Considering how long Tom Cruise’s movie stardom has lasted, it’s somewhat surprising that he hasn’t been involved in many huge franchises. Unless you count The Color of Money, and I don’t, Cruise did not appear in a sequel until 2000’s Mission: Impossible II. (Sadly, Eyes Wide Shut 2: The Adventure Continues never came to be.) To this day, Mission: Impossible is the only franchise to which Cruise has attached himself, and as a result it may be these films for which he is most known among my generation. It’s also a franchise rather unlike anything else going today. Most modern film series are obsessed with continuity and building worlds over the course of several installments. Outside of a few characters, the Mission: Impossible films have no real interest in such things. All four films are completely different beasts in terms of visual and storytelling style, and yet of the four movies there is only one real stinker of the bunch. The name Mission: Impossible doesn’t mean much more than “Tom Cruise action movie,” and yet it has turned out to be a surprisingly consistent entity.
It’s not insignificant that this is a franchise Cruise has been essentially in charge of from the start. Mission: Impossible was the first film to come from Cruise’s production company, the creatively named Cruise/Wagner Productions. (He started it with executive Paula Wagner.) It’s said that Cruise was a huge fan of the television series on which the film is based, but that’s a bit unexpected considering how quickly the film casts aside the very soul of its source material. For one thing, the film throws out the whole “team” concept by the end of the first act by killing almost every character except Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. They also brought along only one major character from the television series, Jim Phelps, and turned him into the villain. Hardly any time passes in Mission: Impossible before it throws everything away and becomes The Tom Cruise Show, a status quo that would last pretty much until Ghost Protocol brought back the focus on the ensemble.
Ethan Hunt never really becomes a fully developed character, but he also doesn’t need to be. The one discernible character trait he does have is undoubtedly one Cruise can identify with: he is entirely devoted to the job in front of him, and there’s not much room for anything else. (I highly recommend listening to Cruise’s recent interview on The Nerdist podcast, where he clearly becomes uncomfortable when anything not work-related even briefly comes up.) Even when Hunt goes rogue, and that happens often in these films, he wants nothing more than to continue with the job until he finds the truth. Though Hunt may be a thin character, it’s this franchise where Cruise may be most at home, and he carries the load well.
The series has also been quite smart about matching strong directors with appropriate material. With the first film, Brian De Palma turned Mission: Impossible into an appropriately convoluted espionage thriller, a type of story he is very familiar with. There isn’t a lot of passion behind De Palma’s direction of the film, but it’s done tremendously well, applying a liberal dose of canted angles and deliberate zooms, and always being sure to favor suspense over mayhem. The film only really becomes too big for its britches once, and that is during the absurd finale featuring a train, a helicopter, and a tunnel. Such insanity can only clash with many of the setpieces that came before, such as the famous sequence that has Cruise breaking into a particularly secure room in CIA headquarters. De Palma works much better with silence than chaos.
It’s interesting, then, that the subsequent Mission: Impossible films would choose to lean toward the “go big or go home” side of the equation, though it’s not too strange considering Cruise’s affinity for large action setpieces. In almost each one of these films, you can hear stories of Cruise insisting on doing these incredibly dangerous stunts himself. In most cases they were worth it, such as the stunning Burj Khalifa sequence in Ghost Protocol. However, one of the biggest stunts in John Woo’s Mission: Impossible II is also part of the problem. Apropos of nothing, Ethan Hunt is introduced rock climbing without a harness to the tune of “Iko Iko.” Like much of what is seen in the film, it presents “coolness” for its own sake, and it ultimately contributes nothing to the movie as a whole.
Cruise is more than capable of playing the “cool” action hero, but it works better when these qualities are complemented by… something. In the recently released Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise’s character has to essentially learn how to be an action star. In Mission: Impossible II, we’re practically asked to avert our eyes out of the gate, for we are not worthy. What follows is two hours of John Woo trying way too hard, only made worse by a startlingly bad Hans Zimmer score, with a significant contribution by Limp Bizkit. Yup, Limp freakin’ Bizkit. Here, Lalo Schifrin’s iconic theme is “reimagined” simply by blasting the audience with nu metal guitar. Ultimately, Mission: Impossible II’s greatest sin is that it is so incredibly of its time, and that time just happened to stink. While watching this movie, I jokingly tweeted that we should destroy every action movie made between 1997-2004. Actually, I’m not sure I was really joking.
