On an episode of the Moderate Fantasy Violence podcast, I described Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible films as “the little franchise that could,” alluding to the streak in the British character that always roots for the underdog. Yes, Mission: Impossible lacks the sun eclipsing profile of Disney mega-franchises such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Star Wars, however, this little franchise stars, arguably, the world’s highest profile movie star and grosses millions of dollars with every release. If it is an underdog, it’s a very popular and successful one.
What’s surprising about the Mission: Impossible franchise is its staying power. This year the franchise will turn 25. In that time, both Batman and James Bond descended into self-parody and needed dark and gritty reboots to regain their appeal, two trilogies of Star Wars films divided fan opinion, superhero films rose to their dominant position and Lord of the Rings had its moment. Despite all this, Mission: Impossible soldiers on, remaining popular but not reaching the culture defining heights of the mega-franchises.
Throughout my entire cinema going life I have been a fan of the Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible films. At every stage of my life, a new installment reliably pops up to offer up something that reflects my mood at the time. The films also chart how the world has changed, from Cold War hangovers, to the war on terror, to our current age of global paranoia.
The ratio of quality films for the Mission: Impossible franchise is certainly better than that of the James Bond films (perhaps its closest cinematic relative) or even the MCU and Star Wars shared universes. If you rolled a dice and chose one of the six MI films at random, you would be pretty much guaranteed a quality night in front of the TV.
In times of stress, we turn to the things that give us comfort, so it was during the first lockdown that I found myself rewatching all the MI films from the beginning, reliving my childhood, teenage and early adulthood memories of these films.
What follows is both an account of these films and the periods of recent history that created them. The time that they reflect is the time that I lived through. This journey is a personal one, stringing together anecdotes from my life, recent political history and the crazy stunts that Cruise has pulled off in the course of these six films.
Mission: Impossible 1
The first Mission: Impossible film was released in 1996, when I was ten years old. This is one of my earliest memories of anticipating the release of a film. I had been going to the cinema from a young age and I’m not sure what the first film I saw in the cinema was (most likely the animated Aladdin released in 1992), however, this was generally because my parents decided to take me to see something they had chosen. Mission: Impossible was a film that I wanted to see myself.
I can’t remember what it was about this film that captured my imagination. It might have been watching Tom Cruise on our VHS copy of Top Gun? Or it might have been my dad’s influence. He had introduced me to a lot of TV shows of the 1960s, from Thunderbirds to Randall and Hopkirk Deceased, and I had enjoyed watching reruns of the 60s Mission: Impossible show. Was this an idea subtly planted in my head by my dad (he was also a fan of spy films)? I don’t know, but for whatever reason I had to see this film.
When I saw it, I was captivated by the non-stop roller coaster of heists, betrayals and explosions of Brian De Palma’s film. The famous scene known as The Vault, where Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is suspended from the ceiling of a high security vault in the CIA’s headquarters was the most heartstoppingly tense cinematic moment of my young life. I also thought myself immensely clever to have followed the films intricate plot, which by Primer standard is relatively straightforward, but at the time was an intellectual challenge.
The first Mission: Impossible film is more of a spy thriller than a stunt driven action film. The plot focuses on the intrigue, mystery and betrayal within the intelligence services. It’s closer to the TV show than the other films and it inherited several iconic moments from the show that have gone on to be included in every film.
This includes the famous briefing at the beginning of each film – with the same wording “your mission, if you choose to accept it”, “if any member of your team is caught or killed, the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions” – that then explodes, the use of masks to disguise characters for the purposes of intrigue and the TV show’s theme. The other similarity to the TV show is that the leader of the Impossible Mission Force (IMF), played here by Jon Voight, is Jim Phelps, the protagonist of the TV series.
The plot follows Ethan Hunt (played by Tom Cruise), the only survivor of a botched mission to capture a mole in the IMF who is attempting to sell a McGuffin known as the Knock List to Max, a notorious arms dealer. The Knock List reveals the identity of all American agents operating overseas, and Hunt is accused of being behind the attempted theft. It becomes clear that the mission was an attempt to apprehend the mole inside the IMF, which Hunt is now accused of being. Hunt must go on the run, stealing the Knock List himself, in order to sell it to Max in exchange for the identity of the real IMF mole, thus clearing his name.
One of the strengths of this film is its cast. Not only does it feature Tom Cruise and Jon Voight (both probably at the height of their star power) but it also features Pulp Fiction’s Ving Rhames (playing the hacker Luther, who has appeared in all Mission: Impossible films since), Jean Reno (star of Leon and France’s most recognisable action star) and an early performance from Kirsten Scott Thomas (shortly before she starred in The English Patient).
