Mission Impossible – films that felt so familiar, but films it turns out, I hardly remembered them at all. I’ve watched the first three films in the series at least twice each, and yet I couldn’t recall with detail, the plot of any of them if you asked. I think it’s the genre elements which are easy to latch onto, but the specifics of theses films, not so much. For the first time in at least 8 years, I rewatched the first 3 films in the series. Thoughts and **spoilers** after the jump.
Mission: Impossible (Brian De Palma, 1996)
Cast: Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Béart, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jean Reno, Ving Rhames
Budget: US$80,000,000 Worldwide Box Office: US$457,696,359
Point in Tom Cruise’s career: Between Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994) and Jerry Maguire (1996)
It’s about: Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is an agent for ambiguous spy agency IMF. He is tasked with uncovering a mole within the organisation, who is trying to obtain a list of secret agents and their identities, to sell off for hundreds of millions of dollars.
What works: The atmosphere. It’s tense, thrilling and exhilarating. Kristin Scott Thomas following a target through the misty, dark streets of Prague is a highlight of the film. The film also introduces the franchise’s two trademarks – the mask and Cruise hanging from a wire at a height. There’s also the infamous tank exploding in the restaurant scene. The final action sequence involving the Euro tunnel train and a helicopter is quite spectacular.
What doesn’t: The camera work. I never noticed this the first time I saw it, but the cinematography in this film is all over the show. There’s an extended sequence where Ethan Hun and IMF director Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny) are speaking to each other and the camera swaps between an angle showing the underside of Czerny’s chin and Cruise’s face on a 45°. It’s horribly distracting. Cruise isn’t at his best in this film, completely overacting for large portions. Ving Rhames is by far the best performer – I’m glad that out of all the actors, he’s the one that comes back.
Mission: Impossible II (John Woo, 2000)
Cast: Tom Cruise, Dougray Scott, Thandie Newton Thomas, Ving Rhames, Richard Roxburgh, John Polson, Brendan Gleeson
Budget: US$125, 000,000 Worldwide Box Office: US$546,388,105
Point in Tom Cruise’s career: Between Magnolia (1999) and Vanilla Sky (2001)
It’s about: It starts with a sequence establishing that Ethan Hunt can climb without any tools or equipment. This super-skill becomes important later on when he breaks into a top-secret laboratory (through the roof, of course) to destroy the deadly virus Chimera, that has been created by a greedy pharmaceutical company that hoped to profit from selling the vaccine. Oh, it’s also largely set in Sydney, Australia. We know this because of the establishing shots of the Bridge, the Opera House, Kangaroos jumping through the outback and an Australian character whose first words are “G’day Mate”.
What works: There’s a pretty awesome motorcycle chase sequence, some pesky doves…..Oh! Oh, there’s also this really awesome 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque shot of Cruise in a lab suit, attempting to destroy the virus, lights reflected in the glass helmet. It’s pretty great.
What doesn’t: Pretty much everything. The only reason a third film was made was because this made over half a billion dollars. HALF A BILLION DOLLARS!! Oh, this film is awful. The female characters are not this franchise’s strong point, but Thandie Newtown’s is the worst. She’s there to be sexy bait and then she’s there to be the weak woman who the hero rescues. It’s pathetic. This film wastes the immense talents of Brendan Gleeson, who I didn’t even know was in the film until I rewatched it. There’s also some pretty shoddy camera work, laughable dialogue and weak-ass supporting characters. Cruise is coming off arguably his greatest film role in Magnolia* and then he makes this???? Unfathomable.
For all that this film is terrible, it’s actually really fun to watch. Is this an example of so bad it’s good? I’m not sure, but the doves are amazing.
(Thanks to @zombivish for finding this truly righteous GIF)
Mission: Impossible III (J.J. Abrams, 2006)
Cast: Tom Cruise, Michelle Monaghan, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laurence Fishburne, Keri Russell
Budget: US$150,000,000 Box Office: $US$397,850,012
Point in Tom Cruise’s career: Between War of the Worlds (2005) and Lions for Lambs (2007)
It’s about: Hey, Ethan Hunt has to break into another building through a roof to stop a thing from happening! He’s also married now, so he’s all loved up and now he has a weakness that can be exploited, because we all know how these films like their chick bait. Also, there’s another mole,a double crosser…but who?
What works: Snarky plot summary aside, this film is actually very solid. It has the strongest plot but far and the best supporting cast, lead by the hilarious Simon Pegg and the devious Philip Seymour Hoffman. Abrams knows how to shoot action, and the sequences in this film up the stakes significantly. I thought the sequence on the freakishly long Chesapeake Bay Bridge–Tunnel was particularly well done. The break in to the Vatican is reminiscent of heist films such as Ocean’s Eleven; but I’d argue that this has even more pizzazz. My favourite part of this film is that it actually explains how those darn masks are made! Not knowing really peeved me off in the second film.
What doesn’t: Michelle Monaghan has a significantly better part that poor ole Thandie Newton in the previous film, but she’s still little more that glorified bait for our hero. She does get one cool shoot-out sequence, but other than that it’s all “rescue me, help me, what’s going on Ethan”. The end of this film is a little too sickly for my tastes.
This film took US150 million less than the inferior second installment. It’s still big box office, but considering its budget and box office of the previous films, this one didn’t do particularly well. In comparison, the franchise’s 4th installment Ghost Protocol, cost US$5 million less than Mission Impossible III, but made US$300 million more.
The first three Mission Impossible films have taken around US$1.4 Billion, which compares very favourably to the first three Bourne films, which took in around US$940,000,000. Casino Royale was released the same year as Mission Impossible III, and it took in just over US$600,000,000.
Why did I remember these films so fondly? It’s clear after watching them that they are not particularly great films. The 2nd one is downright terrible, while the 3rd installment (the strongest) is good, but not excellent. I think it comes down to the franchise’s signature moves and Cruise. The films all have: an interesting mission delivery, the kick-ass theme song, Cruise breaking in through the roof, Cruise smashing through glass, the masks, double-crossing and excellent chase sequences. Cruise may be short on stature, but he is big on charisma. An unlikely action hero, but one nonetheless. These films have issues but they’re fun – even the 2nd one, which I enjoyed watching for all of the wrong reasons. I look forward to seeing him hang off a plane in the 5th installment, out later this year.
*I would argue Cruise’s greatest role is not Magnolia, but Eyes Wide Shut, which was also released in 1999.
By Sam McCosh