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Quick Hits on all the Mission: Impossible Movies
Before Dead Reckoning Part 1 lands Tuesday
With Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One landing in theaters on Tuesday, I wanted to get at least one piece out on the series ahead of time. I absolutely plan on doing a big movie-by-movie retrospective series ahead of next year’s Dead Reckoning Part Two, which is supposed to be the franchise’s grand finale, both here on the Wordcast and with Sean on The Weekly Stuff Podcast. So look forward to that next year, but for now, I put together this set of ‘quick hit’ capsule reviews on each of the first six films in the franchise, based on notes I had last time I did a complete re-watch of the series in 2018, ahead of Fallout. I’m not sure if my thoughts would be exactly the same on each of these today – we’ll find out when I give them a closer look in 2024! – but for now, these will do as a concise trip down memory lane.
I’m seeing Dead Reckoning Tuesday night, so look for my review of that to land sometime on Wednesday – be sure to subscribe to the Wordcast if you haven’t already to read it as soon as it arrives!
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1996, Dir. Brian De Palma
This movie is a full 27 years old now, and Tom Cruise looks like an actual baby in it. This is a franchise that has been running so long its first home video release would have been on VHS, not even DVD. This movie is so old at this point that there's a scene where Cruise is searching for info on a spy named Max, so his first instinct is to type in “Max dot com” into a computer and see what comes up. This franchise has been going for so long at this point, in fact, that there is no way in hell such a relatively slow, cerebral thriller like this original one would EVER get made as a major Hollywood tentpole today, even within this very franchise, let alone gross half a billion dollars and be something of a sensation.
To be clear, that's not a bad thing. The newer films, particularly once Christopher McQuarrie got involved, have more vivid characters and more bold, inventive action, but I really appreciate the slow-burn style of this first one. It's got a fairly thin script, but Brian De Palma really made it his own, and threw his entire book of tricks at it. Dutch angles, reverse zooms, POV shots, performances that go from muted to melodramatic in mere minutes, etc. It’s expertly tense, but also wonderfully eccentric. The famous scene in the CIA headquarters where Ethan and company steal the data – with that iconic shot of Cruise hanging from the ceiling – is hands down one of the best set pieces in any spy movie ever. A masterclass of quiet, precisely constructed tension that still blows me away. The franchise has gone on to do many all-time great action set pieces, but they've never quite done a scene of pure sustained tension like this again.
I also love the theme song opening to this one, where it uses clips from the film itself to build the montage, as the old TV series did for its individual episodes. A very cool, stylish touch that I wish all the films in the series borrowed.
There was definitely a period where this one seemed to be considered by many something of an odd duck, if not outright dismissed, but I like how film culture has come back around to recognizing how much this one slaps, even if it does so in a very different way than later entries in this crazy series.
Mission: Impossible II
2000, Dir. John Woo
Mission: Impossible II is an amazing movie. I’m not sure it’s a good or even vaguely coherent movie, but it’s definitely an amazing one. It’s basically one of the bad Pierce Brosnan 007 films (as in, almost verbatim in some scenes), but directed by a deliriously unhinged John Woo. Tomorrow Never Dies or Die Another Day are okay, if we’re being generous, but if they were directed by an actual insane person with an incredible sense of style, allowed to do whatever the hell crazy thing came into his head? Well, we'd get something like Mission: Impossible II, and damn, it's wild.
The last 30 minutes of this one are so gloriously, perfectly ridiculous. The endless mask reveals. The opera music. The spontaneous explosions. The motorcycle jousting. The wild gunplay where no one aims. The slow-mo acrobatic fighting. The goddamn doves. John Woo came to play. He was handed an awful, barely finished script cobbled together with scotch tape and crayon, and he went “Fuck it, I’m gonna take this Hollywood money and make the craziest goddamn John Woo movie I can,” and I still can’t really believe that’s a thing that happened. But I'm so glad it did.