The film’s most spectacular set piece occurs in the middle of the film, where Hunt and his team of blacklisted former IMF agents have to steal the Knock List from CIA headquarters. The Knock List is kept in a vault where the alarm is triggered by any loud noise, touching the floor or a rise in temperature. This leads to a balletic, and nearly completely silent, literally suspenseful scene where Hunt is dangled above a computer. A lesser director than De Palma would have added music to the scene, thinking it would increase the tension but actually ruining it.
It’s one of those iconic cinema moments that has been parodied to death, however, it’s also breath-holdingly tense. The scene established the franchise’s signature – a hair raising aerial acrobatic sequence – and it set a new standard for tense heist scenes.
This film is also a vivid portrait of the mid-90s. Part of the plot involves a very early version of the commercial internet. Hunt communicates with Max via an early email application that displays an animation of a letter being sent whenever he sends an email. Presumably so that the audience gets that email is like sending a letter; imagine a time when email had to be explained to a cinema audience. This was cutting edge technology at the time. Part of the plot involves Usenet groups and the final sequence of the film takes place on the Eurostar, which had been open for less than two years at that point.
The spy world of the film is one that is still moving on from the Cold War. The opening sequence of the film takes place in Prague, a city that was behind the Iron Curtain less than a decade before the film was made, and Voight plays Phelps as a relic of the Cold War; lost in the modern world that belongs to the next generation embodied by Hunt.
This is also a spy world that is looking for traitors within, instead of looking overseas for enemies. This is reminiscent of hysteria that gripped American during the Clinton Impeachment of the 90s, when America turned on itself after winning the Cold War.
This is a film that stands the test of time. It is a modern classic of the spy genre. It’s mainly remembered for starting a franchise, and as part of the meteoric rise of Tom Cruise, but above all it is a quality piece of popcorn entertainment that asks a little more of its audience than Goldeneye, released the previous year.
Mission: Impossible 2
Mission: Impossible 2 is quite a different film from Mission: Impossible, but that didn’t stop me loving it when it came out. When it was released in 2000, I was a teenager and I loved the energy and stylishness of this film. Looking back at it now, it’s the weakest of the franchise. Its style is only skin-deep, papering over a hollow core. However, teenage me wasn’t much deeper than this film.
One way that Mission: Impossible 2 is like Mission: Impossible 1 is it’s very much a product of a specific time. This is most obviously shown by the theme song, Take A Look Around, in which Limp Bizkit riff on the original Mission: Impossible theme whilst Fred Durst raps over the top. There is only one very specific time in history that could have produced this song.
The direction by John Woo is also very much of its time. The film is full of heavily stylized, slow motion gun fights. Mission: Impossible 2 was released a year after the Matrix made all this super-cool and a long time before these tricks had been overused to the point that they were tedious. None of this has helped the film age well.
MI2 has a lot to recommend it as a fairly mindless action film. Dougray Scott delights in playing the trigger-happy antagonist Sean Ambrose. The first film made us feel sympathy for Jim Phelps, as a relic of the cold war, but Ambrose is a straight up megalomaniac action movie villain.
The plot also follows Ethan Hunt trying to prevent Ambrose from releasing a deadly virus, which has the overly dramatic name of Chimera. It’s a comforting vision of a world where motorcycle chases and gun fights are the blunt instruments needed to stop a deadly disease. In the age of Covid-19, this film is pure, undiluted escapism.
For all their over-the-top bombasticness, MI2’s action scenes are very entertaining. Especially a sequence in which Hunt bungees from a helicopter into the atrium of a skyscraper in an attempt to steal Chimera before Ambrose can shoot his way in and take it. In the words of Ambrose, Hunt engages in “acrobatic insanity to avoid harming a hair on a security guard’s head.” The reappearance of the elaborate aerial stunt in this film firmly fixed it as an essential part of all Mission: Impossible films.
This said, this is a flawed film and the weakest of the franchise. It’s built around a love interest for Hunt, Ambrose’s ex-girlfriend and thief Nyah Hall (played by Thandiwe Newton). Their love story moves implausibly fast (like everything in this film), the couple lack chemistry and Nyah is absent from all future MI films.
The duff love story aside, this film’s greatest weakness is being outrageously over-the-top in every possible way. Hunt seduces Nyah via a high-speed sports car chase that ends up with them both dangling off the side of a cliff and about £50,000 of car destroyed for no reason. There are far too many slow-motion gun fights, where crucial moments are shown from multiple angles consecutively, which is headache inducing.
