The ‘Mission: Impossible Trilogy’ Gives Viewers a Mercenary Kick

In the time between the debut of the first Mission: Impossible movie in 1996 and the upcoming release of the fourth film, franchise movies have become even more important to the Hollywood film economy. Yet the Mission: Impossible series itself remains somewhat old-fashioned, at least within the blockbuster realm. While many newer series stress continuity of actors and directors, with filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Sam Raimi enticed to stick around for trilogies to be completed within six or seven years, every Mission so far has sported a different director and supporting cast, seemingly by design, and the movies come together gradually, appearing every four or five years.

This may be attributed more to Tom Cruise’s behind-the-scenes power as star and producer than to adventurousness in filmmaking. But Cruise himself does have something of an adventurous spirit; in the past 15 years, he’s only occasionally worked with journeyman directors, more often seeking out distinctive filmmakers from Spielberg to Kubrick to Paul Thomas Anderson. As such, even his series of popcorn thrillers have well-selected directorial choices, at least in theory. The new Mission: Impossible “Extreme Trilogy” Blu-Ray boxed set provides ample evidence.

The series began with Cruise recruiting Brian De Palma for one of his work-for-hire gigs. Given Cruise’s oversight and its summer-movie status, the first Mission: Impossible doesn’t spring headlong into De Palma’s trademark obsessions with voyeurism, illicit sex, grotesque violence, and other movies — yet it has touches of all of them save the sex, and plenty of his style and panache. In other words, POV, tilted, and/or low-angle shots abound. As with The Untouchables, he does strong work on a big studio TV-to-film translation, though of course the film owes as much to Hitchcock and sixties heist movies as it does to series television (and one of the strangest aspects of watching the film in 2011 is how cutting-edge 1996 technology now seems almost retro-cool itself).

The movie’s knotty story has a reputation for being impenetrable, with its various double agents and all that talk of moles and NOC lists, but it’s trickier to explain than to follow. Actually, the explanation isn’t so, ah, impossible, either: Cruise’s Agent Ethan Hunt is framed as a mole within the Impossible Missions Force, and works to clear his name by finding the real culprit. There are more details, but more important are the break-ins, tense phonecalls, double-crosses, and that famous bit where a helicopter chases a train into the Chunnel.

Through all of its intrigue, Mission: Impossible remains the least emotional of the three movies — there’s token mention of Hunt’s farm-bound parents, placing them in offscreen danger, but no real love interest and only the barest of friendships — and its lack of concern for likability proves one of its strongest assets. It’s sleek, efficient, and a lot of fun.

The next two movies, to some extent, would be spent trying to give Ethan Hunt a romantic, human soul. Rather than re-focusing on Hunt’s IMF team (one weakness of the betrayal-heavy original), Cruise and director John Woo conspired to make Mission: Impossible II even more Hunt-centric. The set-up is promising enough: to stop the release of a deadly virus, Hunt’s team must send the beautiful thief Nyah (Thandie Newton) to spy on her maniacal ex-lover Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott). In a riff on Notorious, Hunt falls for Nyah before the mission begins, and after approximately 30 hours of courtship, the couple spends the rest of the movie in what is supposed to be tortured passion, but actually comes across as whiny and a bit hostile.

The real problem, though, is the way Woo overheats a spy plot with his own stylization. While De Palma’s tics make the first movie seem hip and retro, Woo’s movie now feels dated — not to any particular year in the nineties or aughts, but to a general aesthetic of cheesy bombast. Stylistically, Woo isn’t miles apart from his excellent Face/Off, but his preference for shoot-outs and vehicle chases turns Mission: Impossible II into the kind of generic “spy” movie where hardly anyone does much spying: at the 30-minute mark, a full IMF team has yet to be assembled, and by the 50-minute mark, there’s been only a smattering of unexciting espionage. At every turn, Woo rushes through the spying to get to the protracted fireworks and emotional stuff; the movie reconfigures James Bond tropes into opera, which turns out to be a ridiculous idea.

