The Direction of ‘Mission: Impossible’

The Self-Destructing Message

Many film critics and industry publications will tell you a version of the same concept, that the age of the Hollywood star is over.

What they mean has more to do with power behind the camera than screen presence. Where we still find visible old-school star power doubling as negotiating power seems to rest mostly with an older generation of actors who also run production companies. Brad Pitt and Plan B Entertainment, Leonardo DiCaprio and Appian Way Productions,Tom Cruise and Cruise/Wagner Productions.

Rarer still is the helming of an extended franchise, from production to release, at the hands of a single person, with that same person as its star. There are a few franchises that have done this successfully, molding them into cinematic touchstones: Sylvester Stallone with Rocky, Vin Diesel with the Fast and the Furious franchise (though this arrangement took place later in the series’ history), and Tom Cruise with Mission: Impossible.

These are case studies in what it means to have outsized power in a landscape that is already wildly unequal. These are predominantly action franchises willed into being, or into continuation, by men who command extensive studio contracts numbering in the ten of millions of dollars. These are endeavors commanded by a kind of arrogance (or “ambition”) that has to exist for such an idea to gain traction. These are structures built on the auspices of “family”, moral fortitude, trust in the loyalty of others, and the singular conviction of their protagonists to succeed against impossible odds.

These are idealized redemption stories about what it means to make movies.

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Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It

So, is it possible to maintain an artistic voice in an enterprise so gargantuan, especially if you aren’t the person paying the bills or stepping in front of the camera? Well, it depends.

Individuality is not the first quality franchises require of their directors or their writers. If the Hollywood franchise is a building, everyone involved behind the scenes is a technician brought in to make sure that structure can hold long enough to bring in the requisite amount of audience interest, audience money; there’s a reason why new installments of the MCU or Star Wars tend to be “churned out” on a “conveyor belt”, beyond their shared production by Disney. Movies are businesses as much as they are art (though not everyone tends to operate with that latter ideal in mind). As David Fincher once said while discussing the marketing for Se7en, at some point after the film is cut together, the risks are assessed, and it’s too late to do reshoots, studios are worried about “covering the downside”.

There are always exceptions. The newest series of Planet of the Apes films have raised a benchmark in both computer-generated performance capture, and made a good case for the efficacy of having a dedicated creative team behind the camera. Is it safe to mention the new Star Wars trilogy? The Conjuring franchise? Mad Max? What is salient about these is the distinctive stamps of their directors.

So we circle back to Mission: Impossible. Six films, five directors.

Up until the most recent installment, Fallout, each new Mission was directed by a different person. Having multiple directors in a franchise is so common as to be standard practice, but not necessarily to the degree and caliber shown here. The M:I franchise has seen each director deliberately chosen by Tom Cruise to create an effect based around what Cruise wants to achieve with that particular film. As such, they’re also reflections of the image Cruise wants to portray to his audience.

Actors always know their good sides. With Cruise, it was apparent as time went on that M:I wouldn’t be marketed for its star’s sex appeal, but rather as a constantly shifting vehicle suited to his athleticism, onscreen charisma, and brazenness to perform increasingly dangerous stunts. It would be his most enduring business venture, spanning over 20 years and all parts of the world. It would be the project that protected Cruise’s brand as a global movie star.

Let’s run down the list.

Light the Fuse

Mission: Impossible (1996), dir. Brian de Palma

The post-Cold War thriller, with the flair of technical precision and cinematic literacy.

Ostensibly, this is where it all started. Based on the 70s television series that Cruise grew up watching, the first Mission film was also the first project for his production company. Cruise had been involved in extended storylines before: Martin Scorsese’s Hustler follow-up, The Color of Money, and Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire. But perhaps, the M:I’s most notable feature is what also contributes to its enduring strength: it was made without the promise of a franchise. There are no origin stories, and the cast is stacked with multiple generations of well-known actors: Vanessa Redgrave, Jean Reno, Emilio Estevez, Ving Rhames, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Béart, and Henry Czerny.

M:I proved to be a turning point for Cruise, coming at a time in the actor’s career when he had significant creative control and the capital to act on it. De Palma was attached before there was a script, and pre-production started before there was a version anyone was satisfied with. As has been the case for almost every installment of the franchise, action set-pieces and stunt ideas were present before there was a finished story in which those stunts could take place.