The film was made towards the end of the period in action cinema where cars exploded really easily and several of Ambrose’s henchmen are dispatched when their car is hit by a truck and inexplicably explodes into flames. Vehicles exploding for no reason other than it looks cool is a good summary of the level of subtlety of this film.
There is music under every second of this film, not so much highlighting but hitting you over the head with the subtext of what is going on. The most onerous example of this is an electric guitar version of the Mission: Impossible theme that plays during key action sequences and distracts from, rather than enhances, the action.
Much of the blame for this must rest with the director John Woo. Woo isn’t a bad director, but his style, as seen in this film, has dated badly. Woo had a very successful career making Hong Kong action films. He directed classics such as Hard Boiled and then came to Hollywood where he helmed the Nicholas Cage and John Travolta blockbuster Face/Off, before making MI2.
At the time, this heavily stylized form of action direction was a breath of fresh air for Hollywood action scenes, which had become stale following too many sardonic muscle man films. The likes of Arnie and Bruce Willis had dominated cinema in the 90s, running around in muscle shirts, blowing bad guys up and dropping lines like “he had a blast”, but by the end of the decade this became tired, and was perfectly satirised by the character of McBain in the Simpsons. Woo’s highly stylized, slightly fantastical action directing was a welcome change at the time, but now looks overly flashy.
MI2’s overconfidence with its stylistic approach is appropriate for a film released at the height of Western self-confidence. This film shows a pre-9/11 world, where all the great enemies have been defeated and all the great debates settled. America stands astride the world, confident and supreme. There is almost no ideology in this film. The first film hinted at the regret of Cold Warriors for a world that was changing and didn’t need them anymore. Ambrose is motivated purely by acquiring money. His master plan is to use Chimera to start a pandemic and then sell the cure.
Overall, this film is a lot of style over substance, but it’s still an entertaining style. The success of this film cemented MI as an action franchise in its own right, that had a life beyond the legacy of the source material. Teenaged me enjoyed this film’s combination of loud bangs and loud music. It stands as a flawed monument to early 2000s optimism and overconfidence.
Mission: Impossible 3
Following the box office success of Mission: Impossible 2, there was a lot of hype for Mission: Impossible 3. This was especially true in my head, where I had stored up a huge reservoir of excitement for a new installment in the franchise that I love.
MI3 came out in 2006 when I was at university. I had grown up a lot in the intervening six years and my taste in cinema had matured from blockbusters to independent cinema and art house films. So, when it was announced that the new villain would be played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, veteran of The Big Lebowski and Capote, and Simon Pegg from Shaun of the Dead would be joining the cast, I took it as a sign that the franchise was growing up as I was.
MI had established a format with the two previous films: Ethan Hunt leads the team. He receives a covert message about a mission that self-destructs and then assembles a team, including a helicopter pilot and a computer expert (usually Ving Rhames’ Luther). Then there’s a crazy, over the top break-in involving death defying airborne acrobatics, for which Tom Cruise does all his own stunts. There’s a villain played by a character actor and an action-packed spectacular climax. What MI3 did was introduce surprises around this structure, whilst sticking to the formula.
MI3 is the most divisive film of the franchised, seemingly loved and loathed in equal measure by the fans. For my money, this is the smartest and most unusual of the MI films. It subverts expectations and goes in unusual directions. It’s the most character based of the films, as the mission that Hunt has to complete is secondary to his journey as a character.
The film begins with Hunt retired from the IMF and living a quiet, all American, suburban life under the cover of being a public transport consultant. He’s engaged to nurse Julia Meade (Michelle Monaghan) and has given up the world of high-octane espionage for a very ordinary life. The point is underlined at a house party Hunt hosts, where one of his non-IMF friends says that he is “boring”.
Hunt is dragged back to active duty when a recruit that he trained is killed by arms dealer Owen Davian (Hoffman). Davian’s preferred grisly method of execution is a micro-explosive implanted inside the victim’s skull, which adds a gruesome extra flair of nastiness to the character. However, after Hunt captures Davian, through a clever bit of subterfuge at the Vatican, Davian swears revenge, kidnaps Julia, and forces Hunt to steal a mysterious device known as The Rabbit’s Foot for him.
