To the average blockbuster franchise, longevity is often viewed as anathema. Too many times have we seen a film debut to widespread critical and audience acclaim, then get bogged down by increasingly weaker sequels, each more desperate to ride the coattails of the original’s success than the last. The original Superman films, The Pink Panther, Pirates of the Caribbean, Ice Age – all unfortunate examples of what happens when you let a good thing last too long.
There are, however, some popular franchises which have stood the test of time… and, in some cases, have been the better for it. The Fast and Furious films, though wildly uneven, have grown more popular in recent years by raising the stakes without losing track of their characters. The James Bond films have varied in quality for decades, yet recent offerings like Skyfall have been some of the franchise’s most acclaimed entries to date.
And then there’s Mission: Impossible, a series which premiered in theaters over 20 years ago and has, impressively, gotten better and better over time. Loosely based on the classic 1966-73 TV show, the film series has gone through multiple directors and a variety of tones and iterations, yet it has slowly grown into one of the most reliably thrilling film franchises in modern cinema.
Credit can be partly given to Tom Cruise, whose onscreen magnetism and never-say-die attitude has birthed one eye-popping set-piece after another. But much applause should also be directed at the various directors, screenwriters, and producers who, over a half-dozen films, have tested every facet of the series’ highly malleable premise, and never seem to run out of fuel.
Today, we break down each of the films (thus far) in this terrific franchise, and discuss how this one little series accomplished the impossible. We start with:
Mission: Impossible (1996)
Directed by veteran filmmaker Brian de Palma, the first entry in the franchise begins like a typical episode of the TV series, complete with a mission (which Cruise’s Ethan Hunt naturally chooses to accept), a team of various espionage talents, and gadgets galore. But before a half-hour is up, the film has twisted in a new direction, in the vein of the more traditional summer blockbusters that everyone tried making in the wake of Speed. The film spends its remaining 90 minutes trying to find a consistently thrilling groove, only approaching success during its kinetically-charged climax.
The most glaring problem with the first Mission: Impossible is that it is difficult to tell what audience the film is trying to please. There are some obvious allusions to the TV series, suggesting a favorability for longtime fans, but most of these references seemingly exist to be subverted – or worse, cheapened. (The treatment of Jim Phelps, a series character played here by Jon Voight, is particularly insulting to the television devotees.) Oftentimes, the film will gun its engines to court the popcorn-chomping matinee crowd, only to hit the brakes of exposition whenever it seems like the action is starting to ramp up.
The result is a film that is entertaining but inconsequential, a solid actioner that dissipates from memory shortly after its final reel. Still, the film introduces some important series staples (including the titular “impossible mission,” here occurring at CIA headquarters at Langley), produces a good sidekick in Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames, the only actor apart from Cruise to appear in every film), and lays the foundation for more exciting things to come.
Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)
At least the first Mission film had enough story to fill a two-hour running time. The second one, on the other hand, feels like an overlong episode of the TV series – and not a terribly good one, at that. The story (for lack of a better term) involves Hunt and his team chasing down a villain (Dougray Scott) with plans to unleash a nasty bioweapon on the world. The film also introduces a love interest (Thandie Newton) who oscillates uncomfortably between the roles of action girl and damsel in distress.
The second Mission film is directed by John Woo (who had previously gained widespread recognition in America for Face Off), and his stamp can be felt throughout the procession – every action sequence is loud and flamboyant, with kung-fu action and rippling explosions constantly tearing across the screen. It’s exciting for a while, but all the visual flair in Woo’s arsenal still can’t hide the paper-thin plot, which has been fully sapped of energy by the time we reach its padded climax.
Cruise gives it his all, while Newton does the best with what she’s given. But Scott hams it up as the one-note villain, who (amidst all the over-the-top action and peril) begins to feel like a cartoon. About the most interesting thing about his role is that it forced him to drop out of the first X-Men film, where he’d been cast as Wolverine. (Hugh Jackman, of course, picked up the slack, and the rest is history.) It’s not truly interesting, honestly, but this is where my mind wanders while watching Mission: Impossible 2.
Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Now the ideas begin to flow. The third Mission film features the best story and most energetic action scenes yet, and succeeds more dramatically than its two predecessors by putting its characters first.
