Comparing the “Mission: Impossible” films

Seven days into the theatrical release of “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” the summer sequel and Paramount Pictures tent-pole is a certified hit. The Friday-Sunday opening release garnered $61.5 million in domestic ticket sales, a series-best and career second-best for star and producer Tom Cruise. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an “A” rating, and critics have almost universally praised it as well. With so much goodwill surrounding the film, it seems hard to believe that Cruise was almost written out of the series after the third film, released in 2006, was considered something of a box office disappointment.

But even though his Hollywood star doesn’t shine quite as brightly as it did in the 1980’s and 90’s, his “M:I” movies now seem bomb-proof, with three mega-hits in a row, starting with the 2011 sorta-soft reboot, “Ghost Protocol.” And to his credit, he brings 200% commitment to whichever film he is shooting, even cinematic turkeys like “Jack Reacher” and “Rock of Ages.” (Well, maybe not to “The Mummy,” but the less said about that film, the better.)

Does “Fallout” live up to the hype? More on this several paragraphs down, but in a word: Yes. And as we near the second weekend of domestic release for the latest “Mission: Impossible” film, I thought I’d wax critical about the series as a whole. Oh, and you’ve been warned: There may be SPOILERS.


Mission: Impossible (1996): A franchise was born during the summer of 1996 when Tom Cruise, fresh off the back-to-back-to-back success of “A Few Good Men,” “The Firm,” and “Interview with a Vampire,” did his first true action film since 1990’s “Days of Thunder.” Back then, film adaptations of once-popular TV shows were not as commonplace as they are today, so it was with much fanfare that the Brian De Palma-directed first entry debuted. It was one of the biggest hits of year, surpassed at the box office only by “Independence Day” and “Twister.” Audiences liked the Bono-influenced theme song, the Emilio Estevez cameo, and the climatic chase scene set atop a speeding Eurostar train as it races towards the Channel Tunnel. They were less impressed by the film’s lack of romance, perhaps mistaking “Mission: Impossible” with a Bond film, the end of which typically finds our suave spy sailing into the sunset with the girl. As for the plot, which is so complex as to border on the absurd, audiences were more confused than anything else.

Ultimately, De Palma’s film, which finds Cruise’s IMF Agent Ethan Hunt, playing the protégé of the TV show’s Jim Phelps (played here by a bored-looking Jon Voight) as Hunt races to protect the covert identities of spies whose covers were compromised, holds up well today; of the director’s filmography only “Carrie” and “Blow Out” are more enduring. The film is light on action, with just three such sequences. That being said, each sequence is superb, with the first two being more in tune with a slow-burning Cold War espionage thriller than an action picture. The first, filmed in Prague, follow’s Cruise’s Ethan Hunt as he finds himself the only survivor – or so he thinks – of an operation gone bad. The second, set in an intimidating vault at CIA Headquarters, finds a “disavowed” Hunt hacking an agency database in an effort to restore his name to good standing. These sequences, more than the admittedly-thrilling Eurostar chase that closes the film, are the stuff from which great suspense films are made, and I still remember watching the film in a crowded theater on opening day, when, as Cruise dangled from a line over a dangerous space (the first of several signature pieces that, along with the masks, would come to distinguish these films), the audience made nary a peep.

If my praise isn’t wholly universal, it is simply because De Palma may have ultimately been the wrong choice to direct the movie. His usual themes of paranoia and guilt are present, and a nice touch that later entries would barely touch upon. One thing he has never done well as a director, however, is humor. Except for Vanessa Redgrave, who steals the film out from under Tom Cruise’s feet early in the movie, no one in “Mission: Impossible” seems to having much fun. I give it a B.

Mission: Impossible 2 (2000): Audiences fell for this stylish sequel, which was directed by John Woo and which out-grossed its predecessor. Critics were less impressed, especially your humble gringo narrator. The clean-cut, bespectacled, mournful Cruise of the first film was replaced by a bushy-haired, sunglasses-and-leather-jacket-wearing, motorcycle-riding Cruise, playing a 21st-century version of Cary Grant’s character in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious.” The object of his affection: Thandie Newton. For their parts, Cruise and Newton generate considerable more chemistry than Cruise and ex-wife Nicole Kidman (a fellow Aussie, like Newton) ever did in any of their three on-screen pairings.

The plot? Something about biochemical terrorists who plan to unleash a virus from the Center for Disease Control on a major world city. Because the “Mission: Impossible” universe is apparently very small, the leader of the terror group is none other than a former IMF agent (Dougray Scott) gone rogue. (GringoPotpourri note: the idea of villains being current or former IMF agents was a stale plot conceit that was used in too many of these films, and never less convincingly that in this particular installment.) The “Notorious” angle comes into play when Cruise’s Hunt, under orders by boss Anthony Hopkins, blackmails Newton’s jewel thief into falling back in love with her former flame (Scott), while Cruise himself loves her for real.

