Mission: Impossible – A Retrospective, Should You Choose to Read It

Unlike a bulk of the present deluge of similarly bloated franchises, the Mission: Impossible films have slowly but surely epitomized the trend through evolution of formula throughout nearly two decades. Finding comfort in Tom Cruise as its ageless and unfailingly charismatic centerpiece, each film simultaneously exudes a directorial singularity that many have noted noticeably differentiates them from one another. This has become increasingly appropriate given the semi-meticulous one-off nature of the lot, what with the titular word “Mission” in conjunction with the newer subtitles suggests an almost serialized, episodic nature. No matter which (if any) of them is your preferred series high mark, Mission: Impossible is a rarity in the sense every installment isn’t without its own unique merits in the realms of presentation and scenario.


Brian De Palma’s inaugural 1996 effort is, needless to say, a far cry from the grandiose set piece-driven mold succeeding it. It’s in essence a by-the-books spy thriller benchmarked by De Palma’s recurring motifs both thematic and visual. Subtler if convoluted exposition segues breezily into the bigger picture quickly enough: IMF dynamo Ethan Hunt – reeling from the tragic loss of his team after a mission gone awry – is framed as part of a mole hunt conducted to sniff out the possessor of the coveted NOC List. Given the immense threat of exposing the identities of the operatives detailed within, a high stakes cat-and-mouse caper ensues as Ethan confides in fellow disavowed ex-IMF agents to uncover the truth.

Although agreeably convoluted in its occasionally noirish execution of many a twist and turn, M:I doesn’t opt for easy answers as a surefire resolution remains appropriately and appealingly out of reach for viewers. Predictability takes a backseat to muddy character allegiances and general tide-turning tendencies, all of which are effective despite the formulaic skeleton that lies beneath the surface. Some of the aforementioned twists are genuinely disorienting, thus solidifying the film as something of a successful and palpably unconventional blockbuster.

Thus brings us to the pivotal, Langley, Virginia-set break-in scene executed entirely in total silence. It’s essentially a masterclass is sustained tension, each moment laced with what could essentially be the ultimate minute misstep whether it’s a sweat droplet on the corner of Ethan’s eyeglasses or a pulled rope’s frequently audible friction. The film’s entire latter third that culminates with a comparably noteworthy train sequence is particularly impressive, and although its particularly ’90s flourishes remain a bit more obviously oppressive in this day and age, Mission: Impossible is still a fine initial foray into what was then a hopeful answer to Pierce Brosnan’s first stint as James Bond the year prior.


M:I-2 is far and away the least revered or even liked of the franchise, and for good reason. Despite John Woo being of particular renown throughout the realm of Hong Kong action cinema, his English-language track record is spotty and arguably peaked with 1997’s Face/Off, which may or may not be saying a lot depending on who you ask. In the case of M:I-2, the proceedings’ immediate playfulness, bizarre love triangle-as-impetus subplot and especially slow-burning first half don’t play much to Woo’s strengths as a man of literal action in the industry.

While it again employs a rogue ex-operative’s acquisition of a touchy thing for personal gain angle, everything just feels petty, slight as such and not particularly involving outside of the Chimera virus’ effects on the populace should it be weaponized or whatever. It’s when Woo gets to play with his toys during Hunt and the gang’s attempted eradication of said virus that M:I-2 shines via his tangible trademarks. The latter fifty-plus minutes excellently exemplify these strengths, from balletic, clip-emptying gunplay to disarming and knocking an adversary unconscious with a single acrobatic maneuver, not to mention the entirely stellar motorcycle segment to follow that constantly ups itself throughout its duration. This aside, the film as a whole is still considerably weaker than its predecessor and is easily overshadowed by the more modern affectations of Abrams and Bird’s follow-ups.