After several script rewrites by writers de Palma brought in, the shape of the story began to stabilize. The character of Ethan Hunt was created specifically for the film, while the TV show’s original protagonist, Jim Phelps (Voight), was reworked into a villain. De Palma was able to convince Cruise of the efficacy of an Eastern European setting, with a storyline that never touches American soil. And the director’s penchant for Hitchcockian paranoia and conspiracy, as illustrated in past films like Sisters and Dressed to Kill, contributed to an unusually dark set-up for the film. The score rises during intense conversations, betrayals develop sharply, dutch angles skew the world around the characters, and De Palma’s signature use of the split diopter effect contributes to this installment’s classification as a thriller more than an action film.

Mission: Impossible would go on to break box office records during its summer run. It would be four years until its sequel. In that time, Cruise would go on to make Jerry Maguire, Eyes Wide Shut, and Magnolia.

Mission: Impossible 2 (2000), dir. John Woo

The melodramatic one, with gun-heavy action, gratuitous slow motion, Woo’s divine white doves, and Tom Cruise’s long, long, post-Magnolia hair.

By this time, Cruise’s ascendancy as a worldwide celebrity had been firmly established. This would explain the relative schmaltz and face-forwardness present here (there are many close-ups in the movie). But new directions breed new desires and Cruise wanted a greater emphasis on action, something the first film lacked. Enter John Woo, who was best known for Hard Boiled and Face/Off.

It’s unclear to what degree the creative team behind M:I2 wanted to turn the franchise into a more traditional action series, but one thing is clear: Ethan Hunt is unrecognizable as a character in comparison to the rest of the series. His function is really just to act as a Tom Cruise lookalike, with no consistent personality or backstory given other than being a daring, arrogant, overconfident super spy. This is made clearer since M:I2  is also the least team-oriented of all the films, which contributes to what makes this such a very Woo project. Like many of his films, Woo’s take on the Ethan Hunt story is one of entanglement between hero and villain. The eruption of explosions, motorcycle chases, and flying bullets are simply a manifestation of that conflict.  

So this continuation returns to the Impossible Mission Force, this time led by Mission Commander Swanbeck (an uncredited Anthony Hopkins). Ironically enough, this is the only M:I where Ethan actually goes on a mission that doesn’t require him to go on the run. Here, he must retrieve a virus called Chimera, which the slimy Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) holds hostage in Australia, along with professional thief Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton). Nicole Kidman, married to Cruise at the time, reportedly suggested Newton as Ethan’s love interest. Ving Rhames returns as hacker Luther Stickell, the only character from the first film to return, and still the only other actor besides Cruise to appear in every project.

It’s likely M:I2 would have been made sooner had Cruise not been delayed with the notoriously long shooting schedule of Eyes Wide Shut. Initially, De Palma was asked to come back but declined. Director Oliver Stone followed suit. Under Woo’s direction, Ethan Hunt’s second adventure is by far the most swashbuckling, and perhaps more memorable for that. Many consider it to be the “bad” Mission. It’s got a somewhat hilarious Hans Zimmer soundtrack, a Limp Bizkit cover of the series theme song, and Hunt’s ridiculous shouts of loyalty (“Just stay alive! I’m not going to lose you!”, he screams before jumping off a building, a gun in each hand).

Mission: Impossible III (2006), dir. J.J. Abrams

A grittier attempt, espionage-forward, packed with hand-held madness, lens flares, a third act that’s almost entirely Tom Cruise running, and the only M:I to spend any significant amount of time in the U.S.

M:I3 had a slightly tortured beginning. Initially, David Fincher was attached to direct the film. Later dropping out due to creative disputes, Fincher said, “I think the problem with third movies is the people who are financing them are experts on how they should be made and what they should be.” Next, Joe Carnahan would work on the film for over a year before dropping out over creative differences, as well. After reportedly binging Alias, Cruise called J.J. Abrams, who finally took on the job. This also began a more extended working relationship with Abrams, whose production company, Bad Robot, has gone on to produce each new sequel.

M:I3 starts off as many Abrams projects do, with all seeming well. Hunt has retired from the IMF with his fiancee Julia, who knows nothing about his past. When Agent Musgrave (Billy Crudup) approaches Ethan with a mission to rescue one of Ethan’s former proteges (Keri Russell), the choice is a reluctant one. A crew is assembled, things go wrong, and loyalties are tested. Some of Abram’s trademarks are featured, including Kelvin-related easter eggs, Greg Grunberg, and a Michael Giacchino score. His talent for world-building and ensembles is illustrated well. And he elicits some of Cruise’s best acting in the series.

