Mission: Impossible Retrospective (Updated)

Note: This is a reprint of a retrospective previously published prior to the release of the last Mission: Impossible film, which originally ran on July 30, 2015. I am publishing it again today (with the addition of Rogue Nation as well as other necessary edits) as Mission: Impossible - FALLOUT hits theaters this weekend.

With the release of Mission: Imposible - FALLOUT tomorrow I decided to go back and catch-up on the previous five films in the series this week. To be honest with you, I'd never before sat down and watched the original Mission: Impossible all the way through. I'd seen bits and pieces and tried multiple times over the years to make it all the way through, but it never happened for one reason or another. So, in sitting down to watch the 1996 film that started it all I was surprised to find out there wasn't actually too much I hadn't seen. Basically, I hadn't made it around to the climactic action sequence on the train and that was about it-otherwise I'd seen the major set pieces and had enough to go on that I knew the gist of the plot. This isn't just a look at the first film though, as it's probably been the full eighteen years since M:I-2 came out that I'd actually sat down to watch it again. I can remember going to the theater to see it as I'd just turned thirteen the month prior to its release and it was one of the first legit PG-13 films I saw on the big screen. I'll obviously get into more detail around it later, but to summarize-it holds up better than I expected and though it is definitely the least of the series it still isn't what I would necessarily label as bad. It was also nice to return to J.J. Abrams third installment that I remember really enjoying when I saw it at the early Thursday night show in the summer of '06 and given I've re-watched Ghost Protocol so many times since it's release seven years ago there was hardly any reason to return to it other than the fact it's ridiculously entertaining. The fifth Mission film, Rogue Nation, followed on the heels of Ghost Protocol quicker than any sequel in the franchise had-separated by only three and a half years due to the fact its planned Christmas release date was moved to summer in an attempt to clear the way for Star Wars: The Force Awakens it seemed only good things and good things were what was delivered in the first of what are now two Christopher McQuarrie offerings in the franchise. And so, as we anxiously await the release of FALLOUT, let's take a look back at the adventures that have brought us to this point.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - In 1996, Tom Cruise was coming off a year long break from the public eye after both Interview With the Vampire and The Firm were solid hits. Vampire fed off the controversy of Cruise being cast in the Anne Rice adaptation while The Firm was a John Grisham adaptation directed by Sydney Pollack that only took twenty-three days to make $100 million at the box office. He would also have Cameron Crowe's Jerry Maguire coming out later in the year after Mission became a summer hit. Mission: Impossible was also the first film Cruise produced and the only film the actor has ever made a sequel to (of course, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back erased that fact as will Top Gun 2 and the sequel for Edge of Tomorrow that is in the works).

Now that we have the context out of the way, let's talk about the film itself. In the film, Cruise's Impossible Missions Force agent, Ethan Hunt, comes under false suspicion of disloyalty and is forced to both discover and expose the real spy without the help of his organization. It is funny there is already such heavy talk of agents being disavowed as the tension level this immediately brings throughout each of the films has always been present. Given the film is over twenty years old it is truly impressive how well it holds up even if the technology doesn't. This is expected though, and in a cool way serves as something of a time capsule, a reminder of what it took to break a case in that day and age as opposed to the advancements made as well as the new threats that have been created. The Brian De Palma film is fast-paced and effortlessly intriguing while setting in motion the idea of being structured around three action set pieces. While the stunts have certainly become grander over the years, the then thirty-two year-old Cruise blew up a huge aquarium, infiltrated CIA headquarters and hung off the side of a speeding train. Even if these aren't the biggest stunts and the special effects are a bit shoddy in the finale, Cruise is so committed one can hardly tell. Also, remember that one time when Emilio Estevez was Simon Pegg?

Mission: Impossible II - After largely being out of the public eye for three years after the one-two punch of Mission: Impossible and Jerry Maguire Cruise returned to making movies in 1999 with two R-rated, adult-skewing films made by master filmmakers. Eyes Wide Shut was an R-rated erotic drama from Stanley Kubrick while Magnolia was a 3-hour opus courtesy of Paul Thomas Anderson with Cruise in a supporting role that netted him his third Oscar nomination. Neither of these were ever going to be smash hits or cultural milestones in the way his two prior films turned out to be, but Cruise would return to that territory the very next year with his first sequel ever. At the age of thirty-eight, Cruise stepped back into the role of Ethan Hunt and enlisted legendary action director John Woo (Broken Arrow, Face/Off) to take the reigns of the second entry in the series.

