Lighting the Fuse – The Mission: Impossible Films

Before Tom Cruise reworked Mission: Impossible into a cinematic showcase for his talents, Mission: Impossible was a television series, and a very good one. Created by Bruqce Geller, Mission: Impossible rode to success on the wave of 1960s spymania. It took a little inspiration from Jules Dassin’s heist film, Topkapi, offering a new, complicated challenge each week for its team–the Impossible Missions Force–to tackle and overcome. While the show had a recurrent cast of characters, each episode was driven less by its characters than the nature of the mission–often sketched in hazy terms during the episode’s opening moments–with each episode deriving its charge from the surprises present in watching the expert team maneuvering past any obstacles. At its height, the show was tremendously clever, and it had a groove all its own courtesy of Lalo Schifrin’s unforgettable music.

That music would be the one major element of the series to successfully make its way into every installment of the blockbuster film series of the same name (although none of the film composers who rearranged it could give it anywhere near the same punch that Schifrin did), though, at the start, its relationship to the television series was more discernible. The first of the movies, Mission: Impossible (1996), functioned as as a quasi-sequel to the original television series, albeit with a revisionist bent. Filmmaker Brian De Palma, whose aptitude for clockwork suspense sequences made him a natural fit for the material, was given the task of reshaping the property into a star vehicle for Cruise. The suspenseful opening of the film introduces a version of the TV show’s team, led by an aging Jim Phelps (Jon Voight, taking on the role originated by Peter Graves), only to memorably eliminate them all one-by-one during a mission-gone-bad. Young Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) survives, and is subsequently identified by the CIA as a traitor. He goes on the run and fights to prove his innocence. Using this framework, De Palma made the series into a vehicle for his own skepticism of the American state, which Mission: Impossible portrays as both deeply sinister and comically inept. Hunt’s journeys through the underworld lead him to the revelation that the true foe is Phelps himself, no longer a patriot, having been so disillusioned by the end of the Cold War that he’s now willing to murder his friends and betray his country.

Despite the film’s reputation as an action blockbuster, it’s more of a chilly spy thriller with a few intricate heist sequences in the tradition of the original series (the break-in to the CIA headquarters in Langley, in which De Palma exhibits his gift for sustained suspense, is, by far, the best of them). Its only true action setpiece, the memorable train sequence, occurs as a kind of outrageous victory lap after the film has dramatically and thematically resolved. The film’s true climax occurs moments prior. Hunt exposes Phelps’ scheme using the same tools of surveillance Phelps manipulated earlier in the film, rewriting Phelps’ false narrative (De Palma’s follow-up feature, Snake Eyes rephrases many of the same ideas explored in Mission: Impossible, including the basic structures of this resolution, but with more conviction and depth).

Cruise’s boyish charm and intense focus had not yet begun to mature into the gravitas he now brings with him to his performances, and the film’s Ethan Hunt, a thinly drawn member of the IMF team who has to rise from the middle of the ranks to the position of leader, remains a weak focal point for the film’s drama. Accordingly, the character’s personality changes significantly in the next few films. In Mission: Impossible II, Ethan Hunt would transition into a confident daredevil and ladies’ man, a kind of American James Bond with luxuriously flowing hair.

Mission: Impossible II marked Cruise’s apex as a marquee star and solidified Cruise’s reputation as an adrenaline junkie, eager to push himself beyond his physical limits.The film introduces us to Cruise’s Hunt while he’s engaged in a precarious rock climb, complete with a harrowing jump-stunt that Cruise proudly performed himself. The sequence, and the remainder of the film, is infatuated with Cruise, with his straining musculature, with his piercing eyes, with his clenched jaw, treating Cruise’s Hunt less as a character than a demigod, an exemplar of human physique.

Mission: Impossible II departs dramatically from the template of the original television series, making only the faintest gesture toward the Impossible Missions Force being a team-based operation (Ving Rhames comes over from the original film, though he has little to do, and he’s paired with a new supporting character, John Poulson, who has even less to do). The heist sequences give way to gun ballet and motorcycle acrobatics. If this resembles Hong Kong action cinema, it’s something a bit stranger; there’s a Limp Bizkit song on the soundtrack and Hans Zimmer’s score plays the Lalo Schifrin title theme on wailing rock guitar.

Cruise’s original conception for the Mission: Impossible franchise was that it would function as a big-budget version of The Hire, with auteurs reinventing the stylistic landscape of the series with each installment. So the franchise shifted from Brian De Palma to Hong Kong action film maestro John Woo, who had, at that point, been working in Hollywood for the better part of a decade. Woo conceived of the film’s major action setpieces before the film had a story, and Cruise brought screenwriter Robert Towne, who’d helped bring Mission: Impossible together, to give the sequel a story.