When putting together Mission: Impossible III, Cruise took a different approach, though it took a little while to get there. David Fincher was initially supposed to take over the project, but he then dropped out. Joe Carnahan was next in line, but after some time he also departed. With no established directors to turn to, Cruise decided to extend a hand to television writer/producer J.J. Abrams. He accepted, and Mission: Impossible III wound up being the first feature for the man who would go on to make two Star Treks and resurrect Star Wars. This was a heck of a risk, considering Abrams had only directed a few episodes of television before, but he wound up making an unexpectedly assured debut.
You can find a lot of things in M:I 3 that carried over into Abrams’ later work. He has an energetic way of shooting action, with a subtly vibrating camera that focuses as much on the faces of the characters as the chaos around them. He has always loved his close-ups, and his Mission: Impossible film has several, including the scene that opens the movie between Cruise and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s wonderfully evil Owen Davian. For a guy with so much experience in television, Abrams has a gift for making his films feel cinematic. Part of that is his insistence on shooting on film rather than digital, and, honestly, touches like his infamous lens flares only add to that effect. He directs movies to give audiences their money’s worth, and he does so with impressive coherence.
The trouble with Abrams’ film career so far is he has yet to direct a really good script. Much of this blame goes to his primary collaborators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who have had a hand in writing many of the last decade’s biggest films. Abrams has been working with them since Alias, and he brought them along to write the script for Mission: Impossible III. This was one of their earlier film projects, and looking back you can see a lot of the tropes that would wind up in their later work. The characters quip at each other a great deal, the whole thing revolves around a central mystery or conspiracy, and it features a villain that is easily captured early on, only to eventually escape and seek revenge. In this case, there isn’t really a whole lot of detail to the story. Davian is an arms dealer without much of a background. The MacGuffin is a mysterious item called “The Rabbit’s Foot,” and even at the end we don’t know all that much about it. In a way, I admire this simplicity. Any further details would probably be extraneous at best. When we see something like Mission: Impossible III, we accept that the plot is secondary.
On that level, it winds up being a pretty darn fun action movie, even if the idea of Ethan Hunt retiring and getting married doesn’t exactly track with what had come before. (Or after, for that matter.) At the very least, M:I 3’s angle was able to separate it from the too-cool-for-school Bond ripoff that was its predecessor, and it set the franchise on a slightly new course. In the first three films, it feels as through three different directors are trying to figure out just what a Mission: Impossible film is supposed to be. Should it be a tense paranoia thriller? Should it be an over-stylized action film featuring a single, unstoppable hero? Or perhaps we should learn more about the man Ethan Hunt, while also sending him on missions to save the world?
Brad Bird’s wildly entertaining Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol proved that the answer to this problem was actually quite simple: take a bunch of spies and have them do fun spy stuff. With the exception of a few mentions of Ethan’s wife, Ghost Protocol throws all that personal stuff out and focuses on creating an exciting, funny and visually stunning blockbuster. Much like De Palma’s original, Bird’s film places a huge amount of value on the setpieces. There are so many memorable scenes in this film: Hunt’s casual escape from the Russian prison, the infiltrating of the Kremlin, the chase through the sandstorm, the surprisingly brutal final showdown in the parking garage, and of course Cruise’s practical scaling of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. This film is a spectacle with a capital “s,” and the result of a director knowing precisely what audiences want to see when they enter the theater. Much like past installments, Ghost Protocol doesn’t do much of anything with the villain, here played by Michael Nyqvist. In fact, of all the series’ big bads, he might get the least to do. That I don’t really care says something about how satisfying the rest of the film is.
The next chapter of this franchise is set to be helmed by successful screenwriter and Jack Reacher director Christopher MacQuarrie, and I’m interested to see what he does. Will he continue down the path set by Ghost Protocol, or will he be the next director to take the franchise and make it his own? It’s kind of impressive that four different filmmakers have been able to show off their respective personalities and styles within the confines of a Tom Cruise-produced blockbuster, especially when you see so many other studios (coughcough Marvel coughcough) start to crack down on anything that strays too far from the norm. Much credit for that goes to Cruise, who, while definitely controlling over his own projects, seems intent on doing whatever it takes to create an exciting movie. Is there another actor alive who has so frequently dangled from dangerously high places for his art? I don’t believe so.
Next week: A return to the late ’80s, when a suddenly-huge Tom Cruise attempted to balance commercial projects with slightly more prestigious fare.