It is, admittedly, also pure Woo, with a stilted speech about heroism and the obligatory birds flying through the climactic action sequences. Few of the Mission: Impossible auteurs do their very best work for the series, but they all do signature work. In fact, this film marks the exact moment when Woo’s signature started to lose its appeal. The franchise, with its unmemorable characters and chilly missions, turns out to be a tricky one to step in and master: while the first movie strips De Palma’s style down to its elemental (if less idiosyncratic) pleasures, the sequel reveals the potential emptiness of Woo’s techniques — slow-motion, sincerity, and gun battles can’t just conjure emotional or even visceral involvement from nothing. Mission: Impossible II has a whole lot of nothing to go around.

Moreso than the spectacle of John Woo going through the motions, the movie is most interesting as a fleeting (and under-developed) mediation on Cruise’s hotshot persona “you’re not just a pretty face after all,” Nyah tells him early on, while Ambrose openly despises Hunt, noting that when disguised as him in one of the series’ patented fake-out masks, the hardest part was “grinning like an idiot every fifteen minutes.” Ambrose also presides over a neat twist where the villain disdainfully narrates the impossible details of the good-guy team’s mission. But Woo seems a little disdainful, too, treating a potentially cool break-in more as a lead-in to operatic action, rather than the elegant set pieces of the first film.

Mission: Impossible III attempts to correct the lack of teamwork in its predecessor while still trying to develop the cipher-ish Ethan Hunt. Director J.J. Abrams, then making his first feature after years in television, shows his TV roots, but in a practical, productive way: his movie is the first to portray IMF work as something resembling a job, with a real team backing Hunt, a hierarchy of agency bosses, even a headquarters with debriefing (Anthony Hopkins plays Hunt’s handler in the second movie, and all of their conversations seem to take place in expensive European bed-and-breakfasts). Even as the movie stays with Hunt, its world expands.

That world is sometimes overcharged with intensity: the first 30 minutes places Ethan’s girlfriend and protégé both in grave danger, with plenty (probably too much) of Cruise’s emoting working to convince us that Ethan Hunt may be an international superspy, but he’s a person with feelings, too. But those feelings have no real point of view or personality, which makes the movie’s surprisingly intimate climax feel a little phony — as opposed to an elaborate mid-movie Vatican break-in, which lands more on the delightfully preposterous end of things. Abrams would go on to get more out of his ensemble-team sensibility in Star Trek and Super 8, with a greater sense of comedy that he mutes for Cruise, but he takes good care of the series.

Watching the movies together, De Palma’s sly elegance gets a boost, Woo’s feels all the worse, and Abrams comes off more or less as it did in 2006: an entertaining high-tech thriller with a good cast. As a package, the boxed set is just that; it just collects great-looking but previously released Blu-Ray editions of the films, and not always even the most tricked-out versions. Mission: Impossible III, for example, had deleted scenes and making-of materials on previous DVD and Blu-Ray editions, but here only includes an Abrams/Cruise commentary track. Mission: Remarkable, a compilation of behind-the-scenes materials on all three movies and the tiniest nods toward the TV series, spends three-quarters of its time on the first movie, noting that the script was rewritten on-set, a surprise given how much cleaner and more streamlined it feels than the other two films. As with the films, the extras generally tend to focus more on Cruise, like the clips package that accompanied his MTV Generation Award, reproduced on the Mission: Impossible II disc.

In other words, this isn’t much like the Alien Quadrilogy box set, the other big-budget franchise notable for its revolving-auteur sensibility. That makes sense; the Mission: Impossible movies are more workmanlike than the gooey, tense, sometimes harrowing Alien pictures. They deal less with human fears and nightmares and more with the inhuman charm and athleticism of a massive movie star. Mission: Impossible has become Cruise’s signature franchise, and he runs through it like a pro, but the movies have the distinct (and in De Palma and Abrams’s hands, not unenjoyable) feel of professional obligation, the movie-star work that allows Cruise to tackle the ambitions of Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia, Vanilla Sky, or Minority Report without worrying about losing his Cruise-osity. Too many one-for-them projects can make a movie star seem lazy (see: Will Smith; take heed: Robert Downey, Jr.). But used sparingly, that thrill-machine efficiency gives the Mission: Impossible movies a mercenary kick.

RATING 6 / 10