by Philip Price
With the release of “Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation” I decided to go back and catch-up on the previous four films in the series. To be honest with you, I've never before sat down and watched the original “Mission: Impossible” all the way through. I'd seen bits and pieces and tried multiple times over the years to make it all the way through, but it never happened for one reason or another. So, in sitting down to watch the 1996 film that started it all I was surprised to find out there wasn't actually too much I hadn't seen. Basically, I hadn't made it around to the climactic action sequence on the train and that was about it — otherwise I'd seen the major set pieces and had enough to go on that I knew the gist of the plot. This isn't just a look at the first film though, as it's probably been the full 15 years since ‘M:I-2’ came out that I've actually sat down to watch it again. I can remember going to the theater to see it as I'd just turned 13 the month prior to its release and it was one of the first legit PG-13 films I saw on the big screen. I'll obviously get into more detail around it later, but to summarize, it holds up better than I expected and though it is definitely the least of the series it still isn't what I would necessarily label as bad. It was also nice to return to J.J. Abrams third installment that I remember really enjoying when I saw it at the early Thursday night show in the summer of ’06 and I've re-watched ‘Ghost Protocol’ so many times since its release four years ago there was hardly any reason to return to it other than the fact it's ridiculously entertaining. When it was announced in January that the fifth ‘Mission’ film would be shifting from its planned Christmas release to the summer movie season in an attempt to clear the way for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” it could seemingly only mean good things for the latest installment. I've been anxious to see where Tom Cruise and producing partner Paula Wagner would take the series ever since the conclusion of ‘Ghost Protocol’ and so to celebrate the newly released ‘Rogue Nation,’ let's take a look back at the adventures that have brought us to this point.
“Mission: Impossible” - In 1996, Tom Cruise was coming off a year long break from the public eye after both “Interview With the Vampire” and “The Firm” were solid hits. ‘Vampire’ fed off the controversy of Cruise being cast in the Anne Rice adaptation while “The Firm” was a John Grisham adaptation directed by Sydney Pollack that only took twenty-three days to make $100 million at the box office. He would also have Cameron Crowe's “Jerry Maguire” coming out later in the year after ‘Mission’ became a summer hit. “Mission: Impossible” was also the first film produced by Cruise and the only film he has ever made a sequel to (that “Top Gun 2” chatter seems as if it's been happening for years while Cruise talking of a sequel idea for “Edge of Tomorrow” on the ‘Rogue Nation’ press tour seems to be just that — talk).
Now that we have the context out of the way, let's talk about the film itself. In the film Cruise's Impossible Missions Force agent, Ethan Hunt, comes under false suspicion of disloyalty and is forced to both discover and expose the real spy without the help of his organization. It is funny there is already such a heavy talk of agents being disavowed as the tension level this immediately brings throughout each of the films has always been present. Given the film is nearly 20 years old, it is truly impressive how well it holds up even if the technology doesn't. This is expected though, and in a cool way serves as something of a time capsule, a reminder of what it took to break a case in that day and age as opposed to the advancements made as well as the new threats that have been created. The Brian De Palma film is fast-paced and effortlessly intriguing while setting in motion the idea of being structured around three action set pieces. While the stunts have certainly become grander over the years, the then 32-year-old Cruise blew up a huge aquarium, infiltrated CIA headquarters and hung off the side of a speeding train. Even if these aren't the biggest stunts and the special effects are a bit shoddy in the finale, Cruise is so committed you could hardly tell. Also, remember that one time when Emilio Estevez was Simon Pegg?
“M:I-2” - After largely being out of the public eye for three years after the one-two punch of “Mission: Impossible” and “Jerry Maguire,” Cruise returned to making movies in 1999 with two R-rated, adult-skewing films made by master filmmakers. “Eyes Wide Shut” was an R-rated erotic drama from Stanley Kubrick while “Magnolia” was a 3-hour opus courtesy of Paul Thomas Anderson with Cruise in a supporting role that netted him his third Oscar nomination. Neither of these were ever going to be smash hits or cultural milestones in the way his two prior films turned out to be, but Cruise would return to that territory the very next year with his first sequel ever. At the age of 38, Cruise stepped back into the role of Ethan Hunt and enlisted legendary action director John Woo to take the reins of the second entry in the series.
Largely considered the worst in the series and even the one that almost killed the franchise entirely, Woo's two-hour action extravaganza is as over-the-top as it is relentlessly entertaining. Everything about the film could be considered ridiculous, from the opening scene on the airplane where we're introduced to Dougray Scott's villain Sean Ambrose and prepped for the fact there would be a lot of facial exchanges to the rock climbing sequence that may as well have plastered "Remeber How Sexy Tom Cruise Is?" across the shot rather than the title of the film. There are the doves, the car chase through the mountains with Thandie Newton with an obscene amount of slo-mo and another stunts where Hunt drops through the top of a building only for him to engage in a gun fight before parachuting out that is all topped off by the extended motorcycle chase. Both Woo and Cruise seem to have given little thought to what restraint might mean before going with the shooting script from Robert Towne, but they keep a very serious tone on its toes by allowing Scott's Ambrose to be somewhat self-aware. It should also be noted that Ving Rhames was the only returning cast member here besides Cruise and that seems to always be pretty damn sweaty. Another interesting aspect to the film is the choice to base the action solely in Australia whereas the third and fourth films would become more renowned for their globe-trotting aspects.
