Looking Back, Mission: Impossible

January 10th, 2023Looking Back, Mission: Impossible


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 a 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. More than a quarter of a century later, we’re about to see the seventh 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 – DEAD RECKONING PART ONE, opening July 14th, let’s look back at the series.


In Brian De Palma’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, Tom 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, the main character of the original TV series portrayed by Peter Graves, but played here by Jon Voight, is the murderer and the mole. Hunt connects with the criminal Max Mitsopolis (Vanessa Redgrave), and steals the real agent list from the CIA in a show-stopping sequence where Cruise hangs on wires. The action culminates in an explosive collision between a train and helicopter, killing Phelps, after which Hunt is offered a new mission – if he chooses to accept it.

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.


The series set a standard by hiring celebrated Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo to direct this sequel, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2, 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 (Thandiwe 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 on motorcycles and with Woo’s signature flying doves while Nyah is infected with the virus.

Ving Rhames returns here as Luther Stickell, establishing a continuum that would eventually help define the franchise. 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 series, and arguably the one that struggles the most. The impressive action set pieces – including the impressive opening climbing section – and Cruise’s flowing locks do earn this chapter some devoted defenders, however. This film may be most infamous for going over schedule, which apparently resulted in Dougray Scott dropping out of the original X-MEN movie. His replacement in that film? Hugh Jackman.


Now things get interesting. In MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III, 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 (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the black-market arms dealer she was tracking. After Ethan and his team take the “Rabbit’s Foot” device from Davian, the ruthless arms dealer goes after Julia, and gives the IMF team lead an ultimatum. As the plot brings Hunt and the maniacal villain together, the real tension turns to Julia learning the truth about the life of her soon-to-be husband.

This film brings back Luther and introduces Simon Pegg as tech expert Benjamin "Benji" Dunn, who would go on to become a franchise star. It’s also the first big-screen directorial effort from J.J. Abrams, who was already a star from 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: IMPOSSIBLE movie. But the ruthless monster played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman elevates it into the stratosphere.


In pursuit of a figure known as Cobalt, Ethan Hunt and Benji Dunn 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 United States 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.

Released in 2011, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOL 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, who was making his first live-action film after making animated hits like THE INCREDIBLES and RATATOUILLE. They shot in IMAX format to capture that scene and many others, including a sandstorm, on a scale that set the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE films apart from anything else in theaters.


In 2015’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION, Ethan 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, CIA Director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) has the IMF disbanded and absorbed into the CIA, and William 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 Solomon 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.


Set two years after Ethan Hunt and his team captured Solomon Lane and potentially thwarted disaster, what’s left of the Syndicate has consolidated into a group known as the Apostles. When a mysterious figure by the name of John Lark hires the group to put his “the greater the suffering, the greater the peace” manifesto into action by stealing three plutonium cores to destroy three holy cities, Hunt and his team find themselves in a race against time to save the world once again. Failure to stop the plan puts the IMF team on the radar of CIA Director Erika Sloane (Angela Bassett), who sends August Walker (Henry Cavill) to keep Hunt in line, which leads to some of the most eye-catching stunts and earth-shattering revelations.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT, which could be considered one of the best action movies of the 21st Century, doesn’t hold back with its scale, scope, or stunts, including the now-iconic HALO jump carried out by Cruise and Cavill over Paris. The 2018 movie also broke new ground in the sense that director Christopher McQuarrie returned to helm his second movie in the franchise.

And that brings us to DEAD RECKONING PART ONE, which Christopher McQuarrie writes and directs. It adds Hayley Atwell and others to the roster while also bringing back franchise staples like Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, and Rebecca Ferguson. The anticipated 2023 movie will also continue the trend of bringing back characters tied to Ethan Hunt’s past, including Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny), the former IMF director not seen since the original MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE more than a quarter-century ago. Expect to see all of those characters, and more, in action when MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – DEAD RECKONING PART ONE comes to your local AMC Theatre.


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