This plot allows for more development of Hunt as a character. His relationship with Julia is key to the film, which explores the burden of a lifetime of keeping secrets and how it affects those around you. Also, unlike James Bond, it shows that Hunt is a human being who doesn’t want to spend his entire life dangling off skyscrapers and fighting megalomaniacs. He might actually want some normality after more than ten years of this.
At several times the film subverts our expectations of what will happen next, according to our understanding of past actions films. Hunt successfully captures Davian in the middle of the film and the main confrontation between the two characters takes place then, rather than in the third act. The scene where Hunt steals the Rabbit’s Foot from a lab in a Shanghai skyscraper takes place largely off screen. At the film’s climax, it’s Julia who saves Hunt’s life, subverting the usual damsel in distress love interests seen in many action films.
This film also has a lot of Mission: Impossible charm. The addition of Simon Pegg to the cast (who goes on to appear in all subsequent MI films) adds some comedic relief to the ever-serious Hunt, without straying into silly comedic sidekick territory or undermining the tension. Despite MI3’s more character driven plot and the way it plays around with the franchise’s format, it still contains all the vital elements of a MI film. For example, the aerial stunt is still very much present as Hunt bungee jumps from one skyscraper to another to break into the lab containing The Rabbit’s Foot.
MI3 is not without its flaws. The plot doesn’t settle into a mission and Hunt’s goal changes from freeing his trainee, to capturing Davian, to stealing The Rabbit’s Foot to saving Julia. One of the strengths of the franchise is that the structure of briefing, mission, goal, creates an accessible plot. This film is less focused for largely jettisoning this structure.
The Rabbit’s Foot is a sub-par MacGuffin, especially when compared to the Knock List of the first film and the Chimera virus of the second film. We never find out what it is, beyond some vague statement about it being able to lay waste to cities. This makes Hunt’s effort to prevent Davian from obtaining The Rabbit’s Foot lack apparent consequence. The final act is hard to follow, with a few plot twists that are confusing more than dramatic.
Mission: Impossible 3 is darker in tone (coming out around the same time as Batman Begins and Casino Royale) than previous films in the franchise. It shows the bleaker post-9/11 outlook rather than the super-confidence of MI2. The villain is an arms dealer, a free agent not connected to any state, intent on spreading chaos and destruction about the world with a weapon small enough to fit into a suitcase.
The MI franchise has shied away from weaving specific conflicts from our world into the film’s plots, (there has never been a Middle Eastern terrorist villain, for example) which prevents the films from aging poorly. (A good example of how this can go wrong is that both Rambo 3 and The Living Daylights feature Rambo and Bond respectively teaming up with the Taliban.) This film does highlight the contemporary fear that a sufficiently committed individual could obtain a weapon small enough to evade detection and kill millions, which led to much hysteria about WMDs during the War on Terror and influenced the foreign policy of Western nations.
This film is one of the strongest of the franchise as it is aware of our expectations of an action film and tries to subvert them. At the time, I found it slightly disappointing, perhaps because I wasn’t looking deeply enough to see how it played with genre conventions. Now I feel it’s a subtly clever movie that is underappreciated. Ironically, it had little impact on the overall franchise. Julia is written out between this film and the next, and the tone returns to what we expect from an action franchise. Its biggest long-term impact could be that this is the first film in the franchise made by JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot production company, who went on to produce all future MI films.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
Three films make a trilogy, four makes a franchise, so I was very pleased when Mission: Impossible returned to the cinema in 2011 with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. MI – Ghost Protocol was released when I had more perspective than I had during my self-consciously arty early twenties. After rebelling against all that was mainstream when I developed an interest in cinema, I was now more confident in my tastes. This meant that I was able to enjoy a film that aimed solely to entertain.
The number system was gone and the more modern structure of Franchise Name – Installment Name had been embraced. This film is a solid fan favourite, less divisive than the previous film, and more of a straight up action rollercoaster, filled with spectacular action scenes from start to finish.
MI – Ghost Protocol was directed by Brad Bird, who is mainly known as an animation director. Bird has directed many supremely entertaining films including Ratatouille and The Incredibles as well as working on the early seasons of The Simpsons. His films are always very entertaining and have their own personality. Ratatouille or The Incredibles could have been carbon copies of past talking animal films or sci-fi family films, but they avoid the cliches of these sub-genres.
It’s this entertainment sensibility that Bird brings to MI – Ghost Protocol. JJ Abrams’s production house Bad Robot are largely responsible for making sure this focus on popcorn entertainment over stylistic innovation ran through all the following films of the franchise. This film, and the two that have followed it, are more conventional action films than MI3, but they are always a spectacular slice of entertainment spectacle without feeling derivative.
