Like the Fast and the Furious series, Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible franchise is somehow defying the law of diminishing returns, actually getting better with age. It's proven to be something of a career life preserver for the once-bankable star, and Cruise returns the favor by risking life and limb for our entertainment (he's basically Jackie Chan at this point).
With the fifth entry, Rogue Nation, arriving this week (and currently flaunting a franchise-high 96% rating at Rotten Tomatoes), here's a refresher on the first four films to get you primed. If you want to watch them yourself, they've recently been bundled together in an affordable Blu-ray set, or you can stream them via the Amazon links provided below.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996). Stream it here.
The Story: When his team is murdered in pursuit of a secret list of worldwide CIA operatives, young spy Ethan Hunt (Cruise) assembles a new team to recover the list and bring the killers to justice. There's plenty of double-crosses, the bad guys are captured, and computer hacker Luther Stickwell (Ving Rhames) becomes Hunt's regular ally on the Impossible Missions Force (IMF).
What works? Brian de Palma's sense of misdirection and haunting mystery are marvelous. The layered, twisty narrative was originally labeled as "too complex", but time (and repeat viewings) have revealed a rewarding, brain-tickling experience. Danny Elfman's score is a excellent blend of original work and Lalo Schifrin's classic theme. In contrast to the later films, this is more of a whodunit with action overtones. The CIA headquarters break-in ranks among cinema's most entertaining heists.
What doesn't? [Spoilers] Television purists complain because the heroic character of Jim Phelps is the villain here. The bonkers finale atop a bullet train is certainly entertaining, but it feels like it belongs in a totally different movie. Also, what the heck was up with Ethan sleeping his mentor's wife after he found out said mentor was still alive? That subplot felt unnecessary.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2 (2000) Stream it here.
The Story: Ethan and Luther team up with a gorgeous cat burglar (Thandie Newton) and a forgettable Aussie to bring down an ex-IMF operative bent on releasing a deadly plague. The day is saved, the villain vanquished, and Ethan gets the girl.
What works? This movie gets a lot of hate, but I've got a soft-spot for it. The combination of wild action, charming Anthony Hopkins, and gorgeous Thandie Newton has forever endeared it to me. Thandie's not just eye candy; she plays a nicely-realized character here, fiery, courageous, intelligent, and vulnerable. Hanz Zimmer's score is dynamic, as are the songs by Metallica and (I am ashamed) Limp Bizkit. While many of the stunts are over-the-top, you can't deny the dare-devilry on display here (using a motorcycle as a bullet-shield is hardcore). Against popular opinon, I even like Dougray Scott's villain. Plus, M:I-2 gave us this bit of brilliance:
What doesn't? It's way too operatic, heavy on the melodrama, and the dialogue is beyond ridiculous ("We just rolled up a snowball and tossed it into hell!"). This is officially the moment when director John Woo's dove-obsession reached laughable overkill, as does the series' use of masks. While some of the fight choreography is impressive, other moments feel lifted from a bad Power Rangers episode. Also, M:I-2 is a little too in love with itself (easy on the slow-mo, Woo!) Cruise is trying too hard to be cool here, faring much better in later outings when he's more of a scrappy underdog.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III (2006) Stream it here.
The Story: Ethan Hunt is retiring, having fallen in love with a civilian named Julia (Michelle Monoghan) who doesn't know about his spy past. He's drawn back into the game when his protege (Keri Russell) is killed by a brutal arms dealer (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Benji (Simon Pegg) joins the team as tech support. Hunt gets married, the day is saved, he and his wife save each others' lives, and she's surprisingly cool about the whole secret life thing.
What works? My goodness, pretty much everything. It's a shame this was released during the height of the Cruise backlash, because it never got the love it deserved. Director JJ Abrams delivers: the pacing is frenetic, the romance works, and the action thrills while advancing both story and character. M:I-3 made the face masks cool again after M:I-2 overdid them. Cruise refreshingly gets to add layers of vulnerability, tenderness, and fear to his character. We get more of the old-school team dynamics here (John Rhys-Meyers and Maggie Q, you are missed). Best of all is Phillip Seymour Hoffman's unforgettable villain. He's the exception to the rule that complex villains are more interesting; it turns out that a simple bad buy can be terrifying if you've got the right actor saying the right dialogue.
What doesn't? One could justifiably argue that it borrows too heavily from Abram's own Alias pilot. The "Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall" line is eye-rollingly cheesy. That's about it. Honestly, this is such an underrated flick.
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL (2011) Stream it here.
The story: Ethan, now apparently a widower, joins forces with Benji (now a field agent) and two new players, Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Jane (Paula Patton). After being blamed for destroying the Kremlin, they go rogue to clear their names and to thwart a nuclear attack on San Francisco. They succeed in both objectives. When the team meets up with Luther in Seattle, Brandt confesses failing to save Hunt's wife from assassination. Hunt reveals that Julia is alive and well. Her death was faked to keep her safe, he explains. While he'll always love her, for her protection they can never be together. Brandt then officially joins the team.
What works? This was a critical and fan-favorite, and while I'm partial to M:I-3, I'm not immune to Ghost Protocol's charms. We have officially abandoned "The Ethan Hunt Show," moving to a true ensemble in the spirit of the television series. Everyone shines here. The cast chemistry is dynamite, the script crackles with humor, and Brad Bird's direction is beyond inventive. The practical stunts are superb, especially Cruise's now-legendary heroics on the world's tallest building in Dubai. Michael Giacchino provides a marvelous score, as he did on the third film.
What doesn't? I love happy marriages in movies, so I was disappointed that the creative team broke up Ethan and his wife. However, it serves a purpose in freeing up the character for future films, and I appreciate the bittersweet note of enduring love at the end. The film's main flaw is that the villain(s) are a bit of a letdown after Seymour-Hoffman's commanding performance in the previous movie. Also, Lost's Josh Holloway was cast, but hardly used. C'mon, give us the Sawyer!
COMING JULY 31- MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE- ROGUE NATION.
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