That said, this movie is also indicative of how, while sexism has taken on many awful forms across the various periods of Hollywood history, it's hard to find misogyny more casually virulent and dismissive than in action films of the 90s and early 00s. The feminist backlash of the 80s simmered to a very gross boil here, and part of why the Mission: Impossible franchise is such a weird, interesting document of 25 years in blockbuster history is seeing how the culture has evolved. Look at how Emmanuelle Béart and Thandie Newton are used in the first 2 films versus how Paula Patton and Rebecca Ferguson are employed in the last 2. It’s night and day – women as props versus women as characters. Mission: Impossible II has a particularly horrifying bit of sexism from Anthony Hopkins' character, replying to Cruise – who insists "She's got no training for this kind of thing" – with “To go to bed with a man and lie to him? She’s a woman. She’s got all the training she needs.” Wow. Even Sean Connery’s 007 might have drawn a line at that one.
Mission: Impossible III
2006, Dir. J.J. Abrams
Mission: Impossible III has a few more cracks in it than were visible back in 2006, where it felt like a true revelation – I saw it so many times that summer – but where it really counts, this one works very well, and is the film that ultimately unlocked the series’ long-term potential.
J.J. Abrams has his strengths and weaknesses as a director – and those weaknesses have mostly overwhelmed him at this point – but this is almost certainly his best overall effort. He was hungry on this one, in a way you get a glimpse of in 2009's Star Trek and was completely dead by the time of Rise of Skywalker. Mission: Impossible III is ferocious in its gleeful sense of invention and potential in action staging, which definitely teed up Brad Bird and Christopher McQuarrie to go even bigger with the subsequent entries.
Moreover, this is the first one that really works on a character level - the first where Ethan feels like a human being in a world of other human beings. It probably over-invests in the idea of Ethan going domestic and retiring to live the married life – something Bird had to jettison immediately in the next film just to keep the franchise going – but it gives the movie a different kind of stakes and goes a long way to creating a more coherent characterization of Ethan than we'd had before.
This one also has a supreme sense of showmanship. The in-medias-res opening is just savagely great, in no small part because of the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman going absolutely to town in the best villain performance this series has ever had. Abrams' mystery box bullshit is definitely at play here with the whole 'rabbit's foot' thing, but I think it mostly works in Mission: Impossible III because it centers Hoffman as this sort of nebulous unstoppable evil - what he's trying to do matters less than how he's doing it, and the simple fact that going up against him seems like a truly impossible mission.
Revisiting this one really makes me mourn Hoffman, but it also makes me sad that Michelle Monaghan was so close to being a Really Big Thing in the mid-to-late aughts and now she isn’t. That sucks. She’s wonderful.
If you go by the metric that the quality of a Mission: Impossible movie is directly proportional to how much Tom Cruise furiously runs in it, then MI:3 is definitely the best one. There is some top-tier, Grade-A, premium uncut Tom Cruise running like a maniac action in this one, particularly at the climax. Of course, this metric isn’t perfect, and I don't think MI:3 is actually the best – the dialogue is very creaky here – but it's pretty damn good, a rock-solid action flick without an ounce of fat, and an amazing score from Michael Giacchino, who was still swinging for the fences in these days.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
2011, Dir. Brad Bird
Ghost Protocol is a fan favorite for very understandable reasons, and it definitely blew my mind back in 2011. On subsequent viewings, I've come to think it maybe works better as a series of standout sequences than as a cohesive whole, but those sequences are frequently fantastic, and it’s all immaculately made – so it's hard to complain too much.
Brad Bird made the jump to live action so effortlessly with this one, and more importantly, infused every scene with a sense of playfulness and creativity that is just exhilarating. It’s a tremendously fun movie, and definitely a cut above most action films. This is also the first one photographed by Robert Elswit (he came back for Rogue Nation as well), and it's absolutely gorgeous. The Dubai stuff is obviously a standout, but even in the simplest sequences, he’s got an old-school sense of classical widescreen composition you just don’t see much on this scale anymore.
By the metric of “the more Tom Cruise runs, the better the movie,” Ghost Protocol isn’t quite as jam-packed as the third film, but it does have Cruise being chased by a literal sandstorm in IMAX, so it’s a real quality over quantity thing with this one.
