading to the IMF under the control of the CIA, and making them, you guess it, disavowed again. Ethan goes rouge to find the Syndicate and prove that they, along with their leader Solomon Lane, exist and are a real threat. Hunt gathers his team together, Benji, Luther and Brandt but a new member is part of the team in Ilsa Faust, a MI6 undercover agent working for the Syndicate to gain Lane’s trust. It’s Ethan’s most challenging mission because he has finally met his intellectual match in Lane and it is a thrilling match of wits till the very end.
Cruise takes the action up a notch, matching the Khalifa piece for the last film with an underwater scene in which he learned how to hold he breathe underwater for six minutes. The beginning of the film also finds Cruise hanging from a side of a plane, a scene in which they shot multiple times and of course, he was barely hanging on by a harness. It also has a fantastic chase scene that rivals anything in a Jason Bourne movie, and the best use of the signature masks in any of the films so far. The film is built on the back of the writing by director Christopher McQuarrie, who worked on rewrite for Ghost Protocol and also work with Cruise on Jack Reacher and Edge of Tomorrow, and has become the real helm of this franchise alongside Cruise. With his rewrites in Ghost Protocol, he set the stages high for Rough Nation and delivered in every way possible.
With McQuarrie coming back for Fallout, it looks like once again we will pick right back up from Rouge Nation, and from the looks of the trailer and word of mouth so far, Fallout looks to become the most personal and thrilling chapter in the Mission: Impossible franchise yet.
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