The action? Box office receipts would suggest otherwise, but I found the action in “M:I-2” to be rather perfunctory. The opening credits sequence features Cruise, doing his own stunts of course, free-climbing in Utah’s red rocks country, but except for a lively shootout in a chemical laboratory, the rest is a series of car and motorcycle chases, none of which rank in the annals of filmdom’s better chase scenes. Cruise seemed to have more fun this time around, though, and audiences got to see their leading man looking a bit more rugged – and getting the girl this time as well. Personally, I found certain story elements contrived, and the villain less scary than merely annoying. C.

Mission: Impossible 3 (2006): A considerable improvement from the previous film in almost every regard, “M:I-3” was a box office disappointment, and seems to be most readers’ least favorite film in the franchise. The reasons for this, really, are two-fold. For one thing, Cruise was, at the time of the film’s release, one of the most hated celebs in Hollywood. His couch-jumping on Oprah just one year prior was still fresh in his heads, and his marriage to Katie Holmes more creepy than charming. Meanwhile, his increasing outreach on behalf of the Church of Scientology – a kind of outreach nobody wanted – had many of us thinking he had gone off the deep end. He lost millions of fans in the mid-2000’s, and many of them never looked back. For another thing, the film went the “True Lies” route by giving Cruise’s Hunt a wife, Julia, played by the spunky Michelle Monaghan, who would do better things later that decade in “Eagle Eye” and “Gone Baby Gone.” But what worked in “True Lies” didn’t work here; “M:I-3” went for cute but forgot the humor; moreover the interludes about Hunt trying to keep his job duties a secret from his wife merely succeeded in taking the viewer out of the action.

Cruise opens movies more successfully overseas than here in the States; so while the film grossed a full $80 million less domestically than its predecessor, it still made a profit, and you can bet that Cruise’s back-end deal (no, that’s not a gay joke) netted him another ridiculous windfall of cash. I liked “Mission: Impossible III.” You could say that I liked it more than most viewers. The steady hand of director J.J. Abrams resulted in smooth action scenes (that bridge attack!), while the film’s villain, Owen Davian (a monstrous Philip Seymour Hoffman) remains the scariest in the series. (If only they had scrapped the marital subplot and given Hoffman more screen time.)

The film started well, with Hunt and his team rescuing a fellow IMF agent played by Keri Russell, hoping to beat the clock before a bomb planted in her head explodes (spoiler alert: they don’t beat the clock). When the action shifts to Rome, and we get to see Hunt’s team infiltrate the Vatican and watch how masks and voice devices are made, we feel like insiders peering into their world. And when Cruise slides down skyscrapers in Shanghai, then parachutes into oncoming traffic, we think we’ve seen it all. Wait until the next film! B-.

Mission: Impossible  Ghost Protocol (2011): Considering the disappointing box office returns of “M:I-3,” as well as the fact that “Ghost Protocol’s” director, Brad Bird, was previously untested in the live-action film, no one quite knew what to expect when this third sequel was released in 2011. Fortunately for both Bird and Cruise, critics and audiences alike seemed duly impressed by clips from the trailer of Cruise scaling the Burj Khalifa – aka the world’s tallest building – in Dubai, and signed up for the ride, making “Ghost Protocol” the highest-grossing and best-reviewed “M:I” film to that point.

And what a ride it is! The signature Dubai sequence, which also includes a well-choreographed hotel room fight between Paula Patton and Léa Seydoux, and a car chase through a Middle East sandstorm, is worth the price of admission by itself. The fact that the movie was filmed in IMAX format makes this sequence even more thrilling. Other highlights include a Kremlin sequence that ends with an explosion and the death (SPOILER ALERT) of Hunt’s boss (played this time by Tom Wilkinson), with Hunt and his new handler, Brandt (Jeremy Renner, who was initially hired to take over the franchise from Cruise) forced to go ghost, four years before doing so became a bad, relationship-killing trend on social media. Brandt and Hunt butt heads, with Brandt believing that Hunt has it in for him after bad intel by Brandt supposedly lead to the death of Hunt’s wife, Julia. But they find themselves on the lam together, and team with Benji (“M:I-3’s” Simon Pegg, delivering welcome comic relief) and the aforementioned Patton to track down Eurotrash terrorist Hendricks, who has fled to Mumbai, where he plans to launch a missile, bound for San Francisco.

