Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible was released in 1996, when sequels were not guaranteed and when turning a classic TV show into a movie still seemed like questionable gambit. Tom Cruise used the movie, his first as a producer, to build the first stage of the strategy that would keep him on top of his game even as the industry shifted around him.
The strategy worked. 22 years later we’re about to see the sixth Mission: Impossible movie, and Cruise is among the few remaining legitimate movie stars. The franchise has featured a wide variety of impressive co-stars for Cruise, and several top-tier directors, while introducing major new talents such as Rebecca Ferguson and expanding the careers of co-stars such as Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg.
Before we gasp at the stunts and action in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, opening July 27, let’s look back at the series.
Cruise plays Ethan Hunt, a member of the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) who is framed for the murder of other IMF agents and accused of being a mole and of selling a list of agent identities to a notorious and secretive criminal. In reality, Jim Phelps, played by Jon Voight, is the murderer and the mole. (Phelps was a main character in the original TV series, too, played by Peter Graves.) Hunt connects with the criminal (played by Vanessa Redgrave, in a brilliant casting coup), and steals the real agent list from the CIA in a showstopping sequence where Cruise hangs on wires. The action culminates in an explosive collision between a train and helicopter, killing Phelps. Ethan Hunt is offered a new mission.
All the key aspects of the series are here: the theme of betrayal within the Impossible Mission Force, and the use of high tech, masks, and shifting identities to combat it. This movie also established a benchmark for top-notch effects and intense stunt work from Cruise. Mission: Impossible looks great even today, aside from some very mid-‘90s tech and computer interfaces which date the otherwise timeless action.
Mission: Impossible 2
The series set a standard by hiring celebrated Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo to direct this sequel, released in 2000. Ethan Hunt has to find a bioweapon, a virus called Chimera, and its antidote, which were stolen by rogue IMF agent Sean Ambrose, played by Dougray Scott. Hunt recruits a thief named Nyah (Thandie Newton), who turns out to be Ambrose’s former girlfriend. The plot is dense but ultimately comes down to a showdown between Hunt and Ambrose while Nyah is infected with the virus.
Ving Rhames returns here as Luther Stickell, establishing a continuum that would eventually help define the Mission movies. While James Bond films feature a recurring set of supporting players, few are woven into the action in the manner of the Mission: Impossible team. That said, this sequel is the most dated of the Mission movies, and arguably the one that struggles the most. The impressive action setpieces and Cruise’s flowing locks do earn this chapter some devoted defenders, however. (This film may be most infamous for going over schedule, forcing Dougray Scott to drop out of the original X-Men movie. His replacement in that film? Hugh Jackman.)
Mission: Impossible III
Now things get interesting. Ethan Hunt has retired from field work. He plans to marry Julia, a nurse played by Michelle Monaghan, who doesn’t know the truth about her fiancé’s job. Hunt goes back into action to rescue a protege (Keri Russell), then develops a grudge when she’s killed by Owen Davian, the black-market arms dealer she was tracking. Davian (played with great gusto by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) goes after Julia, and as the plot brings Hunt and Davian together, the real tension is about Julia learning the truth about the life of her soon-to-be husband.
This film brings back Luther (hooray) and introduces Simon Pegg as tech expert Benji (hooray). It’s also the first big-screen directorial effort from J.J. Abrams, who was already a star on television thanks to Felicity, Alias, and Lost. With Felicity star Keri Russell on hand, and a visual style and plot that seemed like a big-screen continuation of Alias, this could be the most TV-ready Mission movie. But the ruthless monster played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman elevates it into the stratosphere.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
In pursuit of a figure known as Cobalt, Ethan and Benji are in Moscow when a bomb – apparently their bomb – blows up part of the Kremlin. Hunt and his team are disavowed, but partnered with William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), supposedly an intelligence analyst, but really another IMF agent. They discover Cobalt wants to start a nuclear war between the US and Russia, and plot an elaborate heist in Dubai to gain the codes he needs to put his plan into action. Eventually one missile is launched, and Benji and Brandt race to stop it while Ethan fights Cobalt. And while Brandt believes he was responsible for Hunt’s wife Julia being killed, he learns that was a ruse to give her a new, safe identity and life.
This 2011 entry upped the ante in a huge way by creating one of the most eye-popping stunts in any action movie, period. Cruise dangled off the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, under the guidance of director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille), making his first live-action film. They shot in IMAX format to capture that scene and many others, including a sandstorm, on a scale that set the Mission films apart from anything else in theaters.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Hunt is after the Syndicate, an underground criminal organization. After being captured by the Syndicate, Hunt escapes with the help of Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), an MI6 operative undercover in the Syndicate. Meanwhile, the CIA director (Alec Baldwin) has the IMF disbanded and absorbed into the CIA, and Brandt feeds Ethan some info so he can escape arrest. The plot bounces around the world, with Hunt, and eventually Luther and Benji, trying to keep up with Faust and track down the Syndicate leader. That leader, a former MI6 officer named Lane (Sean Harris) is finally captured by Hunt, leading the CIA director to reinstate the IMF.
Rogue Nation brought writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (or “McQ” as Cruise calls him) into the fold. He had already written Cruise’s film Valkyrie in 2008 and Edge of Tomorrow in 2014, and he wrote and directed Jack Reacher, also with Cruise, in 2012. Which is to say that Cruise likes to work with the same people, and he and McQ seem to mesh perfectly.
And that brings us to Fallout, which McQuarrie writes and directs. It adds Henry Cavill and brings Rebecca Ferguson back into the action. Michelle Monaghan is back as Julia, and of course the characters of Luther and Benji return. At this point it doesn’t look like Brandt returns (maybe he’s hiding somewhere with Renner’s other character, Hawkeye?) but knowing how the Mission films work, a reveal of some sort will let us know about Brandt’s fate.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout opens on July 27.