This past Monday, I was sitting in my apartment with a nagging feeling picking at my brain. I knew that I had seen a film recently- I was considering writing something about it, but I could in no way remember what it was. It sat with me all day gnawing at me until the lights clicked on and I realized what I was thinking of: I had seen a special screening of Die Hard the previous Tuesday. At last! I finally lifted that burden off my shoulders, but it was all for naught as I thought that a review of Die Hard wouldn’t do most folks here much good since it is 20 years old. So I was forced to conclude my day on a disappointing note with nothing to add here, but oh well- at least Die Hard was good.
An hour later I remembered that I had gone to see Mission Impossible: Fallout just three days prior.
The Mission Impossible franchise is a perplexing one. It is a three billions dollar franchise, has seemingly gotten better with age with reviews getting higher with each new entry, and it features one of the most famous/infamous stars in Hollywood history. Then why can’t I remember a damn thing about these films?
In order to answer this question, I had to take on my own mission: I accepted the task of watching each of the previous five Mission Impossible films in order to refresh my memory, and to figure out what quality about these films can make them simultaneously so successful and so fleeting and forgettable. This message will not self-destruct in five seconds, though I wish Mission Impossible 2 would.
Mission: Impossible- The first film in the franchise is an adaptation of the television series from the 60’s and 70’s. Contrary to its positive, yet somewhat mixed reviews, it is the best entry of the entire series. Not only does it have some of the few actually memorable moments, (the silent break in at CIA headquarters still stands as possibly the best set pieces in the entire franchise) the reveal of the actual mole in the IMF is one of the most satisfying, and most importantly, the subsequent revelation that Ethan Hunt has been at least one step ahead for virtually the entire film is satisfying and character defining. That last bit is something that will be sorely missed as the series continues.
Mission: Impossible 2– This is by far the lowest point in the entire franchise. Though it is the highest grossing domestically before inflation is accounted for, it is the worst film of the lot by a wide margin. The first half hour plus of the film feels like a copy of a Pierce Brosnan James Bond film. Unfortunately, this cheesy section gives way to action scenes which have aged worse than a chain smoker left out in the sun too long. Thinking back to Die Hard, that film came out 12 years prior to this one, and it has not aged a day. Meanwhile, this film utilizes so much hyper-stylized action sequences with diving, double pistol shooting and slow motion- all of which were complete garbage. This film has aged well beyond the point of feeling quaint and has advanced to being completely embarrassing to the point where I nearly turned it off at multiple points. The only entertainment that can be derived from this film is staring at Tom Cruise’s teeth to see how they are misaligned every chance you get.
Arguably the greatest sin that this film commits, other than being an embarrassing waste of time, is that it sets the character of Ethan Hunt towards his ultimate fate of becoming Action Man. With just over 47 minutes remaining, Hunt fires a gun for the first time in the entire series, beginning his transformation into a generic one note action hero. But hey, at least Ving Rhames runs twice in this film, more than any other one- so that’s good.
Mission: Impossible 3- Coming out six years after the second film, this one essentially restarted the franchise and began a continuity/overarching storyline that continues into the sixth film. Being directed by J.J. Abrams, this one is obviously more entertaining and competent than the second film, but it is one of the worst ones for Hunt. It is the first film where he is consistently one step behind for basically all of the film, and it has the least amount of heist elements to it. Heck, one of the heist scenes happens completely off screen! The greatness that is Philip Seymour Hoffman provides one of the best antagonists in the series, up there with John Voight, but the narrative and threat of the film feels so small. The super-weapon is even made fun of, as the characters basically admit that it is a McGuffin at the end as they wink at each other and laugh at the audience…alright, so that last part isn’t real, but the McGuffin part sure is. Ethan Hunt continues his path to becoming generic action man, as his personality is stripped away. He has plenty of motivation for things, but he is starting to become so bland, and that arrogance and cockiness from the first film has evaporated.
Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol- The one made by Brad bird is one of top two or three of the series, as that cat knows how to make a good film- except for the antagonist. The European nuclear scientist turned hyper-terrorist somehow manages to be duller and lifeless than Ethan Hunt in this film, and is the worst antagonist in the series. There are plenty of fun action sequences in this one, but it is the first time where the films really start to run together. I knew that this title existed, but I could not remember a single aspect of it completely, and was mixing in parts from the next film when trying to remember it. The biggest highlight of the film is that it expands Simon Pegg’s growing role in the series after begin introduced in the third film. Additionally, Ethan
Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation- I completely forgot this film existed. When I learned that Fallout was the sixth in the series, I was shocked, as I could only recall four other films. With a gun to my head, I would never have been able to come up with the title to this film. This is the one which almost directly sets up the actions of Fallout, and is the first of the two most episodic films in the series. It is here we are introduced to Solomon Lane, the chief antagonist of this film and the next one, who while not the worst, is possibly the most annoying in the series. For some reason, the decision was made to have the actor whisper-talk for this character which was undoubtedly made to make him seem intimidating. Instead the opposite effect is reached as every scene the character speaks in is automatically made worse because of it. This film also introduces the Syndicate, a criminal organization (or titular rogue nation) which is a sort of evil counterpart to the IMF. Once again, Ethan Hunt is up against the wall for much of the film, but he does eventually get that one step ahead of everyone else and is able to show off why he is the best, or as he is called in this film, the human manifestation of destiny, which is one heck of a title.
Mission: Impossible Fallout- At last we arrive at the most recent film in the series, and one which I forgot about after three days. One thing we have not discussed in these short summaries of the films is that many of them follow a similar patter which involves either Hunt or the entire IMF being disavowed, disbanded, or otherwise made a pseudo-enemy of the state. This leads to Hunt and his team having to steal something, often for the bad guys who framed him before he can turn the tables on them. The only ones that deviate from this are the third one where he really has no clever plan and simply shoots his way out, and Fallout here which creates a time crunch for Hunt and his team for the finale. But once again, Hunt and his team have to work with the enemy to steal something at the midway point of the film before it goes wrong in some way. In this case, it involved him freeing Lane from the previous film, who is slightly less annoying.
Like each of the other films in the franchise not named Mission: Impossible 2, there are plenty of complex and well done action sequences, and Tom Cruise plays a large role in all of them. He may be a weirdo scientologist who has an affinity to jumping on furniture, but he deserves full credit when it comes to performing stunts- especially now that he is nearing 60. Aside from Cruise doing his own stunts, many of the action set pieces are very well designed and well-choreographed, which is also a staple for this franchise, save once again for the second film which should be thrown into a volcano. Sprinkle in some cool technology and you have yourself the complete formula for a Mission: Impossible film.
Whether he is hanging off a building, a plane or a helicopter, Tom Cruise’s stunt-work continues to stand out as one of the unquestioned highlights of this franchise.
Except for one thing: this film was remarkably un-clever. There are multiple points in this film which a heavily telegraphed moment will take place which naturally prompts the audience to prepare for the twist. As we all anxiously await the reveal of what is really going on, we are informed that there is no twist or double cross and that everything we think is going on is actually going on. No clever reveals, just everything playing out as predictably as possible.
Even that aspect, which is most definitely a detriment to the film, is not the worst aspect, which is something we have been alluding to over the course of this article. Ethan Hunt is a non-character. In the first film, he is the young point man for the team who has to grow up in the line of fire and use his skills and intelligence to get to the bottom of the plot against the IMF. He is arrogant, cock-sure and youthful while still being able to remain calm and collected when the time calls for it. That arrogance lingers around for the early portion of the second film as it masquerades as a Goldeneye rip-off, but it is washed away as soon as he pulls his gun out and becomes Action Man.
The Action Man version of Ethan Hunt is boring and lifeless. He has no real personality, and is pretty much a blank slate for almost all of the remaining series. Sure he has damsels in distress to rescue, but those don’t contribute much to him having a personality. Once again, part of what makes Die Hard one of the best action films ever made is that John McClain is dripping with personality and has memorable quotes to spare in his film. What is Ethan Hunt’s most memorable line? What is his big quote which defines his character? Whatever it is, it can’t touch this.
This lack of character form the protagonist is likely the main culprit as to what makes these films so mysteriously forgettable. They have everything that people covet with practical effects and big stars leading the way. In spite of these, it feels like the Mission: Impossible films come and go faster than any other big budget blockbusters running right now. It is not just John McClain that people enjoy, one of the biggest stars around right now is Robert Downey Jr. thanks to his performances as Iron Man in the MCU thanks in large part to the big personality of Tony Stark. The Rock is another huge name thanks to his uncanny ability to be charismatic in anything he does- almost. People gravitate to the memorable personality and character more than they do to the perfectly choreographed action sequence or stunt. Despite everything these films do well, their inability to stick around in the public eye is thanks to the fact that its biggest star cannot shine bright enough.