In 1996, Tom Cruise got his first ever credit as producer of a movie. This was for Mission: Impossible, the big screen adaptation of the famous TV show which ran from 1966-73. Interestingly, the original series was produced by Desilu Productions, which was co-owned by comedienne Lucille Ball of I Love Lucy fame.
I doubt even Cruise could have predicted in ’96 that nearly two decades later he would be acting in the fifth release in the franchise and announcing the beginning of production on the sixth!
What an amazing run it’s been for the franchise with the iconic opening title track, composed by Lalo Schifrin (almost as famous as the Bond theme, I think). As producer of the film series, Cruise has tapped into a who’s who list of directors to bring the stories to life.
Each of these directors came on board on the rising curve of their respective career trajectories and in several cases the M:I film they directed became their highest grossing or best known work.
The first film in 1996 was directed by Brian De Palma who by then was already famous for Carrie, Scarface and The Untouchables. Mission: Impossible was his biggest hit and after a couple of big budget films his output diminished as he entered his 60s. The two action set-pieces – the CIA heist and the fight on top of the speeding TGV – particularly the former, have become part of movie lore.
Four years later, Cruise tapped John Woo to direct the follow-up. After a decade of stylish Hong Kong action-dramas, Woo had already directed two Hollywood films including the high-concept Face/Off (starring John Travolta and Nic Cage). Tonally, this sequel was more John Woo than M:I, replete with his flying doves and dual pistols. It made a ton of money globally, but is generally disliked by M:I fans. It was too melodramatic for an M:I film, I think. It was also the beginning of the end for John Woo in Hollywood and he made a couple of smaller films before returning to China for good.
Fast-forward six years and a writer-director-producer who had made his name in TV was picked to direct his first ever feature film, Mission: Impossible III. This was J.J. Abrams of course, who at that time was perhaps the biggest name in dramatic television with hits like Felicity, Alias and Lost. This third entry was darker, had a truly disturbing villain played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, but the smallest ‘scale’ of any entry in the franchise (the director still thinking in terms of TV probably). It also was the lowest grossing entry in the franchise. For Mr. Abrams it was only the beginning and he has now become the only director in history to have directed a movie in both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises.
Another five years passed before Ethan Hunt returned. This time the director was Brad Bird, making his first ever live-action film after gaining fame and respect with perhaps three of the best animation movies of the modern era – The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille. How would Mr. Bird handle the transition from pixels to people? Like a dream. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol was a return to the non-stop pace and breathtaking stunts of the original film, the Kremlin attack and the Burj Khalifa scene easily in the same league as the CIA heist scene for audaciousness and heart-stopping thrills.
Now, we have the release of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, directed by Christopher McQuarrie, perhaps the least celebrated or well-known director in the history of the franchise. Make no mistake, Mr. McQuarrie is a top-notch screenwriter, having won an Oscar in 1996 for The Usual Suspects. He has been closely associated with Cruise in recent years, writing the screenplay for three Cruise starrers – Valkyrie, Jack Reacher (which he also directed) and Edge of Tomorrow – all excellent scripts, turned into taut, engaging thrillers.
Critics have been heaping praise on the latest entry and the trailers seemed to indicate that this film would pick up where Ghost Protocol left off, especially with the scene of Cruise hanging onto the door of a giant cargo plane as it takes off! This scene is also featured in the movie poster. However, I was a bit disappointed when the film actually began with the set-up for this scene; I had really expected to build up to it later in the film, just like the CIA heist or the Burj Khalifa climb. Almost before I had settled into my seat, the thrill was over and done with!
Even though there are plenty of other action scenes, including a tense under-water mission and a satisfying finale, this is actually the most character driven entry in the series since Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III. Certainly, the villain Solomon Lane, played by Sean Harris is as frightening as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Owen Davian. And with British spy Ilsa Faust (played by Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson and somehow reminiscent of Ingrid Bergman), we have a worthy female foil to Ethan Hunt. Faust is a stronger female character than Paula Patton’s Jane from Ghost Protocol and eventually develops a close bond with Hunt (it’s clearly platonic and I guess the assumption is that Hunt is still with his fiancée Julia from the previous two films).
This is interesting, because one of the edicts of the original TV series was that there was to be no character development whatsoever, and each episode was to focus purely on the mission in as minimalist a fashion as possible. Of course, 2 hour movies are a different kettle of fish from half hour TV shows and the tone of the film series has developed well beyond the original TV shows. This constant change shows how much Cruise as a producer has allowed the different directors to bring their own unique stamp to each entry in the series. In comparison, I feel the Bond franchise has been much more consistent in tone over the years (taking into account, evolving tastes and social mores of course).
In this age of digital cinematography that makes everything look like home made video, I very much enjoyed the grainy old world look of the film. All thanks to Robert Elswit (who won an Oscar for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood), who also lensed Ghost Protocol.
I would like to see where they go with Mission: Impossible 6 (targeting a summer 2017 release). Commercial realities dictate that there should be bigger and more audacious stunts, performed in far flung corners of the world to bring the global box office dollars in. On the other hand, with so many global spy franchises doing the same thing (the James Bond series, the Jason Bourne series and even the Fast and Furious movies), it’s going to be awfully difficult to bring in the crowds just on the basis of stunts. Cruise will be 55 by the time that film is released and although he still looks youthful, one wonders how long he can pull off the suspension of disbelief of a man his age hanging from trains, planes and skyscrapers. If McQuarrie writes the next film, it’s likely to skew a bit more towards character development and who knows, they may even introduce a new (younger) agent with Hunt taking on the role of mentor.