Accepted Missions: A Look Back at ‘Mission: Impossible’

It’s easy to note that when an old TV show gets turned into a movie, it’s pretty bad. But every once in a while, you get a surprisingly good time. Some are funny (21 Jump StreetThe Naked Gun), others are action-packed (The Fugitive, Star Trek). No doubt one of the more successful TV-to-film transitions has been Mission: Impossible. Originally a slick spy-thriller that ran from 1966 to 1973, this series has become an acclaimed world-wide blockbuster action franchise grossing over $2 billion at the box office. With its fifth installment, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, hitting theaters this Friday, it’s time to look back and see where each of the four previous installments stand. Critics and audiences say that Mission: Impossible is one of the rare franchises that seems to get better with each new installment. Let’s put that to the test, shall we?

Mission: Impossible (1996) by Matthew Goudreau

In retrospect, Mission: Impossible reminds me of The Fast and the Furious. This comparison carries both a positive and somewhat of a negative conntation. The plot is worth investment, the setpieces are memorably constructed, and the actors look like they believe in the project. At the same time, there’s potential for the franchise to continue in an upward direction. I enjoyed going back and rewatching this film, but I found myself only anticipating the sequels as the plot unraveled (literally and figuratively). Aside from the lackluster second installment, Mission: Impossible has done exactly that. It’s amazing to me that that this franchise has only gotten better despite constant directorial changes and stylistic shifts.

In his first outing as IMF agent Ethan Hunt, Tom Cruise is assigned to prevent the theft of a computer file containing the undercover identities of various agents. The opening sequence thrives on classic spy tropes and gadgets without feeling satirical or pandering to die-hard fans.  While the mission is in progress, Hunt’s team is killed and he is presented as the culprit behind their demise. Branded a traitor, Hunt has to go underneath the eyes of the IMF in order to expose the true culprit.

Under the direction of Brian De Palma, I find that the film succumbs to many of the tropes I take issue with in his other films. His style doesn’t lend it itself in a manner that allows for me to take the plot seriously. It’s a film that is more focused on the visuals and action choreography than the story and characters. There are plenty of head scratching moments as more of the plot is revealed. It lacks a sense of coherence that helps drive the later installments of the franchise. With that said, I can’t exactly fault that decision, given how effectively executed the majority of the action scenes are. I am still impressed by the famous vault scene, but the climactic tunnel chase feels like it’s from a generic summer blockbuster instead of an espionage thriller. Despite my criticisms of the plot and character motivations, I still believe Mission: Impossible is a viewing worth accepting.

Mission: Impossible 2 (2000) by August King

As each new entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise arrives, it serves as an increasing reminder that this series is a surprisingly sturdy introduction of how to understand film auteur theory. The release of its second entry in 2000 already made this abundantly clear, making a hard left turn from the taut stealthy suspense of Brian De Palma’s inaugural entry into the balletic gun-fu extravaganza of John Woo’s follow-up. Woo, like De Palma before him and J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird afterwards, used the Mission: Impossible formula as a playground for the distinctive style that he cultivated in the iconic action cinema of his Hong Kong days and eventually brought to America. Unlike those other directors, though, Woo got the short end of the stick with the entry he was brought into, and the flourishes he brings to Mission: Impossible 2 aren’t enough to save it from being a below-average James Bond knock-off.

The plot this time concerns a deadly virus that’s about to fall into the wrong hands of rogue IMF agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), and Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) needs to retrieve the virus and its antidote for the IMF, along with help from Ambrose’s ex/thief Nyah Hall (Thandie Newton) and agents Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Billy Baird (John Polson). That’s about it as far as the story goes on this one, and don’t feel bad about forgetting Billy existed, because the movie barely gives him or Luther the time of day. Rhames cracks wise with Cruise and he gets a few moments to shine, but for the most part the movie ignores the team aspect that makes a Mission: Impossible movie a Mission: Impossible movie and instead focuses on turning Hunt into the romantic lone hero who needs to protect/save Nyah from danger. Woo pumps the film with his trademark melodrama, but even though Cruise and Newton are serviceable together, the emotional beats ring laughably hollow with such a thin foundation to stand on.

The movie doesn’t truly come alive until the end of its second act when Woo flips the switch from dumb dull to dumb fun, and the two back-to-back major action sequences that bring the movie to its conclusion are stellar in their own right. By then it’s too late to save the movie entirely from its poor script and hilarious overuse of the mask-maker, but the final chase from Ambrose’s compound to motorcycles on the highway is just great enough as a show-stopper to end things on a high note. Woo’s use of slow-motion to punctuate the action beats remains potent even after The Matrix already appropriated his style just a year earlier and subsequently opened the floodgates for poor imitators. Although this first sequel turned out to be the only true misfire for the series and another addition to the director’s unfortunate American career (Face/Off notwithstanding), Mission: Impossible 2 proves to be an important-of-sorts footnote in a franchise that showed it could continually reinvent itself as it hands the spy playground over to different filmmakers each time out.