Mission: Impossible II borrows the narrative framework of Hitchcock’s Notorious, weaving it into a thriller about corporate malfeasance and the development of a bioweapon, the Chimera virus. The storytelling approaches of Towne and Woo do not have much overlap, and Mission: Impossible II feels oddly stranded between them, playing to the strengths of neither. The sequences where Woo feels like he gets to cut loose feel less integrated into the film than they feel like digressions from it, injecting operatic melodrama and gun ballet into the cracks of script written as a more conventional Hollywood action thriller. The cast, Cruise included, struggle when tasked with going to the extremes of theatricality that Woo requires of them. Still, while Mission: Impossible II is considerably weaker than the preceding Hollywood pictures helmed by Woo (Hard Target, Broken Arrow, and Face/Off), when Woo still delivers sequences of pure, passionate cinema in which image and physics yield to the impulses of emotion. Mission: Impossible II‘s climactic beach fight ranks among the best sequences in Woo’s body of work.

J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III backpedaled away from the Ethan Hunt, Action Hero posturing of the second film. III paints Ethan Hunt as a veteran agent looking to get married and settle down (a moment that famously coincided with his highly publicized relationship with Katie Holmes). Here, Hunt has spent so long in the world of espionage that he has difficulty letting it go, and, by the end, his personal life and his professional life become hopelessly enmeshed.

This was the first Mission: Impossible film to use Cruise as a human ragdoll, deriving action thrills from the spectacle of the human body surviving punishment (as it did during its much-publicized stunt where Cruise is flung into the side of a car by the force an explosion). Still, this third entry lacks the showmanship of its predecessors. Abrams’ direction is undistinguished and frequently clumsy, particularly when tasked with the construction of intricate action sequences (III‘s helicopter chase is the most awkwardly assembled action setpiece in any of the Mission: Impossible films).

The script, written by Abrams with frequent collaborators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, also lacks refinement and structural clarity, unable to build any momentum from its best ideas. What little momentum the film has largely stems from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s turn as Owen Davian, a flimsy role that Hoffman manages to turn into something forceful through the application of intensity. The film’s opening, its most memorable scene, comprises of a flash-forward that finds Ethan and his new wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), at Davian’s mercy. Davian interrogates Ethan under the threat of killing Julia. It unfolds as a series of close-ups of a desperate, powerless Cruise and an unyielding, ferocious Hoffman. Alas, when the film returns to the scene later, it is none the richer for the addition of context.

Despite its considerable weaknesses, III established a new template for the franchise, which would increasingly become more mindful of continuity and more unified in its embrace of III‘s tone. The team dynamic would be given slightly more weight, and a cast of regulars would start to coalesce. The fourth film, subtitled Ghost Protocol, was the one to cement this template, finding an comfortable balance between Hunt and his teammates. Director Brad Bird came on board to direct his first live-action feature, and he restores the series’ showmanship even if he doesn’t restore its pronounced auteurist signature. Bird constructs the film with the understanding that the property’s real villain is the “impossible,” and so the plot itself exists merely to serve as a skeleton on which he can hang sequences with clearly-defined, ever-mounting obstacles for Hunt and his team to overcome.

Bird brings the dynamism of an animator to the film’s setpieces, the most impressive of which tasks Ethan Hunt with scaling the heights of the Burj Khalifa. Hunt (and by extension, Cruise) seems to push himself further and harder here than he has in any preceding film, taking hits and damage, fighting his way to the finished line in just the nick of time. There’s a resignation that accompanies Hunt’s characterization here. He’s found that he can’t give up the spy game and, accordingly, all he can do now is throw himself back into it with near-suicidal abandon. The film’s climax progressively breaks down Hunt’s body until Hunt is left nearly immobile.

In its follow-up Rogue Nation, Hunt’s appetite for inflicting damage on himself becomes one of the film’s jokes, though hope looms on the horizon. Rogue Nation gives Hunt a new love interest in Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a double-agent enmeshed in the machinations of the mysterious Syndicate. Rogue Nation works very well when it focuses on the two of them. Faust and Hunt have a cool, appealing chemistry; they’ve both been in the game long enough to have acquired their share of scars. In the other, they see a kindred spirit and perhaps the glimmer of a less dangerous life.

Alas, Rogue Nation gradually falls apart the longer it goes on, struggling to balance its too-large ensemble (it carries over most of the Ghost Protocol gang) along with the demands of its story (its third act was dramatically reshaped over the course of production, transforming what was to be its climactic airplane stunt into a throwaway gag for the film’s opening). Writer and director Christopher McQuarrie may be a careful craftsman, but he lacks the panache to make a sequence more than the sum of its pieces. Still, when all of the pieces are in place, as they are during the film’s opera house setpiece (which is, by far, the best clockwork setpiece since the CIA break-in in the De Palma film), Rogue Nation offers plenty of amusement.

Cruise and McQuarrie re-teamed for its successor, Mission: Impossible — Fallout, which, going by the promotional materials, will hit a number of familiar beats while again pushing Cruise to the limit. Here, he’s doing dangerous helicopter stunts and a daring HALO jump. He even injured himself during a rooftop chase sequence (the footage of Cruise breaking his ankle has been utilized in the finished film). If the Mission: Impossible series has become increasingly overburdened by its own ever-increasing ensemble of regulars, this series, in which Cruise/Hunt always goes to extremes, is a welcome presence in a time when more and more stuntwork is generated in a computer. Here’s to watching Cruise do the impossible one more time.

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