Largely considered the worst in the series and even the one that almost killed the franchise entirely, Woo's two-hour action extravaganza is as over-the-top as it is relentlessly entertaining. Everything about the film could be considered ridiculous, from the opening scene on the airplane where we're introduced to Dougray Scott's villain Sean Ambrose and prepped for the fact there would be a lot of facial exchanges to the rock climbing sequence that may as well have plastered "Remeber How Sexy Tom Cruise Is?" across the shot rather than the title of the film. There are the doves, the car chase through the mountains with Thandie Newton featured in an obscene amount of slo-mo, and another stunt where Hunt drops through the top of a building only for him to engage in a gun fight before parachuting all of which is topped off by the extended motorcycle chase. Both Woo and Cruise seem to have given little thought to what restraint might mean before going with the shooting script from Robert Towne (Chinatown, Days of Thunder), but they keep a very serious tone on its toes by allowing Scott's Ambrose to be somewhat self-aware. It should also be noted that Ving Rhames was the only returning cast member here besides Cruise and that he seems to always be pretty damn sweaty. Another interesting aspect to the film is the choice to base the action solely in Australia whereas the third and fourth films would become more renowned for their globe-trotting aspects.

M:I:III - In the longest break between Mission films, M:I:III came six years after the release of M:I-2 (and the first since the release of two Jason Bourne films). Part three also came at a critical point in Tom Cruise's career. Some of you may remember the couch-jumping incident of 2005 when Cruise was on the press tour for War of the Worlds. After this, the whole backlash of Cruise being a complete wacko happened and unfortunately, has permanently changed his career trajectory ever since. In an effort to both recover his public image by starring in a surefire hit as well as making him come off as much like a normal human being as possible (Ethan Hunt gets married!) Cruise returned to the world of the IMF after somewhat seeming to have no interest in doing so prior. Between the huge success of M:I-2 and the somewhat underwhelming performance of M:I:III Cruise re-teamed with Cameron Crowe on Vanilla Sky, collaborated with Steven Spielberg for the first time on Minority Report (one of my personal all-time favorites) as well as spearheading the production of The Last Samurai with director Edward Zwick and then teaming up with Michael Mann on Collateral before reuniting with Spielberg on War. In short, Cruise was bigger than ever and on a damn fine roll both commercially and critically before his public persona went south and his sole franchise was called on to be his savior.

While the box office returns on M:I:III might not have been what Cruise and co. hoped for, it was still a hit and arguably the best film in the franchise so far. As the feature directing debut of a little known TV-guy named J.J. Abrams, it had been so long since the previous installment that there was a lot of room to move in terms of story. As Cruise was trying to fix his public image Abrams recruited his team of writers including Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci to craft a narrative around Hunt coming face to face with a sadistic arms dealer while trying to keep his identity secret in order to protect his fiancée (Michelle Monaghan). Ving Rhames would again return and this is the installment that would also add Simon Pegg to the line-up. When we meet Hunt this time around the guy has essentially retired from active duty and is strictly training new IMF agents, but of course gets pulled back into the fray as the threat of Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) grows greater. Hoffman was coming off his Academy Award winning performance in Capote and he absolutely kills it in what is easily the best villain the Mission series has seen and will likely ever see. Abrams, like his predecessors, keeps things brisk and the action at the forefront, but what this third film did was to add more to the actual character of Ethan Hunt. There was no progression of who Hunt was and what he'd become between the first two films, but here we see this guy as a man just trying to find some normalcy rather than a super spy who we view as indestructible.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - Ghost Protocol - Five years later, after the franchise was again assumed to be something of a relic, Cruise returned to the world of impossible missions for his best one yet. Outside of the franchise Cruise was having little luck getting anything to stick as Lions for Lambs was forgotten as soon as it was released, Valkyrie being largely perceived as a flop despite being a more than solid WWII drama as well as making $200m on a $75m budget and Knight and Day being the actors first out and out flop that featured him in a starring role. I rather enjoyed Knight and Day, but the only relief Cruise saw during this period of his career was the glorified cameo he did in Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder. While his appearance as Les Grossman was minor, it was a game-changer. To be able to show the public he could not only poke fun at himself, but his industry showed there was some kind of self-awareness going on in that thought to be crazy head of his. It was self-deprecating, it was outlandish (Tom Cruise in a fat suit?!?! Cursing?!?! Dancing?!?!?!), but most of all it was hilarious and it put the one-time biggest movie star on the planet back in public favor.