This last point has a lot to do with M:I3’s villain. Philip Seymour Hoffman makes a memorable turn as big baddie Owen Davian, a black market dealer after a mysterious object called the Rabbit’s Foot. In my opinion, Davian stands as Hunt’s most formidable opponent, a man who systematically destroys his resolve and brings him to a deadly breaking point.

Despite its false production starts, M:I3 marks a serious transition for the franchise, a more earnest attempt to create a cohesive, emotional character out of Ethan Hunt and surround him with more memorable characters. Simon Pegg makes his series debut as the IMF tech wizard, Benji, a minor character who later becomes one of Ethan’s best friends. Michelle Monaghan stars as Julia, a character repeatedly mentioned throughout the rest of the franchise. Though she has a cameo in #4, Julia doesn’t return in any significant way until #6. And of course, Ving Rhames returns.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011), dir. Brad Bird

Effectively the franchise’s reboot, imbued with kinetic precision, narrative clarity, and the full relinquishing of the young Cruise brand. For anyone reluctant to dive into the entire series, this is the best place to start.

Ghost Protocol represents the start of Ethan’s turn as a proper vigilante from his own government. In every film, Hunt is eventually forced to go on the run before clearing his name. From here on out, the fugitive device sticks. In the wake of a presumed tragedy, Hunt has been imprisoned in Moscow for allegedly murdering a group of civilians in cold blood. Meanwhile, nuclear launch codes have been stolen by a man codenamed Cobalt. Benji and a new team are tasked with breaking Ethan out and enlisting him to help retrieve the codes. Along the way, the whole team is framed for conspiracy and must stop Cobalt without the aid of the IMF.

Ghost Protocol’s sensibilities and style are strongly reminiscent of old Hollywood noir. This has a great deal to do with Brad Bird’s proclivity for genre and a work ethic that favors story development and character over action. Many were curious as to how well Bird would transition from animation to live-action given that this was his first live-action feature. But those years at Pixar lent Bird a serious eye for scale and movement that perfectly suited the goal Cruise was aiming for: practical effects, a constantly-moving plot, and in-camera stunts of a gargantuan undertaking.

Speaking of which, Ghost Protocol has some of the most expertly executed stunts and set-pieces in the entire franchise. The Kremlin is destroyed in one take. Hunt hangs off the side of the world’s tallest building. He even outruns a sandstorm in Dubai, a nod to the well-known gag that Cruise is always seen sprinting in his movies.

In fact, more so than any other entry in the franchise, Ghost Protocol is perhaps the most openly aware of the legacy of its star. Hunt’s reputation precedes him in every way, and most of the structure of the film operates on a series of legendary missions not shown to the audience. He has loved, lost, continued on, and is still sought after many years apart from his youth. Like I said, idealized redemption.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015) and Fallout (2018), dir. Christopher McQuarrie

The most cohesive character-driven stories to date, upping the ante on the stunts Cruise is capable of, solidifying his core team, and marking the first time a director has returned to the franchise.

McQuarrie, or “McQ” as Cruise calls him, actually began his involvement with the M:I franchise in Ghost Protocol, where he did an uncredited script rewrite in the middle of production. He first worked with Cruise as the co-writer on Valkyrie, again as writer-director for Jack Reacher, and co-writer for Edge of Tomorrow. In fact, Cruise has been involved in every McQ project since 2014.

It might be this combination of veteran writing craft and an extended working relationship with Cruise that makes Rogue Nation the most symbiotic film in the franchise. McQ imbues Ethan Hunt and his team with a worn quality that helps to cut some of the narrative fat from previous entries. The audience knows what they’re in for. At this point, many would assume it’s all about meeting expectations and driving the narrative forward. McQ endeavors to rise above that.

And in Rogue Nation, he hits the ground running, starting with Cruise literally running on screen in the middle of a mission. There are no dayplayers in this one. Benji, Luther, and Agent Brandt from Ghost Protocol (Jeremy Renner) return. McQ gives us the series’ first multi-story villain, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), and introduces a true match to Hunt in MI6 double agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). Despite a multitude of moving parts, this is a lean film, streamlined and humming.