Hunt is brought back into the IMF when his teammates (now with Simon Pegg’s Benji as a full member) break him out of a Russian Prison. His wife, Julia, is gone and Hunt is back to being a free agent, ready to drop everything and go wherever in the world he’s needed to dangle off a building. Through a series of flashbacks, the storyline involving Hunt’s wife is resolved in a way that acknowledges her existence rather than just writing her out altogether.
Hunt and his team are tasked with preventing the theft of nuclear missile launch codes, but this mission goes awry when a bomb goes off in the Kremlin whilst the IMF is attempting to apprehend the villain red handed. Tensions between the US and Russia rise and the Secretary (Tom Wilkinson) is forced to disavow the IMF. Hunt and his team must evoke the Ghost Protocol, which involves operating in secret to take down the mysterious villain before he can start a nuclear war.
The centerpiece of this film is the best of the death-defying aerial stunts in the franchise. Hunt must climb the outside of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, using only sticky gloves and his cat-like reflexes. This leads to a vertigo inducing sequence of Hunt dangling, from sheer glass, high up in the air. Bird positions his camera above Hunt, looking down, for much of the scene to give a sense of the height and, crucially, the wind at such an altitude. This gives the scene a gut churning sense of peril.
By this point, the aerial stunt had been firmly established as the franchise’s calling card and in order to capture the excitement of weary audiences, something exceptional was needed. This scene completely excels itself and manages to even exceed the tension of the Knock List CIA headquarters heist in the first film.
The entire Burj Khalifa sequence is a work of entertainment genius. Nail-biting highlights include – Hunt dangling from a skyscraper secured by only one hand, a covert meeting with a deadly assassin, the IMF team trying to impersonate the sellers of the nuclear launch codes without their trademark masks, and a climatic car chase across Dubai during a sandstorm. This sequence is one of the highpoints of the franchise.
With MI – Ghost Protocol, the franchise had firmly settled into its identity. The addition of Jeremy Renner to the cast confirmed this franchise was still a major feature of the Hollywood landscape. After experimenting with big dumb fun and doing something more unusual, with this fourth film the franchise settled into being a series of quality action films that were primarily sold on Cruise’s action credentials and the popularity of the format they had established.
The plot draws on geo-politics and fears of nuclear war, which made it relevant to contemporary politics without adding too much complexity for a film aimed at a mainstream audience. There are dabs of humour to show this isn’t a po-faced, painfully serious film. At this point, you knew what you were getting from an MI film – spectacular action, charm, fun spy craft, entertainment that makes you think a bit, but still leaves you with the impression that this is all for fun and that’s okay.
By 2011, 9/11 was a distant memory and Cold War fears were back. The film highlights the deteriorating relationship between the USA and Russia via the villain, an insane nuclear endgame theorist named Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) who pushes the two superpowers to the brink of a nuclear war. Imagining a conflict between the US and Russia turned out to be remarkably prescient in this regard, coming at the beginning of a decade that included Russia seizing territory in Ukraine and meddling in the 2016 US general election.
The film also highlights growing fears of technology and how shadow groups can manipulate the world’s IT infrastructure to have an outsized effect. Hendricks doesn’t have an army of henchmen like a Bond villain, he just knows what technology to exploit to have a Russian submarine fire a nuclear warhead at San Francisco.
The film shows that nuclear war is still something that frightens us. The fall of Communism and American global hegemony has not removed our collective fear that a mistake could lead to the destruction of the entire world.
This is a really enjoyable film that has great action scenes and a very entertaining plot. It could be the best film of the franchise. At the time it was great to see Mission: Impossible continuing beyond the three film arc that most franchises stop at. Looking back now, this can be seen as a point of where the franchise cemented its place as part of the modern cinematic landscape.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
2015 was a difficult year. The 5th film in the MI franchise, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, was released in 2015, a year that was bookended by two atrocities in Paris – the shooting at the Charlie Hebdo offices in January and the attack on the Bataclan theatre and several other locations in Paris in November. In the UK, David Cameron won an unexpected general election majority for the Tory Party, which began the process that took Britain out of the EU. Meanwhile in the US, Donald Trump began his run for the presidency with an appeal to the basest aspects of the American id.