The first film ever directed by JJ Abrams (who wrote the script with frequent collaborators Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci), Mission: Impossible III feels like a feature-length episode of Alias, with constant fights, disguises, and exotic locales. (It even opens with an in media res sequence of the lead character being tortured, just like the Alias pilot.) And similar to Abrams’ earlier spy show, the film features a skillful balance of its hero’s personal and professional lives. Ethan now has a fiancée (Michelle Monaghan), and his relationship with her is compromised by the arrival of a global arms dealer (a terrific Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Mission: Impossible III is not a flawless film – in typical Abrams fashion, it features too much shaky camerawork and awkward giant close-ups. But it’s the first film in the franchise to capture a true sense of wonder, capitalizing on the thrill of the original TV series while serviceably updating the story for modern audiences. Beginning with this film, Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot, would take control of the franchise, and continue to improve on this invigorating third film.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
It was the unlikeliest of ideas: Brad Bird, a director who had never worked in live-action before. (His career had up to that point consisted of animated films like The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. A release date in December, rather than the safer, more blockbuster-friendly summer months. The use of IMAX cameras, unheard of for the franchise at the time. Yet somehow, it all pulled together, making Ghost Protocol the first Mission film to achieve true cinematic greatness.
The story is less complicated than in some previous installments, but that works to the film’s strength, as it unleashes one crazy, over-the-top action spectacle after another. Want to see Tom Cruise escape from prison? Infiltrate the Kremlin? Or climb the Burj Khalifa? This film has you covered on these levels and many more.
Also on point are the film’s character dynamics. Rhames steps back for this adventure, while Simon Pegg (who previously played a small part in Mission: Impossible III) provides great comic relief in an enhanced role. Jeremy Renner also gets a strong introduction, while Paula Patton is good as the film’s resident female agent. Together, the cast develops a rapport which makes the eye-popping escapades even more thrilling, easily translating Ghost Protocol into the best Mission film yet.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
The durability of the Mission franchise is on full display in Rogue Nation, which focuses more on the technical side of the missions (featuring plenty of covert organizations working with and against one another, and introducing Alec Baldwin as a CIA director who’s no big fan of Ethan Hunt), yet still never loses sight of the grandeur and spectacle which helped audiences fall in love with the series in the first place.
In the director’s chair this time is Christopher McQuarrie (who’d previously worked with Cruise on the competent but unremarkable Jack Reacher), who also wrote the script, and much of the forthright, unstoppable action in the film can be attributed to him. Rogue Nation features a delightful “impossible mission” in its second act, with some of the highest stakes and most inventive solutions in the entire franchise. And although Cruise is at this point in his fifties, he remains committed to the role and all the crazy stunts that go with it.
Yet through all the gunshots and explosions, the film never forgets to have fun, either with rubber masks or with Rhames’ and Pegg’s one-liners. McQuarrie successfully sustained the franchise’s energy with this film – but he’d take it to an all-new level with the next.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)
Fallout is quite likely the darkest Mission film to date – character loyalties are tested more strenuously than ever, while betrayals and double-crosses occur with alarming frequency. Violence commences in a variety of forms, and the film’s body count is unnervingly high. It’s also the longest film in the series, coming in at just below two-and-a-half hours. Fallout could have easily felt overlong, as well as brutal or exploitative. Instead, though, it may be the most thrilling Mission film yet.
McQuarrie becomes the first director to return for a second Mission film, with Fallout – as the title hints – functioning as something of a follow-up to the events of Rogue Nation. It also draws effectively on Ethan’s much-forgotten personal past, as outlined in the third and fourth Mission flicks. Ethan, with his constant plane-leaping and mountain-scaling, may often appear to be superhuman (Fallout even underscores this point by having him take on Henry Cavill, the current Superman), but as this film reminds us, he has a mortal side, one he puts in danger any time he chooses to accept another mission.
So while Fallout sees him riding a motorcycle, helmet-free, through the streets of France, and fly a helicopter in borderline kamikaze fashion, it never forgets that his time could be up at any moment – either for Ethan or the people he cares about. This sort of gravitas can be difficult to maintain for a film so lengthy, but Fallout maintains just enough wry humor to keep us invested through the riveting and multi-faceted climax.
It’s anyone’s guess how much longer this series can continue – Cruise is now 56, and despite his continued insistence to perform his own stunts, he isn’t getting any younger. But Fallout is an inspirational addition to the long-running franchise, and I’d be more than happy to see a Mission: Impossible 7.
The first five Mission: Impossible films are all available on DVD and for digital download. Fallout is currently playing in theaters.