The weirdest thing happened to me the other day. I was on my lunch break, walking through Melbourne and a man gave me a phone. Before I could give it back it began to ring. I put it to my ear and heard the sultry tones of our editor-in-chief, David Shreve:
“Good afternoon, Mr Fallon. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to watch the first four Mission: Impossible movies and talk about why they are so popular. As usual your team will be your wife who will spend the third movie hoping Philip Seymour Hoffman wins, and your Twitter friends who will have to read your complaints about Mission: Impossible II. This message will self-destruct in five seconds.”
It would be easy to compare the Mission: Impossible movies to the Bond films. They both have male leads, they are both about spies, and they both involve globe-trotting and gadgets. However, I would more likely equate them with the Alien movies. Both the Alien Series and the M:I series have leads that carry on from movie to movie, both have long gaps between their sequels, and both are made by vastly different filmmakers working toward their own vision, meaning that each of the movies has its own distinct flavour.
Mission: Impossible (1996) is a tight, gritty spy thriller directed by Brian de Palma. The movie revolves around double crosses, phone taps, 1990s internet UseNet groups, the aftermath of the Cold War, femme fatales, and flashbacks. It has some moments of quite vicious violence and doesn’t take the time to babystep the audience through the plot (assuming they can keep up). The technology hasn’t aged well (lots of floppy discs), but the scene in which Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team have to break into the CIA black vault has become an iconic movie scene and set the tone for the other movies to follow.
Mission: Impossible II (2000) is a weird, fun-less, Matrix wannabe directed by John Woo filmed mostly in slow motion. The plot is boring, the usually fun heist scene involves too much green screen to include the audience, and most scenes quickly descend into trying-too-hard-to-be-cool gunfights. That is probably the main issue with the movie. It wants so hard to be cool that it takes itself too seriously and comes off as silly. Acrobatic gunfights performed by men in leather jackets and sunglasses were definitely en vogue post-Matrix, but were already played out by the time this movie was released.
Mission: Impossible III (2006) is half of a very good movie directed by JJ Abrams. The good half mostly involves Philip Seymour Hoffman’s villain who acts everyone else off the screen every time he appears. He is the devil in this movie and so much fun to watch. The big heist scene in the Vatican is entertaining, and has all the cool M:I tropes, including masks, gadgets, and hanging from a wire inches from the ground. But, overall, the movie is weighed down by a lukewarm plot about Ethan Hunt’s homelife with Michelle Monaghan that seems to solely exist so that she can be fridged later to give Hunt the motivation to capture Hoffman.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) is an excellent movie directed by Brad Bird. This feels like the apex of the franchise, as all the good ideas from the previous installments are put together to make something fantastic. It drops the empty bombast of M:I 2 and the domestic life subplots of M:I 3, while keeping some of the dark spy stuff from M:I, and doubles down on crazy heists by having three separate missions in the movie. The reason this movie is awesome, though, is simple. If you can watch the scenes of Cruise climbing the Burj Khalifa without your heart leaping into your throat from instantaneous vertigo, then you’re not human and I don’t think we can be friends anymore. This movie does lose points for replacing Ving Rhames’ hacker with Simon Pegg. It is not often a man who looks like Rhames gets cast as an expert computer hacker, so it is a shame to see him replaced with Pegg who, while awesome in the role, looks like what we think of when we think of a computer hacker in movies.
The series is not without its gender issues. Its gender problem isn’t as bad as the Bond films, but women are drastically underrepresented in these films. They are either being fridged or they are the sole female member of the team. This is especially a shame as the opening mission of Mission: Impossible has a five person team of two men and three women, with each character having a set role and position. However, once they all get murdered, the IMF seems to move to a one woman per team policy. Also, they all seem to adopt a policy that says that in the three sequels the female character must have a scene in which they get into or out of a flash car wearing a dress with lots of cleavage, a thigh-high split, or both.
In the end, if I had to give one reason why these movies are so popular I would direct you to the trailer for the fifth M:I movie. In the trailer, we see Tom Cruise run across the wing of a moving plane, and then we see him clinging to that plane as it takes off. So far, so action movie. While we know from experience that Tom Cruise is doing the things we’re seeing, we also it’s not green screen or stunt doubles or a digitally rendered version of the actor. It is the actor himself. Now, if Fury Road has taught us anything it’s that people like to see real shit happen. Watching a cartoon Hulk fight a cartoon Iron Man is fun, but it can never reach the excitement of watching Tom Cruise literally hang off of a plane that is rising high into the air, because, crucially, we know Tom Cruise did that shit.