This was a year when the world looked like it was spinning out of control, so a film about a shadowy group of former secret agents trying to spread chaos across the world offered some perverse comfort. This entertaining Hollywood blockbuster offered the same reassurance than conspiracy theories do: there was at least some method behind this madness and the world isn’t governed by chaos.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation broadened out the franchise by adding some more depth to the world of the films, which was continued in the next film in the franchise. After MI – Ghost Protocol cemented the tone and format of the franchise, MI – Rogue Nation made the series richer, which prevented it from going stale. It did this via two crucial additions – a love interest and a big villain.
The love interest for Hunt is Ilsa Faust (played by Rebecca Ferguson), a rogue British Intelligence officer who is Hunt’s match when it comes to crazy vehicle stunts and has the same penchant for stepping outside the rules to get the job done. Both are invested with a sense of decency; underneath all their carnage and car chases, there is a moral foundation of preventing the death of innocent civilians.
The second addition is a nemesis for Hunt, this time in the form of Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), another former British Intelligence officer who now leads the covert anarchist organization known as The Syndicate. The Syndicate are described as an anti-IMF, spreading chaos and destruction across the world. Lane is an excellent Blofeld for the series, a cold calculating villain. The Syndicate, made up of disaffected intelligence agents who have turned against their governments, are a more believable cadre of villains than Spectre in the Bond films, whilst still fulfilling the role of action movie baddies.
The casting for both of these new characters is spot on. Harris is excellent as the soft-spoken Lane, whose voice drips with malice aimed at the governments of the world. Ferguson also brings humanity to Ilsa, and her precision complements Hunt’s exuberance. She prefers the quieter ways to sneak into a base, that don’t involve dangling off the side of a building.
The rest of the cast for this film is excellent. As well as the additions of Harris and Ferguson, it adds Alec Baldwin as the secretary. Jeremy Renner also reprises his role from the previous film, alongside franchise mainstays of Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg. Tom Hollander also has an excellent cameo, playing the British Prime Minister.
MI – Rogue Nation opens with the signature aerial stunt, as Hunt grabs hold of the exterior door of a plane as it takes off. Cruise is famous for doing all his own stunts, which gives all the action scenes and aerial acrobatics a sense of authenticity. The camera is able to get in closer to capture Cruise’s performance without the need to cut around a stunt double. This frees the director when considering angles and camera positions. This is true of this film’s aerial stunt and the spectacular motorcycle chase that is the middle of the film.
The aerial stunt opens the film, but this still leaves plenty of scope for death defying acrobatics. In addition to the mandatory aerial stunt, this film also contains an underwater stunt. The middle of the film consists of another heist sequence in which Hunt must place Benji’s biometric data in an underwater computer, without breathing equipment, so that Benji can gain access to a secured terminal. Contrived as this premise for a stunt is, it leads to a very tense sequence of Hunt holding his breath and trying to access the computer. This is reminiscent of the vault heist in the first film.
MI – Rogue Nation features several other epic action sequences, including a motorcycle chase that is brought abruptly to an end when Ilsa causes Hunt to crash by stepping out in front of him. This sudden end to a high-octane chase sequence is visually arresting. There’s also a shootout at the Vienna State Opera and a final chase between Hunt and Lane through the streets of London.
All of which is ably captured by director Christopher McQuarrie. McQuarrie is best known as a screenwriter, he penned cult crime film The Usual Suspects, as well as previous Tom Cruise vehicles Valkyrie and Edge of Tomorrow, however his action directing in this film is top notch. It lacks the obtrusive visual flair of Woo’s directing and has more in common with the subtler visual style of De Palma in the first film. McQuarrie went on to direct the sixth MI film and is currently directing a further two MI installments.
This film was released in a year that had several deadly terrorist attacks and saw politicians starting out on campaigns to tear up the fabric of international agreements that have stood for decades. In the years that followed, politics would become more paranoid as we began to suspect dark forces of manipulating world events, be it Russia and their Internet Research Agency (IRA) or Cambridge Analytica in partnership with Facebook. This was a time of growing conspiracy theories and rising paranoia.
A film that said there’s a secret group behind all the chaos was oddly comforting. As the world entered a downward spiral it has yet to pull out of, the idea that some evil genius – be it Lane and The Syndicate or Putin and the IRA – engineered this was strangely comforting when compared to the truth: all these terrible things happened because of randomness and stupidity.