Seriously though, the extended Dubai sequence is maybe the franchise’s best set piece up to this point (that or the Langley stuff in the original). Just an incredible symphony of smaller, interconnecting action beats and thriller/espionage scenes wound together with the force of a freight train. I still vividly remember seeing Cruise step out the window of the skyscraper in IMAX opening night, where the aspect ratio expanded and everyone in the audience was simultaneously struck with the overwhelming vertigo of staring down the distance of the world’s tallest building in crystal clear IMAX photography. It was wild.
The problems settle in after that point, where the film definitely encounters some big pacing/plotting issues down the home stretch. The third act is fine, but a big come down after everything in Dubai, and the ending, with the twist about Ethan’s wife and his motivations throughout the movie, is a pretty major cop-out. Like I said – this one doesn’t fully work as a cohesive whole, the way the films immediately before and after it do, but it’s got a lot of amazing sequences and craftsmanship. When it works, it's magic.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
2015, Dir. Christopher McQuarrie
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation is an absolutely incredible movie. It’s seriously one of the most confident, inventive, expertly-made popcorn films to come out of Hollywood in the 2010s. It was the best Mission: Impossible movie made when it came out, only topped later by Fallout, and it remains something truly special.
Case in point: That insane espionage sequence at the opera about 30 minutes in, scored entirely to Turandot, which is one of the most perfectly, creatively crafted stretches of cinematic synesthesia I’ve seen in years. It’s absolutely electric. And the car/motorcycle chase in the middle is some of the best vehicular action I’ve seen this side of George Miller. McQuarrie captures a sense of speed that, even watching on a medium-sized TV, feels positively dangerous.
Rebecca Ferguson (playing the wonderfully named Ilsa Faust) is the best character the franchise has introduced since Simon Pegg in the third film, and probably even more important to the series’ renaissance. She gives Cruise a very specific kind of foil the series has never really had before – not quite a friend, not quite an enemy, but every bit as competent and sharp – and her performance animates so much of the movie. She’s amazing.
There’s no weak link in the cinematography game in the Mission: Impossible series, but as good as his work was on the fourth film, I think Robert Elswit really outdid himself on Rogue Nation. That rich, grainy, deeply textured look - they just don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
Rogue Nation also successfully overcomes the third act problems that plagued Ghost Protocol in exactly the right way: by choosing not to go bigger down the home stretch, but smaller, quieter, more cerebral. There’s a mind games element to the climax that’s thrilling. Fallout is the first film in the franchise that truly climaxes with its absolute best material, but Rogue Nation never drops the ball. Confident, slick, endlessly entertaining, start to finish. This is the good shit.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
2018, Dir. Christopher McQuarrie
Mission: Impossible - Fallout is an action movie made by the world’s most talented crazy people, and I’m not sure a single sequence has ever left me with as little breath and as fast a heart rate as the last 30 mins of this one. It’s a top-to-bottom action masterpiece, full stop.
The film is so ludicrously well-made, in all possible ways, that it’s hard to know where to begin. It’s basically a 2.5-hour chase sequence, with the direction of that chase changing in several major ways, and basically every inch of action shot on location to breathtaking effect. It’s got a darker, more serious tone than any entry since the first film, without losing the humanity the series has had since the third (in fact, it’s enhanced). The whole cast is great, and Cruise’s stunt work in this is next-level crazy – though Rebecca Ferguson might still be the MVP. Ilsa Faust is a great character, and whenever Cruise is done, they need to make Mission: Impossible – Faust, and just put her front and center.
Oh, and the musical score, by Lorne Balfe, is the best Hans Zimmer score Zimmer never wrote (Balfe is an old Remote guy, so he comes from the Zimmer school). It lends an absolutely thrilling pulse to the movie that proves essential by the end.
Is there any other franchise that has delivered its best entry 22 years into its existence with its sixth film? Because that’s what Fallout is for the Mission: Impossible franchise, and it’s nuts how these movies are almost as old as I am and still getting better. James Bond has obviously had some later-in-life franchise high-points (The Spy Who Loved Me at 15 years, Casino Royale at 44, Skyfall at 50), but outside of the original 60s run, the quality has generally been all over the map. Mission: Impossible is in a class all its own.
How will Dead Reckoning: Part One shape up? Come back Wednesday for my thoughts on a film I am positively salivating with excitement for.
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