McQ has an eye for spectacle and he brings a tactile aesthetic to the M:I world. But, more than anything, it’s his talent as a writer that enables the story to hang together. That’s necessary, because the newest film, Fallout, is the first direct sequel in the franchise, and McQ knows that the audience has come to expect, for varying reasons, a new director for each film. “And that meant making a darker movie, and a more emotional movie than the last two”. That statement certainly holds as Cruise, Pegg, Ferguson, and Rhames return for a story that sees old characters circle back, both good and bad, and test the limits of their loyalty to one another.

This is no spoiler if you’ve seen the trailers, but Julia, Ethan’s wife who was “killed” to protect her identity in Ghost Protocol, returns along with Sean Harris’s villainous Solomon Lane. The CIA’s involvement with the IMF comes as a skeptical, restraining one when Ethan and his team sacrifice securing a case of plutonium rather than each other’s lives. And Solomon Lane, though imprisoned, has machinations in play that endeavor to turn everyone on Hunt’s team against each other.

What results is a globe-trotting, breakneck film, humming with kinetic energy, wide vistas for action sequences like the motorcycle chase in Paris or the helicopter sequence in New Zealand, unbroken shots that seem to gape at the action taking place within them, and intimate character moments that flesh out the world without losing momentum. Fallout is the installment that plays most like a silent film in its cinematic language. Motivations and the navigation of physical space are cued with looks and camera maneuvers that help keep anything obvious from being said out loud. And Cruise takes his Buster Keaton-esque influences to a new extreme with stunts that truly make you wonder how he didn’t die while performing them.

From the perspective of story, both Rogue Nation and Fallout make it clear that the moral line that was so clear in previous films is finally gone. Ethan and his team are hard-pressed to trust each other’s judgment, as well as the integrity of their respective governments. The IMF agency is practically a shadow organization whose role in the series has taken a backseat to the loyalty Ethan feels to his friends. These films test that bond, and the conviction of Ethan’s intuition, a component in this series that always works out in the end. Until it doesn’t.

Back on the Run

M:I is one of the most enduring franchises around, each installment distinct because they play into their directors’ strengths. There are certain trademarks, of course: face masks, a crack team of supporting actors, a singular, though unremarkable villain always hellbent on retrieving some MacGuffin, and an antagonizing faceless government that undermines Ethan Hunt’s objectives.

Though Mission: Impossible has been his most reliable and most sturdy enterprise, it remains to be seen just how far Tom Cruise will be able to push the franchise’s staying power, and his body. After all, these are films whose press junkets often focus on the degree to which Cruise injures himself to accomplish a stunt. But the one-man-band isn’t alone and never has been. Massive crews are vital to create such spectacle and Cruise has already wrangled up another for the long-rumored sequel to 1986’s Top Gun, again collaborating with Oblivion director Joseph Kosinski. And yes, a possible 7th M:I film has been talked about.

There is one final thing that needs to be mentioned before we sign off, an irrevocable acknowledgment beneath it all: these films are informed as much by Cruise’s beliefs as they are by his love of cinema. Some are able to divest themselves of the minutiae of the creative process and simplify a chronology as to how things are made. I’m not. To approach these films as pieces of entertainment, with their craft and their creativity, is to also wrestle with what gets them made.

In many ways, the Mission: Impossible franchise is a mechanism for deflecting the criticisms and rumors that constantly surround its main star, and embracing his ever-smiling veneer. This is part of a long line of stars and notable people who complicate their work with their personal choices. This is posturing and marketing and public relations and damage control. In the case of Cruise, this is a series of movies built on spectacle and escapism and thrills meant to transport an audience away from the world outside the theater. It’s a story about selective hearing as much as it is about determination.

I can’t pretend to have a static opinion on the person at the center of all this. I know that, as time goes on, my enjoyment of these films has increasingly come into contact with how they are made, how the illusion of fame and power can combine to present the argument that the work is what lives on and matters rather than the people who create it. But this is the vanishing act of celebrity. The separation is an admittedly easier gateway to uncomplicated feelings and opinions. But there’s an honesty that needs to come when we talk about art, craft, and the people involved.

For now, the gambit of Mission: Impossible is still going strong. These are some of the most rigorously crafted films around, some of the most bankable, some of the most consistent. They’re also some of my favorites.

In more ways than one, what it takes for that to occur, who’s involved, and what it means going forward deserves examination.

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