Usually by the fifth film, a franchise is getting tired, but Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation shows that by adding new characters to complement the existing characters, a franchise can make a late installment seem fresh and use it to bring new life into the series. When I saw this film in 2015 it was a sign that the franchise still had life in it, 19 years after the original film was released. Looking back at it now, it’s an interesting hallmark of the paranoid, conspiracy obsessed times we live in.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
The MI franchise has consistently been one of my favourite cinematic series, so when it was announced that a sixth installment would be released, I was excited for it. The MI films both connected me to my past, via the key points in my life that could be marked by MI films, and reminded me that decent popcorn Hollywood entertainment will always be something I would look forward to. I didn’t expect Mission: Impossible – Fallout to do something new, something the franchise hadn’t done before – a sequel.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout, is probably the most direct sequel in the franchise so far, which is unusual for a film series’ sixth inning. This film picks up a lot of elements from Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation and runs with them. Solomon Lane, the leader of The Syndicate, is back as the villain, as is rogue MI6 agent, Ilsa Faust, as both a foil and love interest for Hunt.
The plot picks up where the previous film left off. The members of The Syndicate have been hunted down and only a hardcore group known as The Apostles have survived. The Apostles are trying to acquire the materials for a suitcase nuke so that they can continue The Syndicate’s plan to unleash anarchy on the world. Hunt must go undercover in The Apostles to find the nuclear weapons and their mysterious leader John Locke.
So far, so very MI. Matters are made more complicated by the presence of a traitor in the IMF who is attempting to turn the CIA against Hunt and his crew. Matters take a deadly turn when Hunt realises he has to prove himself to The Apostles by helping them break Syndicate founder Solomon Lane out of prison, where Hunt put him. When he does, the stakes are raised further by the reappearance of Ilsa, who is on a mission to kill Lane and win back the trust of British intelligence.
This plot is the perfect set up for MI’s trademark heists, infiltrations, chases and double crosses. It’s the dressing for some of the franchises’ best set pieces, such as this film’s aerial stunt – a scene where Hunt must gain access to a meeting of Apostles in Paris by parachuting into it from a plane. The jump is shown as one long shot as Hunt falls from the plane to Paris and suffers several complications along the way. It’s an intense sequence, as we watch Hunt plummet downwards and see the city scape rush up to meet him.
The film also features several other impressive action scenes including a car chase through Paris, a rooftop chase across London and a final action sequence in which Hunt and John Locke dangle from a helicopter, fighting over the detonator for the nuclear devices. Again, the fact that Cruise does all his own stunts gives these actions sequences an authenticity as director McQuarrie can shoot the action as it happens and doesn’t need to cut around stunt doubles.
MI – Fallout adds several interesting additions to the cast. Angela Bassett takes over from Alec Baldwin as the Secretary and Vanessa Kirby is introduced as a dangerous information broker working for all sides. Henry Cavill is excellent as a CIA handler, sent to keep an eye on the unorthodox IMF, who is the brute force ying to Hunt’s acrobatic and stealthy yang.
As a sequel, the film picks up the plot threads from MI – Rogue Nation. Sean Harris is back as Solomon Lane, now with a beard but still scheming. Harris is always good when required to play a malevolent presence and in this film he is darkly menacing throughout. Rebecca Ferguson is back as Ilsa Faust, once again wearing the grey hat – sometimes collaborating with Hunt, sometimes opposing him.
It’s very entertaining to watch Hunt and Ilsa lock wits and then team up to take down their mutual enemies of Lane and John Locke. I’m very glad that McQuarrie recognised how Ilsa enhanced the franchise, not only bringing her character back for this film but providing a role for her in the next two installments. Ilsa is not the opposite of Hunt – that role is provided by August Walker (Cavill), the CIA’s sledgehammer to Hunt’s scalpel – but she does bring an edge of unpredictability to the action scenes as someone outside the IMF and on her own mission.
Also returning in this film is Michelle Monaghan playing Hunt’s former wife Julia. She is now a doctor, instead of a nurse, and running a medical relief programme in an area targeted for nuking by Lane. This sudden reappearance of Julia doesn’t come across as contrived as it marks a symbolic handing off point from Julia to Ilsa as Hunt’s main love interest.
Julia is happily married to a doctor, who is the family man that Hunt could never have been. Hunt is now guilt-free to charge off saving the world with Ilsa, possibly the only person who can understand his need to drop everything and dangle off a helicopter.
This the first MI film since the original 1996 film that follows the plot of there being a traitor within the IMF. The paranoia created by the hunt for John Locke mirrors the paranoid post-2016 world. We are collectively obsessed with finding traitors within our own ranks, be they nebulous global elites trying to undermine sovereign nations or the President of the USA being accused of being a Russian agent.
