Mission: Impossible: How the spy franchise quietly became the best action series currently going.
Action movies are the bread and butter of mainstream film studios. Whether it be the macho, over-the-top violence of the likes of Arnie, Sly, and the rest, or the dark, grim reality brought on by War dramas, audiences flock to the cinema for spectacle and excitement, and there is arguably no genre that delivers both in equal measure quite like the action movie.
The most successful franchises of the last few years have all either leaned heavily on or outright embraced the genre. Marvel, Star Wars, James Bond, and the Fast and Furious franchises are all proud in their action, all vying to outdo each other in their bombastic set-pieces, while the likes of Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, and even the many Disney live-action remakes, while not strictly entire action-orientated, seek to offer something similar.
But, despite their broad appeal, staggering box office intake, and overwhelming control of the mainstream discussion, these franchises have found themselves playing desperate catch-up to a movie series that, for all its impressive moments and jaw-dropping technique, has remained very much under the radar… at least as far as big-budget action blockbusters can do.
I am, of course, talking about the Mission: Impossible franchise, a movie franchise that has had a somewhat rocky road in its journey to now, and is often dismissed by many as simply being “that Tom Cruise thing”. Although the films have never come close to matching the intake or cultural obsession that the likes of Marvel, Star Wars, James Bond, and the rest have, their impact continues to grow.
A stubborn insistence upon performing batshit stunts for real, relying on practical effects work, and pushing the boundaries of what can be done in-camera on an action franchise has meant that Mission: Impossible has carved out its own little corner of the action movie world, and the aforementioned more recognizable brands have been taking note. Star Wars, upon its return, made a big point of its own “old school” approach, while Marvel has been casually dropping in more and more in-camera stunt work, and the Fast and the Furious… well, you only have to compare part four with part five to see the impact there.
Now, I’m by no means claiming that these developments are entirely down to the Mission: Impossible films and the wider audience tastes have of course had a huge influence, but the fact remains that whether they were simply early to predict the desire for a less computer-based spectacle, or they deserve genuine credit for being part of starting this trend, no other franchise delivers the same level of out there, gasp-inducing moments.
In fact, it has been so impactful that this drive to “out stunt” the franchise has become synonymous with Cruise himself. Cruise, of course, is the star of the Mission: Impossible series, and he has undergone many transformations in reputation throughout his career. This current iteration of Cruise, however, is one that is inseparable from the Mission: Impossible movies. He hangs off the side of planes, scales the world’s tallest buildings, flies helicopters through rocky mountain ranges for real, and he’s even about to go shoot a movie in space. It has reached the point now where a new Tom Cruise movie is more about the level of spectacle on offer than anything else.
But, interestingly, the Mission: Impossible franchise did not start this way. Based on the iconic television series of the same, the first cinematic outing came way back in 1996 and is an entirely different beast to its more modern sequels. Directed by Brian De Palma, the film plays out more like a spy thriller than it does a bombastic action movie. Despite featuring some great action moments, as a movie, it is far more interested in espionage, paranoia, double-crosses, and other typically sneaky goings-on than it is in blowing the audience's mind with wild stunt work.
The series’ relationship with action takes a drastic turn with 2000’s Mission: Impossible 2. Directed by action extraordinaire John Woo, M:I2 takes the spy set-up of the first but throws out the more “De Palma” elements in favor of out there and over-the-top action beats and lots and lots of slow motion. Woo turns the property into a John Woo film, and as such it is my least favorite of the series. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just more interested in typically silly Woo-isms than it is in telling a coherent and engaging story. The film lacks any real standout moments, blowing its load early on with the now-iconic mountain climbing moment, and its biggest contribution to popular culture is probably the theme song cover by Limp Bizkit… which tells you everything you need to know.
It is in 2006’s Mission: Impossible III that things start to resemble the franchise in its current form. We are still a way away, but J J Abrams’ debut feature does do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of moving the series away from its De Palma/Woo origins and turning it into its own beast. Abrams’ biggest contribution to the series is most likely in the character of Ethan Hunt himself. Until this point, Cruise’s IMF agent has been a blank canvas that filmmakers can paint their own interpretations on, but Abrams makes him human. He gives him a wife and friends. He introduces Benji, played by Simon Pegg, to the series – other than Cruise the only returning character this far had been Ving Rhames’ Luther – and focuses on the technology and globetrotting that would become key elements of the series moving forward.
For all the work Abrams’ film does, though, it is likely Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol that we might call the first entry in the franchise as we know it. Ghost Protocol takes a lot of the Abrams-isms of part three but does away with the more melodramatic elements. It keeps the sense of spectacle and fun, but also veers things back toward the more spy-centric approach De Palma took at the very start of the film series. It also revels in the technology much more, which is something the franchise has embraced more and more.
Ghost Protocol is also the first movie that brings in the sense of “teamwork” that will become the core and the heart of the series. Pegg returns in a more expanded role, while Ving Rhames shows up in the end for a cameo. But its biggest addition to the franchise would come in the form of a crazy sequence involving Cruise, a wire, and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
Famously Cruise insisted upon performing the stunt himself, scaling the side of the tallest building in the world for real, and the moment stands out above the rest of the film. Not that Ghost Protocol is bad, it’s just that this moment is so unlike anything cinema was offering at the time that it caught the attention of all who saw it. I was left breathless in the cinema, knowing that this was being done for real made it gripping in a way that no amount of incredible CG ever could.
The franchise took note, with Cruise bringing on Christopher McQuarrie to write and direct the next four entries (two of which are currently in production).
McQuarrie finds the perfect balance between extravagant set-pieces, breathtaking stunt-work, and espionage thriller. He takes all the best elements from the four films preceding him and crafts a series of films that are their own thing. The franchise exists within two parts, the early movies, where the series is trying to find its footing, and the McQuarrie years, where it exists as its own unique slice of cinema, and where every entry thus far comes strolling into cinemas and shows every other action series currently running how it should be done.
For me, there is no other action franchise that delivers the same level of engagement and tension that the Mission: Impossible movies do in their current form. They are exciting, gripping, and offer something that no other current action series does. For all the criticism Cruise gets thrown at him, he is arguably the only movie star willing to go to such lengths for our entertainment, and that is pretty cool. It may have been a long road to get here, and it may be a series of ups and downs, but Mission: Impossible, in my mind at least, easily outperforms the competition.
To quote Ethan Hunt at the end of Ghost Protocol, I’d call that “Mission: Accomplished”.