With its globe trotting scene changes and race-the-clock-to-stop-a-madman theme, “Ghost Protocol” may be closer in spirit to a Bond film than any other in the series. Of course, James Bond wears a tux while Ethan Hunt wears a hoodie, and malfunctioning magnetic gloves that allow him to enact his Spider-Man fantasies. On a deeper level, the theme of guilt, touched on more hauntingly in the first film, makes a welcome, emotionally satisfying return. And as it turns out, director Bird’s experience working on such animated productions as “The Incredibles” gives him an edge; there is a lightness of touch to the proceedings that makes the film tremendously entertaining. If it isn’t perfect, this is because the villain, played by Sweden’s Michael Nyqvist, fresh off the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy, is a bit of a dullard, and that the much of what happens after Dubai seems anti-climatic by comparison. Still…this is the best entry of the four installments that were released between 1996 and 2011. B+.

Mission: Impossible  Rogue Nation (2015): Woe is the IMF. Not long after being collectively disavowed during the events of “Ghost Protocol,” the agency now comes under fire by government hatchet man Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), who has Jeremy Renner’s Brandt playing both sides of the table. Meanwhile, a havoc-wreaking terror group, the Syndicate, is eating away at the system from within, causing anarchy not for ideological reasons but, mostly, for fun. This sends our hero to various points of call in Europe and Morocco in pursuit of bad guy Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), ably abetted by Luther (Ving Rhames), Benji (Simon Pegg), and a still-reluctant Brandt. But who is the leggy blond with the high powered rifle in the opera house. Is she fighting alongside Hunt or against him?

Meet MI6 agent Ilsa Faust. The British agent, Hunt’s equal in every way (and better at holding her breath underwater, as you’ll learn), seems to be working against Hunt as often as she works with him. And although the cryptic allegiances of characters like Ilsa have been the stuff of standard spy movies for decades now, this particular film is better off because of her inclusion. As played by Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson, Ilsa is athletic, intelligent, vulnerable, and, yes – sexy as hell. She can ride a motorcycle like it’s nobody’s business.

Interestingly enough, the most talked-about sequence in the movie finds Cruise holding onto a cargo plane with his bare hands as it takes off. It is a cool sequence to be sure, and even moreso when you learn that Cruise really did cling to a cargo plane by his bare hands. But that pre-credits segment is otherwise unrelated to the rest of the film, and so I felt more invested in the later action scenes. Cruise and Ferguson’s dive into an underwater centrifuge was truly exhilarating, as was the car-and-motorcycle chase through the streets of Casablanca. And the final moments of the movie, which eerily paralleled the final moments in the James Bond film “Spectre,” released later the same year, told some bold truths about espionage and U.S.-U.K. relations in the 21st century. All told, a very, very slight decline from “Ghost Protocol.” B+.

Mission: Impossible  Fallout (2018): In the world of film sequels, it isn’t often that critics and audiences alike proclaim “sixth time’s the charm.” For “M:I-6,” however, that is exactly what was said. The movie, a direct sequel to the previous entry, “Rogue Nation” as opposed to a stand-alone, has a 97% on the Tomatometer, and is already considered by many, including myself, to be the best of the lot.

The plot finds Cruise’s Hunt facing a rising threat from The Apostles, an anarchist group loyal to Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), our villain from “Rogue Nation,” now sporting a bushy beard as he is passed around from one intelligence group to the next for endless interrogations. The IMF, headed by Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), believes that getting Lane into their hands is the key to nailing the group, but doing so involves making deals with a less-than-honest power broker (the alluring Vanessa Kirby), crossing paths with British assassin Isla Faust (“Rogue Nation’s” Rebecca Ferguson), who is trying to redeem herself in the eyes of her own organization, and butting heads with a distrustful CIA, led by a fierce Angela Bassett, who staffs Hunt’s mission with a watchful operative of its own in younger, tougher Agent Walker (a mustachioed Henry Cavill). The usual double-crosses and plot twists commence.

Sound complicated? To be honest, the story is more straightforward than other entries in the series. That being said, it features plot strands that dangle not just from “Rogue Nation” but from nearly every other “Mission” film as well, and a few scenes of surprising emotional resonance. The theme of guilt, which provided an undercurrent of dread in the first film, is present in this entry as well, and audiences see, for the first time really, how much of family Hunt and his fellow operatives have become. Forget all of that, though. Heads and tails above all other matters of story and plot, “Fallout” is about action and stunts so impressive – and coherent – in scale and staging that I felt as invigorated as I did the first time I saw “Die Hard,” “Speed,” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” three of the best action movies from the past 30 years of cinema. From the tense Berlin shootout that opens the film to the halo jump to the Parisian car chase to the (literal) ankle-breaking London foot chase to the astonishing helicopter duel, “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, and a very game Tom Cruise have raised the bar for action movies going forward. A.

What is your favorite “Mission: Impossible” movie? Let us know by leaving a comment below!

Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food and culture all while weathering the challenges of life in a city with over 20 million people. Life's unpredictable journey has since brought him to Tennessee, where he is close to family and to the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, top ten lists, and travel in general.

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