“M:I:III” - In the longest break between ‘Mission’ films, “M:I:III” came six years after the release of “M:I-2” (and the first since the release of two Jason Bourne films). Part three also came at a critical point in Cruise's career. Some of you may remember the couch-jumping incident of 2005 when Cruise was on the press tour for “War of the Worlds” (his biggest U.S. grosser to date still). After this, the whole backlash of Cruise being a complete wacko happened and unfortunately, has permanently changed his career trajectory ever since. In an effort to both recover his public image by starring in a surefire hit as well as making him come off as much like a normal human being as possible (Ethan Hunt gets married!), Cruise returned to the world of the IMF after somewhat seeming to have no interest in doing so prior. Between the huge success of “M:I-2” and the somewhat underwhelming performance of “M:I:III” Cruise re-teamed with Cameron Crowe on “Vanilla Sky,” collaborated with Steven Spielberg for the first time on “Minority Report” (one of my personal all-time favorites) as well as spearheading the production of “The Last Samurai” with director Edward Zwick and then teaming up with Michael Mann on “Collateral” before reuniting with Spielberg on ‘War.’ In short, Cruise was bigger than ever and on a damn fine roll both commercially and quality-wise before his public persona went south and his sole franchise was called on to be his savior.
While the box office returns on “M:I:III” might not have been what Cruise and company hoped for, it was still a hit and arguably the best film in the franchise so far. As the feature directing debut of a little known TV-guy named J.J. Abrams, it had been so long since the previous installment that there was a lot of room to move in terms of story. As Cruise was trying to fix his public image Abrams recruited his team of writers including Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci to craft a narrative around Hunt coming face to face with a sadistic arms dealer while trying to keep his identity secret in order to protect his girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan). Ving Rhames would again return and this is the installment that would also add Simon Pegg to the line-up. When we meet Hunt this time around the guy has essentially retired from active duty to strictly training new IMF agents, but of course gets pulled back into the fray as the threat of Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) grows greater. Hoffman was coming off his Academy Award winning performance in “Capote” and he absolutely kills it in what is easily the best villain the ‘Mission’ series has seen and will likely ever see. Abrams, like his predecessors, keeps things brisk and the action at the forefront, but what this third film did was to add more to the actual character of Ethan Hunt. There was no progression of who Hunt was and what he'd become between the first two films, but here we see this guy as a man just trying to find some normalcy rather than a super spy who we view as indestructible.
“MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - Ghost Protocol” - Five years later, after the franchise was again assumed to be something of a relic of time gone by, Cruise returned to the world of impossible missions for his best one yet. Outside of the franchise Cruise was having little luck getting anything to stick as “Lions for Lambs” was forgotten as soon as it was released, “Valkyrie” being largely perceived as a flop despite being a more than solid WWII drama as well as making $200m on a $75m budget and “Knight and Day” being the actors first out and out flop that featured him in a starring role. I rather enjoyed “Knight and Day,” but the only relief Cruise saw during this period of his career was the glorified cameo he did in Ben Stiller's “Tropic Thunder.” While his appearance as Les Grossman was minor, it was a game-changer. To be able to show the public he could not only poke fun at himself, but his industry showed there was some kind of self-awareness going on in that thought-to-be-crazy head of his. It was self-deprecating, it was outlandish (Tom Cruise in a fat suit?!?! Cursing?!?! Dancing?!?!?!), but most of all it was hilarious and it put the one-time biggest movie star on the planet back in public favor.
With that, Cruise saddled back into the role of Ethan Hunt, this time bringing in director Brad Bird (“The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles”) for his first live-action film and going bigger, being more fun and enlisting more of an ensemble than ever before (this is the only ‘Mission’ to not feature Rhames Luther Stickell, but it did keep Pegg's Benji on tap) as the likes of Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner were added to the ranks. There is something about the movie-going experience of the “Mission: Impossible” movies where I find them to be more than genre exercises, but fresh and exciting adventures. I say this because I distinctly remember sitting and experiencing “M:I-2” as the kind of film that made me feel in awe of its scope and then looking over at my then 14-year-old brother’s face during ‘Ghost Protocol’ and seeing that same sense of wonderment. When Cruise as Hunt scaled Dubai's Burj Khalifa (and especially if you were lucky enough to see the film in IMAX) it was a moment of pure insanity. It was as if you were watching a man truly test his mortality as he trusts a single piece of technology to hold him to the side of the building. In a way, I guess you could say Cruise was doing just that as no one expected much from a fourth ‘Mission’ movie. Instead, ‘Ghost Protocol’ has become something of an instant action classic with its Dubai sequence being a piece of filmmaking that's marveled at not only for the risks it involved, but for the thrills it achieved. It's what the movies are all about and Tom Cruise has been working for 30- plus years (20 now as Hunt alone) to bring us that kind of entertainment, those kinds of thrills and the kinds of experiences that allow us to be swept away by spectacle.