With that, Cruise saddled back into the role of Ethan Hunt, this time bringing in director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) for his first live-action film and going bigger, being more fun, and enlisting more of an ensemble than ever before (this is the only Mission to not feature Rhames' Luther Stickell, but it did keep Pegg's Benji on tap) as the likes of Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner were added to the ranks. There is something about the movie-going experience of the Mission: Impossible movies where I find them to be more than genre exercises, but fresh and exciting adventures. I say this because I distinctly remember sitting and experiencing M:I-2 as the kind of film that made me feel in awe of it's scope and then looking over at my then fourteen year-old brothers face during Ghost Protocol and seeing that same sense of wonderment. When Cruise as Hunt scaled Dubai's Burj Khalifa (and especially if you were lucky enough to see the film in IMAX) it was a moment of pure insanity. It was as if you were watching a man truly test his mortality as he trusts a single piece of technology to hold him to the side of the tallest building in the world. In a way, I guess one could say Cruise was doing just that as no one expected much from a fourth Mission movie. Instead, Ghost Protocol has become something of an instant action classic with it's Dubai sequence being a piece of filmmaking that's marveled at not only for the risks it involved, but for the thrills it achieved. It's what the movies are all about and Tom Cruise has been working for thirty plus years (twenty-plus now as Hunt alone) to bring us that kind of entertainment, those kinds of thrills and the kinds of experiences that allow us to be swept away by spectacle.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - Rogue Nation - Striking while the iron was hot, Cruise and producing partner Paula Wagner were undoubtedly ready to begin production on the next Mission movie as soon as Ghost Protocol became something of a grand re-birth for Cruise if not necessarily as a movie star, but as the king of big screen, no-holds-barred, all thrills entertainment. Throughout 2011 though, prior to the release of the fourth Mission movie, Cruise was being ragged for being cast in the lead of the Lee Childs adaptation of Jack Reacher and even more so for taking on the role of Stacee Jax in Adam Shankman's motion picture adaptation of the hit stage play, Rock of Ages. While the latter did about as well as one might expect (though Cruise is arguably terrific in it) it was the collaboration on the strict and gritty Reacher with writer/director Christopher McQuarrie that would set in motion a relationship that will seemingly define the current act of the Mission: Impossible films. In light of Ghost Protocol's success Cruise would then play out the next two years following the film and prior to the fifth entry in two sci-fi action flicks that would build his brand fully to be that of, Tom Cruise: Action Star, but which would fail to muster any of the buzz or box office that Cruise was once synonymous with (Edge of Tomorrow was universally praised, but only banked $100 million domestic on a budget of $178 million). The same has been true in the wake of Rogue Nation as the Jack Reacher sequel, the non-starter of a cinematic universe that was The Mummy, and the underrated American Made all did fine enough business, but failed to light any fires under the Cruise name in a project where he wasn't playing Ethan Hunt.

With Rogue Nation, Cruise and writer/director McQuarrie began to take the strands of what had been laid out in the two previous films and weave them together while at the same time creating a fresh narrative for which Cruise's Hunt only continues to become an agent existing more and more outside of a system he has essentially pledged his life to. While the fifth installment is most notable for its opening sequence in which Cruise hung onto the side of a plane as well as the stunt where he held his breath for six minutes what most fans of the series took away from the film was that of the addition of Rebecca Ferguson's layered Ilsa Faust. Ferguson brought all the sleekness and allure of any actor who has ever played a Bond girl, but combined it with the suave, effortless ability to make the most complex disarming techniques look effortless. It also didn't hurt we never knew whether to trust her or not. Sean Harris also was brought into the fold as maybe the second best Mission villain in the franchise (and the only one to ever return as he'll be featured in FALLOUT as well) who serves as something of an antithesis of Hunt; forcing Cruise's character to slow down and contemplate his life choices rather than just speeding through them and taking the hits as they come. Speaking of Cruise taking hits, the guy has maybe two more Mission films left in him at this point. The man just turned fifty-six years-old. This perspective isn't brought up to dismay, but simply to say that we won't always have the opportunity to walk into our multiplex and see a Tom Cruise action picture. While there have been, are, and always will be movie franchises similar to Mission: Impossible, what makes Ethan Hunt different than James Bond or even Jason Bourne is his ability to grow. Hunt is wholly Cruise's character whereas Bond has a roster of representatives and Bourne has to deal with not really knowing who he is himself. Hunt, through the arc of Cruise needing this franchise just as much as it needs him, has come to represent our most intimate connection with Cruise, the actor, given it's the only character he's portrayed repeatedly. Under these circumstances, Hunt's arc from young upstart agent to desperate family man eager to escape his fate to a man who's now accepted what he's meant to be only makes each new installment all the more interesting-and Rogue Nation is no exception.