After 9/11 the West looked out at the world and saw enemies in every less developed country. Now we look within to find our enemies not only inside our own borders, but inside our own communities. Some of these threats are very real (like the rise of the far-right) but some are exaggerated fever dreams (like the idea that Antifa is plotting to destroy America).
In an age of paranoia we are constantly looking for traitorous phantoms that could have adopted the face of anyone we know. Like the faceless icon of John Locke on Hunt’s briefing – who is this person within our own ranks who is against us? It could be anyone.
This film successfully builds on the last film to tell an enthralling story. It has all the essential elements of a spy film – globe hopping, chases through the streets of several famous cities, betrayal, covert groups seeking to wreck destruction on the world, information brokers and a race against time to stop a nuclear explosion.
When this film came out, I thought it was an excellent Friday night in the cinema, the type of action escapism that Hollywood does so well. Looking at it now, I see how it takes the well-established elements of the MI franchise and successfully builds on them to keep this sixth installment interesting. Many franchises appear tired when they reach their sixth installment and cinemagoers are bored with their well-known conventions, but MI continues to entertain.
Roger Moore’s sixth bond film was Octopussy, which is terrible. Sean Connery’s sixth was the forgettable Diamonds are Forever. No other Bond has made it to six films. MI – Fallout is interesting and entertaining, despite being a late series addition to a franchise.
A lot of the credit for this can be taken by writer/director McQuarrie, who has crafted an entertaining, tense thriller, with a great cast, that builds on the foundation he established in the previous film. He is currently directing Cruise, Ferguson, Pegg, Bassett, Rhames and Kirby in Mission: Impossible 7 and 8 – shooting back-to-back – which is adding Hayley Atwell, Indira Varma and Mark Gatiss to the MI world.
There are plenty of elements to pick up for installments 7 and 8. What will Angela Basset do now that she has taken over as secretary from Alec Baldwin? Is there more to Ilsa than we know? Lane is still alive and still determined to wreak revenge on Hunt. What is he planning?
25 years of Mission: Impossible
The Mission: Impossible franchise turns 25 this year and will see its seventh installment release in cinemas (Covid depending) and it’s still an important part of the Hollywood action blockbuster landscape.
In the 25 years that Cruise has been playing Ethan Hunt, the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings film series have come and gone, X-Men has risen and fallen and we have had two James Bonds and Star Wars trilogies (both of these franchises appear to be at creative dead ends, at least in the cinema). All the while, Mission: Impossible soldiers on putting out decently entertaining movies. These films make huge amounts of money and have a very high profile compared to most other movies, but in Hollywood mega-franchise territory, Mission: Impossible is a small franchise that consistently delivers the goods. The little multi-million-dollar franchise that could.
This shows that there is appetite for a serious action franchise amongst the blockbuster cinema audience, or at least a series of films that take themselves seriously. Mission: Impossible is not aiming for realism, it isn’t Zero Dark Thirty and no-one believes that it’s a serious attempt to depict the world of international espionage.
The films are self-aware about the fact that they aren’t a realistic depiction of spy craft. They adopt the self-aware wisecracks that have become the standard dialogue pattern of all blockbusters (we have the combined efforts of Joss Whedon and Chandler Bing to thank for that). Above all the MI films are fun, and even veering into daft territory, but they take their premise seriously. These are serious situations presented for relaxing entertainment.
There is a lot of demand for films that inhabits this middle ground of action cinema, somewhere between the brooding, pretentious seriousness of Batman vs Superman – a film that clearly believes that every frame is invested with the same deep meaning as a painting by Pier Mondrian – and the hyper-silly, nothing matters at all, not even physics or internal consistency, of Sharknado. This is a tone that Disney does well in its Marvel and Star Wars franchises.
The Mission: Impossible franchise is more than just the application of the successful Marvel/Disney action and wisecracks tone to the spy genre. This tone has its origins in films such as the Indiana Jones movies of the 1980s, which itself owes a debt to studio era thrillers such as North By Northwest. Mission: Impossible is part of an ongoing tradition in cinema of presenting a very serious situation with enough frivolity that it can be enjoyed as entertainment.
These films tell us something about the world that created them, without being too impressed with how clever they are. They invite us to use our minds, but in a way that feels satisfying on a Friday night after a long week. They’re entertainment, but not mindless entertainment.
Above all they are well made by filmmakers who are masters of their craft and take pride in entertaining us. They are filled with characters we feel invested in and situations that thrill or astonish. One of the key things that can be said about this franchise is that all these films are worth watching purely for entertainment, which is the first and most important thing about a blockbuster film.