Mission: Impossible 3 (2006) by Grant Jonsson

Mission: Impossible 3 is my favourite film of the franchise. Wait, re-read my first sentence, I said my favourite, not the best; although I would add that it deserves to be in that conversation. I was in seventh grade at the time of the film’s release in 2006, but I do recall quite clearly that my parents were surprised another film was being made for the franchise after the middling response to Mission: Impossible 2.

The film’s plot begins with IMF Agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) retired from the job and now getting ready to settle down and get married to Julia (Michelle Monaghan). Due to an out-of-the-blue contact from his old IMF controller, Hunt gets thrust back into action to extract an agent who is presumed to have been kidnapped by the film’s villain, Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). The kidnapped agent, Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell), was undercover in Davian’s organization to uncover plans to sell a biological weapon known as the Rabbit’s Foot. Naturally, troubles occur during the extraction, and Hunt commits himself to finishing the job by finding and securing the Rabbit’s Foot.

The film is a non-stop barrage of espionage, intrigue, and action. J.J. Abrams was able to prove himself as a man ready to helm big budget pictures, and Tom Cruise was able to be Tom Cruise by providing his regular strong performance as Ethan Hunt. And while that helped the film, Cruise did not do it alone, as he was surrounded by great supporting players such as Maggie Q, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Simon Pegg, and, of course, the always brilliant Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Many would say that the Mission: Impossible films rest on Cruise’s shoulders, which it does when it comes to getting consumers in seats, but I think this film was able to remove itself from the mediocrity shown in M:I 2 because of Hoffman’s performance. Hoffman was equally chilling, mysterious, unpredictable, and cunning. He proved to be a very effective match for Cruise as a performer. That dynamic between the two stars is what I think helped to make the film profitable at the box office.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) by Jon Winkler

From 1990 to 2007, director Brad Bird had been known for his animated work. Bird started with two episodes of The Simpsons and went on to big acclaim for The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille. His first live-action feature would be no easy task, picking up where J.J. Abrams left off with the live wire M:I 3. But, as he did with a superhero family and master chef rat, Bird weaves some awesome magic.

Ghost Protocol features Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise, pushing 50 but still awesome) and co. (Simon Pegg, Paula Patton, and Jeremy Renner) on the run after they are framed for bombing the Kremlin. The IMF are disavowed, but Team Hunt must find out who framed them and why, while also discovering that his new crew members (particularly Renner) aren’t who they seem.

While J.J. Abrams gave a much-needed jolt of energy to the franchise with M:I 3, Mission: Impossible thrives when it takes the complex action of spy life and weaves into a smoothly-paced adventure. Bird does that very well here, making sure not only Hunt but the rest of his crew get revealing bits of character development. What’s more surprising is that Ghost Protocol is more of a direct sequel to the events of M:I 3, including a backstory on how Ethan’s marriage with Julia (Michelle Monaghan) failed. Of course, the action itself is upped too, with daredevil Cruise climbing the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the parking building fight scene at the climax. It also may be the best cast, at least for the IMF team. Pegg still wears his goofy geek badge with honor, while still being given a few moments to show off a hint of attitude. Paul Patton may be the best female agent the series has had, going toe-to-toe with a deadly assassin (Lea Seydoux of Blue is the Warmest Color). Jeremy Renner may not have entirely fit the Bourne franchise, but he’s cozy amongst the IMF.

Should audiences choose to accept the latest mission hitting theaters this week, it’ll be interesting to see how writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) leaves his mark on this enduring franchise. In a time where audiences pay such close attention the quality of film franchises, it’s actually surprising that some people don’t immediately mention the (mostly) consistent quality of the Mission: Impossible movies. Even Tom Cruise talking about a sixth installment doesn’t produce groans from audience members that are exhausted from the franchise. So here’s to exploding video messages, ridiculous stunts, and Tom Cruise running towards or away from things.


Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation hits theaters July 31st.


Jon Winkler is a 22-year-old movie/music nerd in Southampton, NY by way of Merrimack, NH. He loves watching, listening to, dissecting, mocking and talking about movies, television, music, video games and comics. He enjoys a good cheeseburger, believes CDs and vinyl are superior, likes to make people smile if they're having a rough day, and is rumored to be Batman (unconfirmed).