In effectively employing one of the better cold opens I’ve seen, Mission: Impossible III – to me – earned bonus points for the sense of stark immediacy lacing its grittiness. It again abides by the series’ one-off mantra in the sense that Mr. Hunt has (attempted to) settle down and quietly exit the game following the acquisition of the love of his life. Although conceptually jarring given the purposefully impersonal touch of the first two films, I happen to appreciate a bit of palpable humanism in my genre efforts if only because I’m a sucker. It further excels in transforming the IMF into a larger tangible entity complete with requisite higher-ups and means for sustaining an appealingly twist-heavy nature.

As the series’ third director, J.J. Abrams at least partially introduces us to what would become his stylistic quirks lacing not one but two franchise reboots and an in-between Spielberg homage/ripoff. Say what you will about his chops, but Abrams’ adherence to frenetic, shaky cam-enhanced bombast aids in producing some seriously excellent action. While a bulk of viewers can do without the potential motion sickness, there’s no denying the appeal of wanton destruction and an increasingly fallible protagonist being bounced around like a plaything during his quest to ensure mere safety of a loved one. Corny, I know, but not without its base-level emotional appeal.

Whereas M:I-2 was more or less a segue between what the franchise began as and what it would become, M:I-3 is both a refining of scope and logical evolution of formula. In employing what’s most accessible to viewers in terms of straitlaced, big-budgeted but non-pandering entertainment, Abrams and his frequent collaborators Alex Kurtzmann and Roberto Orci delivered what was ostensibly the assurance of the franchise’s elongated lifespan. It marked the official and modern adherence to what Ghost Protocol exemplified, and frankly, the hokey unevenness brought about by the involvement of Hunt’s female counterpart is forgivable thanks to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s turn as a better-than-average villain and excellently prioritized narrative intricacies.

MI - Ghost Protocol

The emergence of 2011’s Ghost Protocol wasn’t as much earth-shattering as it was peculiar given a five-year absence and palpable lack of demand for the series’ continuation. With The Iron Giant and Pixar darling Brad Bird attached to direct, a promising marketing campaign couldn’t quite stifle audience skepticism. Thanks to Cruise’s ability to age backwards and the finesse of the finished product however, the film in question is the undisputed high watermark pre-Rogue Nation, should I be as enamored of it as I assume I will be.

At this point, it’s become apparent that Ethan Hunt has attained his final form as a full-fledged superhero imbued with unparalleled physical dexterity and situational expertise. Even still, he and his team are subjected to many a drawback exacerbated by the details strewn throughout Ghost Protocol‘s ceaselessly arresting set pieces. The narrative formula the film employs to exploit this strong suit is forgivable on account of franchise trappings, what with the Fast & Furious films doing the same to differing degrees of fan service a la cars instead of hi-tech doodads. Brief expository ramblings precede what’s predictably tense but unpredictably executed on account of the film’s apt genre framework, and frankly, convolution is rendered a complete afterthought given how fast and loose key details and players are implemented.

The most glaring flaw Ghost Protocol sports is its entirely non-dynamic central villain. Despite Michael Nyqvist’s Hendricks being the sole impetus driving the (once again) disavowed IMF gang’s cat-and-mouse caper, his screen time is limited and actual presence unintimidating. Herein lies the qualm I have with the film’s long-winded narrative that belies the punchy steadfastness of its crowning attributes, what with the team’s mere inability to simply catch this guy being the driving force behind Ghost Protocol‘s appeal as its duration exceeds the two-hour mark.

A bit of fat could’ve been trimmed in retrospect, however Brad Bird’s first foray into live-action territory possesses enough sheer inventiveness and visceral integrity to combat a majority of negative reception. Ghost Protocol as a whole is a fine example of how to persevere in the face of adversity brought about by sequel overload, and here’s hoping the franchise’s continued adherence to its one-off business model will yield favorable results going forward. The current state of Mission: Impossible‘s values are a far cry from its roots but have ensured longevity through a competent evolution of the formula its nearly perfected in the realm of big-budgeted genre filmmaking.


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