Beginning as a slightly blasphemous upheaval of its original source material and a relatively unrelated sequel, the 22-year-old Mission: Impossible film franchise eventually found its salvation in becoming what it was supposed to be originally: a modern, big budget adaptation of a classic TV series that emphasized teamwork and clever spy-jinks. Still, now that all of these films are being released on 4K Ultra HD disc for the first time, it’s a good time to take a comprehensive look back and not only see the various patterns that these films have in common but also the ways in which they typified other Hollywood films released during the same time.
The Mission: Impossible film started as one of those summer blockbusters that Hollywood became famous for after the runaway success of Batman in 1989: take a beloved pop culture property, “update” it for “modern” audiences, spend a lot of money on A-list actors, and pack it full of action and explosions. It’s hard to criticize this recipe because it informs so much of our current entertainment landscape. But by the time the mid-’90s came around, Hollywood had made so many ill-advised adaptions, particularly those of classic TV series, that the news that Tom Cruise was set to star in an update of what was arguably the coolest spy show of the late ’60s to early ’70s was met with doubt and derision.
The resulting movie, Mission: Impossible (Brian De Palma, 1996), managed to massively fail on the crucial task of honoring its inspiration (by insulting the reputation of one of the show’s main characters and having little to do with the series’ overall theme of teamwork). It did succeed, however, in being prime popcorn fun. It went on to influence countless parodies and outright copycats and accomplished the main function of a summer tent-pole by leaving the door open for many sequels.
Whether or not you like the initial Mission: Impossible movie all these years later mostly depends on your age and reverence for the TV series. Though it tries to pay homage to the original concept by introducing Ethan Hunt as just another member of a rookie IMF team being instructed by Jim Phelps (here played by Jon Voight instead of Peter Graves). By giving the team a similarly subtle-type of mission filled with disguises and fanciful gadgets, the movie eventually turns into just another star vehicle for Cruise, as all of the other team members are either killed or pushed into the background. Co-star Emmanuelle Beart has the misguided role of Phelps’ laughably young wife, who has no chemistry and little interaction with her supposed spouse, with the potential complications of two married agents working together in the field never mentioned. It’s implied in several scenes that she and Hunt are attracted to each other, but even this is never fully explored.
Still, it was the big reveal that Phelps is a traitorous villain that understandably ticked off fans of the original. (Series regulars Peter Graves and Martin Landau refused roles in the film, while Greg Morris walked out of the premiere screening because of this.) However, this didn’t phase younger moviegoers who mostly just saw Mission: Impossible as yet another action flick, albeit one with a familiar theme song. And despite the scenes that root the movie in ’90s-era technology: featuring massive computer monitors while CD-R discs and e-mail are treated as the height of innovation, the movie in and of itself still plays surprisingly well today. Mission: Impossible finds its footing by introducing stronger characters in its second half (secondary villains Max (Vanessa Redgrave) and Kreiger (Jean Reno), formerly disgraced IMF agent Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and by embracing its implausible yet iconic stunts, including the hanging on wires above a heat-sensitive computer room scene and the hanging/running on top of a speeding train sequence.
Four years later came Mission: Impossible 2 (John Woo, 2000), a popular yet critically disappointing sequel. Directed by John Woo, the film is more influenced by martial arts movies than the original series, with the entire affair being one dramatic slow-motion attempt at making its stars look cool after another. Ironically, it’s these flourishes of style that date the movie more than any other in the franchise, with huge cell phones that look like universal remote controls, the female lead’s wardrobe of baby-doll tees, a major car chase that was later copied in the music video for NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye”, and every fight sequence deploying the same gravity-defying, camera-pausing nonsense as those found in The Matrix.
The plot is highly unoriginal, with the primary focus being Hunt’s romantic relationship with Nyah (Thandie Newton), a professional thief who is recruited by the IMF to infiltrate her ex-boyfriend (Dougray Scott)’s plot to profit off of a new lethal virus and its antidote. The best parts of the movie are the few team-based scenes, such as when the IMF cons a drug company CEO (Brendan Gleeson) into believing that he has been dosed and is in a hospital near death, or any scene involving the franchise’s infamous CGI-assisted face masks. However, too much screen time is given to either scenery-building (such as when Hunt attends a high-society party in Spain) or action sequences that have relatively nothing to do with spy-work, (such as the especially ridiculous motorcycle chase or pointless cliff climbing opening). In short, it serves as a template of what most action movies were up to in the early ’00s, as this was the decade of such over-the-top movie adaptations as the Pierce Brosnan-era James Bonds, Charlie’s Angels, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
So it’s surprising that 2006’s Mission: Impossible 3 ( J.J. Abrams, 2006) largely avoids all of those clichés and virtually reboots the concept, giving us what we really wanted, a modern spy movie starring the Impossible Missions Force. Hunt’s team is comprised of not one but two tech experts (Jonathan Rhys Meyers as the serious one, and Simon Pegg in a cameo appearance as the nervous yet dedicated comedic relief), a female agent (Maggie Q) who is refreshingly written as a fully developed character and not as a romantic foil, and returning favorite Luther Stickell as the driver.
