In today’s franchise-driven world, it makes sense for any actor with a box office draw to have a couple of franchises to their name. Think about it: Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert Downey Jr., Channing Tatum. All actors with a couple of franchises waiting for them. And it’s been that way for decades, where a top action star would have at least one franchise that was theirs. With Tom Cruise’s ascent in the 1980s, it would make sense for him to have a franchise as well.
Except he didn’t have one.
That all changed in 1996 with the introduction of the ‘Mission: Impossible’ series. Loosely adapted from the long-running hit TV series of the same name, the film series has served for two decades now as Cruise’s go-to series for fulfilling his action needs. There’s a joke that’s more popular than ever these days about Adam Sandler taking on films that boil down to exotic vacations for his friends and himself. Consider the ‘Mission: Impossible’ series to be Cruise’s version of that, where Cruise and his collaborators for the entry get to come up with crazy stunts Cruise can execute himself. And the films come out much better. Mostly.
With the series releasing its fifth film, Rogue Nation, two decades after the first film’s release, we’re taking a look back at the impossible missions of Tom Cruise and his alter ego, Ethan Hunt. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to read and let us know your take on the series.
5. Mission: Impossible 2
The best and worst thing about the original Mission: Impossible is that it didn’t set a tone for the series to naturally follow. It’s great, because it’s allowed the series to withstand lengthy gaps between entries and make room for new creative teams to come on board for each film. It’s horrible, because it opened the door for the only entry in the series that’s truly bad. Mission: Impossible 2 ramped up the action, but under the direction of John Woo, it’s surprisingly dull. If that weren’t bad enough, though, the film is shockingly misogynistic and racist when it comes to Thandie Newton’s character, Nyah. When Hunt suggests sending Nyah, a civilian, back into a relationship with her highly suspicious terrorist ex, his superior replies, “What? To go to bed with a man and lie to him? She’s a woman. She’s got all the training she needs.” And later on, she’s referred to as a monkey. Yikes.
4. Mission: Impossible 3
There’s a parallel between Ethan Hunt’s life in Mission: Impossible 3 and Tom Cruise’s life during its filming and release. In both instances, they were starting families and trying to prove they were ready to be family men. Keeping that in mind, Cruise made the right choice by bringing in J.J. Abrams for his film directing debut. At the time, Abrams was most well-known for his television work on Alias, and fans of the series will note the similarities between that series (particularly parts of its pilot) and the setup for Mission: Impossible 3. There’s the in medias res opening, the duplicity within the protagonist’s organization, and the attempt to hide an identity from a loved one. What makes Mission: Impossible 3 stand out from other entries in the series is that it attempts to give Hunt some depth. Plus, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance takes Owen Davian, who’s rather bland on paper, and makes him chillingly indifferent. It’s a brilliant move, and remains the series’ best villain creation to date.
3. Mission: Impossible
In retrospect, it’s strange to think about Tom Cruise choosing an ensemble-based property to serve as his own franchise, and to bring in a director known for bringing a voyeuristic sensibility to his eclectic filmography. As it turns out, though, choosing Mission: Impossible and director Brian De Palma were both excellent choices. While the film introduced the series to its now-standard big action set pieces, it’s odd seeing how small-scale the climactic sequence of a train being chased through a tunnel by a helicopter seems now. More than the rest of the series, Mission: Impossible relies on double crosses and a larger sense of mystery. There’s more of an emphasis on the spy elements of the franchise here than in the rest of the series. And it’s worth remembering: there are no gunfights or shootouts in this series. Considering how much they’d come into play in future films, it’s surprisingly refreshing.
2. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
It took 15 years for the ‘Mission: Impossible’ series to finally have something worthy of its first entry, and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol did it by finally creating a template for an ongoing series. While Hunt was flanked by teams in previous films, Ghost Protocol makes them more distinguishable by bringing back Simon Pegg from 3, then slowly introducing the other members instead of introducing them all at once. It also shifts Ethan Hunt away from the idea that he can save the world by himself; he clearly needs his teammates here. Brad Bird’s love of spy films, as seen in the animated The Incredibles, is on full display here. The gadgetry introduced in this film is more creative than we’ve seen in previous entries, including the gloves Hunt uses to climb the Burj Khalifa. And with the series reaching new heights 15 years after its beginning, Ghost Protocol paved the way for more exciting entries.
1. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
That includes the newest entry. Rogue Nation takes the Ghost Protocol template, adds in an exciting co-lead for Cruise, and creates a more intriguing villain than its predecessor. There’s now a template for this series firmly in place, and by making the series more than just the Tom Cruise Show, it opens the series up for greater impact. Additionally, unlike the previous entries in the series, there’s a clearly-defined link between this film and the previous entry in the series. Nearly two decades after Mission: Impossible gave Tom Cruise his own franchise, Rogue Nation gives him room to continue entertaining by performing crazy stunt work for as long as he wants.