The remarkable endurance of Ethan Hunt
With yet another Mission Impossible film — this time, Mission: Impossible – Fallout — releasing tomorrow, we examine the evolution of this franchise, mostly in admiration
No film series -- with the exception of maybe James Bond -- seems capable of generating the sort of excitement that Mission: Impossible does. The first five films in the series, made by five different directors with their own distinct styles, managed to bring in novelty despite being built upon the same template. The pre-release hype invariably includes at least one anecdote about Tom Cruise's ‘heroic’ on-set experiences. And this time too, we have them by the dozen. Cruise, however, always seems to deliver on his promise.
Who would have known, 22 years ago, that his plan to adapt a popular TV series would amount to anything? But it has managed to endure, and how! The reason: Cruise and his undying commitment to entertain fans. Needless to say, he is, along with Marvel Studios' Kevin Feige, one of the world's smartest and most disciplined producers. They both know how to bring people to theatres and they both have a keen eye for talent.
With just a day to go for the release of the sixth entry, Mission: Impossible - Fallout, can we just take a step back and figure out how it is that this series has managed the miracle of getting better with age?
Right from the beginning, Cruise's choice of directors has baffled some. Hiring Brian De Palma to direct the first instalment may have seemed an odd decision for some, but from Cruise's standpoint, it made perfect sense given the maverick director's ability to handle tense action (The Untouchables) and extract extraordinary performances from his actors (Scarface). Along with De Palma, Cruise conceived a subversive blockbuster that deviated considerably from the TV show; and, needless to say, this upset purists of the show.
The result was a sophisticated and expertly staged noir-ish spy thriller which evoked iconic cold war spy classics from the '60s and films of Alfred Hitchcock (whom De Palma revered). Though its focus was less on spectacle and more on storytelling, De Palma managed to craft two iconic set-pieces--the CIA headquarters heist and the bullet train finale--without skimping on the mood and suspense quotient.
Then came Part 2 four years later, directed by John Woo, a man whose strengths lie more in balletic gun-play and bombastic stunt sequences than in sophisticated storytelling. Gone was the tension and the clinical precision that characterised the first one, and in its place came something that is now remembered mostly for its heavily-stylised motorcycle chase sequence and Cruise's uber-cool wardrobe. It was the weakest film of the series, but its $500 million dollars gross worldwide meant Cruise knew exactly what he was doing. How many of us haven't pictured ourselves shooting a car and blowing it up in slow motion whilst pivoting a motorcycle on its front tyre?
The six-year gap between Part 2 and Part 3 led some to speculate that the series had come to an end, until the announcement came that JJ Abrams--known for his varied work in TV and his ability to juggle multiple genres--was making his feature film debut with Part 3. With its fresh narration--the decision to begin the film in medias res and introducing us to a side of Ethan Hunt we never saw before--it was undoubtedly a huge improvement over Part 2. We got to know that, unlike James Bond, Hunt is not a loner; he has a girlfriend and parties with his friends.
The new template created by Abrams took the series in a new, and welcome, direction. Abrams' inclusion (he is now a co-producer on the series) fixed a lot of the issues that plagued Part 2. As in Alias, the TV series he created, Abrams gave his female characters something to do instead of treating them as mere embellishments (one of the major flaws of Part 2). Also, the biggest plus of Part 3 was the casting of Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the antagonist. None of the bad guys in the other films managed to radiate the same level of palpable coldness and ruthlessness which Hoffman displayed. There was a dimension to him that set him apart from the other stock villains in the series and his presence more than made up for the lack of memorable action set-pieces. Though filming action is not exactly one of Abrams' strong suits, he possessed a knack for creating urgency through his kinetic camera work.
Bringing Brad Bird to tackle the fourth one turned out to be another splendid decision. The Pixar veteran brought back some of the elements that made the first one so good and also a much-needed dose of playfulness--a notable characteristic of much of his animation work. Like De Palma, Bird knew how to use silence to induce anxiety--the hair-raising Burj Khalifa sequence dwarfed every set-piece that came before it--and like Abrams, Bird included a strong female character who could kick ass. It's safe to say that Ghost Protocol took the series to new heights.
Given the high benchmark set by Bird, director Christopher McQuarrie, whose credits include The Usual Suspects (which he wrote) and two lacklustre action movies (one of them starring Cruise), had a massive challenge in front of him. But Rogue Nation defied everyone's expectations, and showed that McQuarrie was, in fact, the best man to spearhead this series. He had done his homework; he knew the series' strengths and its weaknesses. What we got to see in Rogue Nation was a compilation of all the things we loved about the previous entries, in addition to some fresh ideas. Like De Palma, McQuarrie turned to the classics for inspiration and brought back that old-school intrigue and charm to his version without forgetting to satiate the fans' hunger for pyrotechnics. Rogue Nation also did something audacious--it opened with the central set-piece.
However, the most incredible thing about the entire series is not its leading man or its death-defying stunts, but how it gets away with the same unimaginative plotting every single time without giving its fans much to complain about. The plots of all the films are quite similar. Something usually goes missing: it's either a dangerous weapon or a list of spies. It's always something that gets Cruise running... a lot. But despite all this, we still get a kick out of it because the makers always come up with something that gives us a huge adrenaline rush. Take, for example, the way masks are used. This little plot device offers numerous possibilities. If nothing else is available, you can always use it to surprise the viewers in the last minute. This re-modelling is something that other big budget franchises can't dream about. This, you could say, is really mission: impossible.