Their mission initially involves the rescue of an IMF trainee (Keri Russell), but turns into the evasion and punishment of a vengeful arms dealer (expertly played with a sense of unnerving calm by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Fanciful sequences, such as when the team crashes a party at the Vatican or when Ethan parachutes through downtown Shanghai, serve as prime popcorn fun but are still subtly true to the spirit of the original series’ spy-jinks. Even the oft-tread romantic subplot of Hunt’s trouble with keeping his work a secret from his new wife (Michelle Monaghan) isn’t too overbearing here and comes to a feasible resolution. It’s interesting to note that several months after this movie debuted, the first Daniel Craig led James Bond entry, Casino Royale hit theaters. Noted for its stylistic callbacks to the original ’60s films and its newfound sense of realism in what had devolved into total escapist fantasy for the past two decades, it’s easy to see that a new trend was starting to emerge in these type of films.
Continuing this pattern, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011) shows commitment to the spirit of the original series by giving each team member their own significant subplot. Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn works his first mission as a field agent. Jeremy Renner’s William Brandt is a nitpicking government analyst who reveals himself to be a former agent riddled with guilt over a past mission. But Paula Patton’s Jane Carter, (reminiscent of Barbara Bain’s Cinnamon Carter in the series), even gets a meatier subplot than that of the supposed star of the movie: after witnessing the murder of her boyfriend/fellow agent (Josh Lucas), she is forced to withhold her revenge plans for the sake of the mission.
Her nemesis, a heartless, diamond-collecting assassin (Lea Seydoux), is also more interesting than the film’s main villain (Michael Nyqvist), who sets about a rather confusing plan to start a nuclear war in order to prevent future nuclear wars. Nevertheless, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is still the ever-present leader of the team, and his action sequences, such as the Dean Martin-soundtracked prison breakout and the suction-glove scaling of the glass-paneled Burj Khalifa building are fun plot distractions.
It’s also interesting to note that the inclusion of more humor (particularly in the many scenes that feature a malfunctioning gadget) not only sets Ghost Protocol apart from the relative seriousness of the other “Missions”, but also shows us another new trend that had emerged in action/spy movies at the time, as comedic spy films like Johnny English Reborn, The A-Team, Spy, and even the Tom Cruise-led Knight and Day were all released during this half of the decade.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie, 2015), also has its own sense of humor (particularly during the car chase towards the end of the movie, in which it’s effectively used to help keep an especially long action sequence from getting too monotonous), but it better serves as an example of Hollywood’s current sense of nostalgia. Recent spy films like Kingsmen: The Secret Service, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Spectre are either obviously set in a past decade or take many of their stylistic cues from classic spy movies, and this makes Rogue Nation the best movie in the franchise. From its mission briefing in a brick and mortar vinyl record store to the ending, in which the captured villain is admonished to, “Meet the IMF team”, a sense of admiration for the original series is present.
The plot involves the team (Hunt, Stickell, Benji, and Brandt) wondering whether or not they should trust an MI6 operative with questionable motives (Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust), as the US government yet again disavows the IMF and treats its members as enemies of the state. Despite this all-too-frequent plot point, the movie still features a compelling villain and classic storyline, as former MI6 agent Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) coolly yet viciously leads the Syndicate, a secret criminal organization bent on world domination. Described as both “one of the best action movies of 2015” and as one of the best movies of that year, period, it just narrowly edges out Ghost Protocol for the title of the best movie in the franchise.
All five Mission: Impossible movies have now been released on separate 4K Ultra HD discs for the first time, with the movie and its bonus features included on an enclosed Blu-Ray disc as well. (Mission: Impossible 3 through Rogue Nation split their bonus features onto a third Blu-Ray disc.) The 4K brightens low-light situations, which makes city lights at night look especially dazzling. (For maximum effect, look for the skyscraper with purple neon lights in Mission: Impossible 3.) You can also see a higher level of detail in the actors’ faces (In the first movie, for example, there’s a scene where it is obvious that some lipstick was smudged and another in which it is mistakenly left off of part of a bottom lip), but chances are, if you’ve already seen the movies on Blu-Ray or on DVD on an HD TV, you won’t notice much of a difference. The bonus features are identical to those found on previous releases, with the exception of Rogue Nation, which has nearly an hour’s worth of bonus behind-the-scenes-based featurettes on its third disc.
Considering their similarities and differences, there’s something very apropos about these movies being released separately on the same day: it’s up to the viewer to “choose your own adventure” in a way, being able to select what reality you want to believe the IMF belongs in. Is Mission: Impossible just a series of outlandish action scenes loosely threaded together by an espionage-themed plot? Or is it an homage to a classic TV series, in which a group of unlikely yet talented friends frequently band together to secretly save the world? Should spy movies be serious or silly? Is the purpose of a remake to turn something classic into something cool, or is it to honor something iconic? It’s your mission, should you choose to accept it.