As the headline states, I believe Mission: Impossible is the best film franchise of the last 20 years. I feel strongly about this, yet at the same time, I’m pretty surprised at myself for having this opinion. Where did this affection come from? Each entry in the series has basically the same plot, and, at a glance, they’re inseparable from any other generic popcorn action movie. But on closer inspection, it’s clear that there is nothing else like the Mission: Impossibles in the cinematic landscape.
The first film dropped in 1996, a month before the third, and most recent, Spider-Man was born. What other active franchises have lasted this long without a reboot? The Bond films reset every decade, Batman hasn’t gone more than three movies with the same Batman, Matt Damon disappeared for one of the Bourne films, the X-Men and Transformers films have had cast reshuffles, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings started tossing out prequels, and none of Disney’s Marvel or Star Wars movies maintain a consistent human presence, with the lead actors being relatively disposable in their ambitions to build a “cinematic universe” for each brand.
The only comparable peer group for Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible movies would be the old-school movie franchises that were built around a central star—the Rocky series with Sylvester Stallone, the Indiana Jones movies with Harrison Ford, and the the Die Hard movies with Bruce Willis. Of those, the Mission: Impossible movies may not be the best, but it is the best of the last quarter century and continues to find new peaks after 22 years, with the three most recent entries earning the highest scores from critics in the series, which can’t be said for the others mentioned.
Arguably the most unique quality of the Mission movies is Cruise himself, who famously performs his own increasingly elaborate stunts. In the fourth film, that’s really Cruise climbing and running along the world’s tallest building. In the fifth, that’s really Cruise hanging from the side of an airplane. That Cruise has the willingness to go the extra mile with the stunts (including breaking his ankle and shutting down production for weeks) can simultaneously be breathtakingly impressive and desperately pathetic, as though his inner monologue is saying: “What do you want from me? You want me to hang off a plane? You think I won’t? Thetan power lets me do anything!” Regardless, it’s a selling point that no other action series is willing to match.
Cruise is skilled at what he does, including as the series producer. Five of the six entries in the series have a different director, each of whom brought their own unique stylistic approach. Two of the last three directors were making their live-action feature directing debut (J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird), and the other hadn’t directed for over a decade before Cruise recruited him for Jack Reacher (Christopher McQuarrie). The result is that each entry in the series feels uniquely independent from the others, even though they all have basically the same plot with the same main character, further contributing to the overall uniqueness of the franchise.
It wasn’t that long ago that it’d be impossible to imagine the Mission: Impossible movies still going with Cruise at the center. In 2006, the relatively disappointing critical and commercial success for J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III seemed to confirm that Cruise’s time as a movie star was finished. The movie followed a year of ridicule for Cruise after he jumped on Oprah’s couch, got accused of having an episode of South Park pulled for making fun of him and Scientology, and generally got perceived by the public as an insane person. It’s lucky for Cruise’s career that all of that came at a time just before Twitter had the ability to really make these draggings stick.
2011’s Ghost Protocol was the turning point for the series. That movie, one of the best action movies of the last 20 years, is a kinetic spectacle of set-pieces, and though it helps knowing “that’s really Tom Cruise doing that” while rolling around the outside of the Burj Khalifa, Ghost Protocol works because the action is so creative; Bird’s background in animated movies like The Incredibles had an obvious impact. Cruise becomes like a silent movie star, almost completely defined by his physicality. The movie doesn’t have quotable lines, but there are memorable faces and gestures—like in the opening prison break-out, set to Dean Martin, where Cruise shows his charisma with motion rather than quips or monologues. Later, it’s Cruise sighing at yet another piece of spy tech malfunctioning while his life depends on it working as advertised. In doing so, the movie embraces the outlandishness of Cruise’s character, the plot and the masks, and every other goofy trope, treating these extraordinary things as just another facet of work life. The movie feels like it could easily be a cartoon, but avoids feeling like self-parody and instead more like self-acceptance.
That confidence carried into 2015’s Rogue Nation and, as the reviews trickle out, it looks like it will into the upcoming Fallout, as well—both of which are written and directed by McQuarrie. Considering he also contributed uncredited writing and directing for Ghost Protocol, the six Mission: Impossibles can basically be divided into two trilogies: the auteur trilogy and the more tonally consistent McQuarrie three.
Under his guidance and direction, the series found a willingness to just let itself be what it is: a series of heists with secret agents stealing codes or lists, using improbable masks, with Simon Pegg making anxious quips, Ving Rhames being kinda sassy, and very serious guys like Alec Baldwin earnestly delivering lines like “Ethan Hunt is the living manifestation of destiny.”
Ultimately, what these movies are about is that Tom Cruise is the Michael Jordan of running on-screen. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind Mission: Impossible 7 being just 90 minutes of Tom Cruise running in various locations. No dialogue. Just the "Mission: Impossible Theme," which changes based on the location of where he‘s running, like “oh here’s the theme on Scottish bagpipes, here it is on Tennessee banjo, here it is as Japanese pop music.” In the end, Cruise tells the president: “mission: accomplished,” but it’s Trump, who doesn’t really get it.
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