The Mission: Impossible Franchise’s Biggest Stunt is the Mission: Impossible Franchise

As the release of the seventh entry in the Mission: Impossible film series looms (the film is subtitled Dead Reckoning Part One, a clear indication that an eighth movie is not far behind), there’s been some chatter on social media from folks who are baffled as to how and why this franchise has lasted so long. After all, the appeal of most film franchises are generally easy to pinpoint: they either follow the richly layered stories of beloved characters, follow a winning formula, or build a world which audiences love to imagine themselves in. 

Mission: Impossible, however, seems to split the difference between franchise norms. The only constant presence in every single entry is producer and star Tom Cruise and his character, IMF agent Ethan Hunt. Although the series has expanded its ensemble of recurring characters with Ethan’s team of Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), and has demonstrated acknowledgment of its past by bringing back people like Kittridge (Henry Czerny), who hasn’t been seen since the first film, the series is not a character study. Seven movies in and we only know so much about these people, a fact that Dead Reckoning uses to its advantage by introducing a heretofore unseen character and plot elements from deep in Ethan’s past before he joined the IMF, a development that another franchise wouldn’t be able to insert as smoothly. 

Put simply, the Mission: Impossible franchise is a series of films about complication, mystery, misdirection, and obfuscation that revels in confounding audiences, and keeping them at an emotional arm’s length. In the M:I films, any scene could turn out to be a ruse, any character has the potential to be revealed as someone else entirely, and so on. That certainly sounds pretty fitting for a franchise about spies based on a television show developed and aired during the Cold War, yet the original 1966-1973 CBS series’ focus was less on mystery and more on what the title promised: heroes (of vaguely Western origin/affiliation) overcoming adversity. 

According to the show’s executive producer, Bruce Geller, the series was to concern “the Everyman-superman” and be an “homage to teamwork and good old Yankee ingenuity.” Instead of featuring recurring characters with rich backstories whose arcs would develop over multiple episodes of the show, Geller had an eye on the series’ longevity by making it resemble a “problem of the week” procedural, something that any viewer could pick up or put down at any moment. Toby Miller wrote that the series’ characters were “figures performing humanness, infinitely plastic, and ready to be redisposed in a moment,” postulating that the series’ healthy run (which included a revival from 1988-1990) was due to “this decentred, subjectless approach.”

When filmmaker Brian De Palma was approached by Cruise to make the first Mission: Impossible movie, the director’s ingenious sense of subversion pounced on that idea of characters “ready to be redisposed in a moment,” famously beginning his movie adaptation by killing off Ethan’s entire IMF team, something we later learn was the doing of Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), the only holdover character from the TV show (where he was portrayed by Peter Graves). Mission: Impossible is undoubtedly a Cruise vanity project insofar as he’s present in just about every scene of the film and has the most character development, but the actor earns that vanity by his intense commitment to the role and playing Ethan as both a seasoned professional and a morally outraged innocent.

Right from the first movie, the M:I recipe was something of a stew: as Cruise admits in this clip, he and De Palma were pitching each other bravura suspense setpieces without knowing the entire plot of the script yet, and even Cruise’s audio commentary with director Christopher McQuarrie for the 2018 sixth installment, Fallout, has them admitting they went into production without a finished script (a tradition that very much continues with Dead Reckoning, according to its stars). In that light, it’s no wonder that the franchise was browbeaten from the start for being obtuse; Roger Ebert’s review of the 1996 film began, “I’m not sure I could pass a test on the plot of Mission: Impossible. My consolation is that the screenwriters probably couldn’t, either.”

Just a sentence later, however, Ebert concedes that the plot’s intricate workings are not the film’s main focus. Initially, Ebert’s assessment that Mission: Impossible was more aesthetically-minded was fairly on the money: the initial plan Cruise seemed to have for the franchise (after De Palma turned down returning for a sequel) was for its aesthetics to change with every installment, to be a director-driven series not unlike the Alien films had been. Thus, we received John Woo’s operatic M:I-2, J.J. Abrams’ slick and savvy M:I-III, and Brad Bird’s kinetic Ghost Protocol.

However, with McQuarrie’s first official at-bat in the director’s chair, 2015’s Rogue Nation, the series took a turn back to its tonal Alfred Hitchcock/Carol Reed origins, revisiting De Palma’s brand of moral ambiguity and paranoia. It refused to leave the prior few entries behind entirely, though, congealing their contributions into sequences of bravura, practical stuntwork, a good deal of which is performed by Cruise. As McQuarrie and Cruise’s collaboration deepened and continued, resulting in McQuarrie returning for Fallout and Dead Reckoning Part One, the director has taken the opportunity afforded him by the first half of the franchise, switching up his style and tone while keeping an emphasis on dialogue, structure, and practical feats of derring-do.

McQuarrie’s tenure on the series disproves what once was an easy answer for Mission: Impossible’s longevity: that its revolving cast of characters and directors afforded something for everyone as well as a freshness each time out the style of the James Bond series. Sure, some folks have used this opportunity to complain anew that the series is much ado about nothing, and McQuarrie has certainly had to go out of his way to course correct a few continuity bumps. One of those bumps was the character of Ethan’s ex-wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan), who was introduced in M:I-III and then was missing for the majority of Ghost Protocol, save a cameo at the end of that installment that was intended as a send-off but was misinterpreted by enough people that her absence in Rogue Nation was noted. Fallout not only drew clearer lines around the character and her and Ethan’s relationship, it also underlined Ethan’s character as someone who refuses to let his team die ever again, to value one life over millions. 

Though Dead Reckoning was initially rumored to be the franchise’s swan song, both McQuarrie and Cruise have made statements indicating they don’t wish to see the series end anytime soon. This comes as excellent news — on a filmmaking level, McQuarrie has hit his and the series’ stride, building upon what’s come before without having to feel beholden to it, allowing each successive installment to take new leaps (literally and figuratively). On a thematic level, the franchise isn’t so much about Ethan as a character, his teammates, nor one cohesive storyline, but rather a continual exploration of the value of loyalty, camaraderie and truth in an increasingly divisive and obfuscated world. 

There may not be strict continuity between each film, but those themes do give the Mission: Impossible series a pretty decent North Star; Ethan Hunt alternates between put-upon Everyman and “the living manifestation of destiny,” as Alec Baldwin’s CIA director put it in Rogue Nation. Ethan attempts the impossible task of trying to save the world while holding governments and villains accountable for their actions, all while Cruise accomplishes the impossible by surviving incredibly dangerous stunts. It’s only fitting that the series itself pulls off the impossible, too — instead of succumbing to franchise fatigue and self-destructing in five seconds, it continues to endure.

Bill Bria is a writer, actor, songwriter, and comedian. "Sam & Bill Are Huge," his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill's acting credits include an episode of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and a featured part in Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” He lives in New York City, which hopefully will be the setting for a major motion picture someday.

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