A few months ago I was so blown away by the ridiculous spectacle of the trailers for Furious 7 that I doubled back & watched all seven Fast & Furious movies for the first time ever just to see what it was all about. What I found was a franchise that I had rightly ignored as a teen for being a mindlessly excessive reflection of what has to be one of the trashiest eras of pop culture to date: that nasty little transition from the late 90s to the early 00s. Over the years, though, I’ve developed an affinity for mindless excess & hopelessly dated trash cinema, so 2015 proved to be the perfect time to watch the Fast & Furious movies from front to end. As expected, they started as a disconnected mess of car porn & Corona soaked machismo, but by the fifth film in the series, something intangible clicked & the movies suddenly pulled their shit together, forming a cohesive action universe built on the tenets of “family”, rapper-of-the-minute cameos, and hot, nasty speed.
I can’t say I was equally blown away by the trailers for the latest Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation, as I was by Furious 7‘s more over-the-top flourishes, but there was a similar feeling of being left out there. Rogue Nation was to be the fifth installment of a franchise that’s been around for nearly two decades. Despite the ubiquitousness of the image of Tom Cruise suspended from a ceiling in a white room in 1996, I couldn’t remember ever seeing a single scene from the Mission: Impossible films. The Rogue Nation ads suggested a similar trajectory for the franchise as the Fast & Furious films. It seemed like something along the way had finally clicked for the series, like it now had its own mythology & core philosophy, which is a feeling I’ve never gotten before from the outside looking in. My mission, should I choose to accept it (that’ll be the last time I make that awful joke, I promise) was to come to know & understand the series from the beginning, to figure out exactly what’s going on in its corny super spy mind, the same way I became part of Vin Diesel’s “family”. It turns out that the story of the Mission: Impossible series is the story of five wildly different directors adopting five wildly different plans of attack on a franchise that didn’t really come into its own until at least three films in. It’s also, to an even greater extent, the story of Tom Cruise’s fluctuating hair length.
Listed below, in chronological order, are all five feature films in the Mission: Impossible franchise as seen through my fresh, previously uninitiated eyes. Each entry is accompanied by brief re-caps of its faults & charms, but also has its own individual full-length review, which you can find by clicking on the links in the titles themselves. If you are also looking to get initiated into the Mission: Impossible world yourself, but wanted to skip the franchise’s classy-trashy beginnings, I highly recommend starting with the third installment & only doubling back to the first two films if your curiosity is piqued by the heights of the most recent three.
What I found at the beginning of the Mission: Impossible saga was unexpectedly classy. This was a retro action movie starring (a pre-Scientology-fueled couch-jumper) Tom Cruise when he still defined what it meant to be Movie Star Handsome. This was 1996, a beautifully naive stretch of the decade before we let rap rock ruin America. This was a dumb action movie with a classic score by Danny Freakin’ Elfman, for God’s sake. These days it’s difficult not to meet news of an old TV show getting a big screen adaptation with a pained groan, but back in its day Mission: Impossible was kind to its source material (despite fans of the original series grousing at its initial release), obviously holding immense respect for the era it came from, while still updating it with a certain amount of mid-90s badassery. Mission: Impossible is essentially a mere three ridiculous action sequences & some much less exciting connective tissue, but there’s plenty of camp value to be found at the very least in its super spy gadgetry. For instance, despite the obviously technically proficient world of international super spies detailed here, they’re all fighting over possession of a floppy disk, a very era-specific MacGuffin that really takes me back. Besides this goofery, there’s also a truly ludicrous scene where a helicopter chases a train into a tunnel, there’s a lot of mileage squeezed out of the high tech masks that allow characters to rip off their faces & become other people, and the infamous Tom Cruise hanging from the rafters sequence features a lot more puke than people typically mention. All of this and Ving Rhames. I cannot stress how much Ving Rhames’ mere presence brings to the table, camp wise.
In the director’s chair: Movie of the Month veteran Brian De Palma, who can be credited for elevating this film above the typical 90s action flick through his ludicrously excessive camera work & lack of visual restraint.
A note on Tom Cruise’s hair: Short, conservative, handsome. This may not seem important yet, but I swear it will be soon enough.
It turns out that the rap rock garbage fire I was expecting from the first film was actually alive & well in the the second installment of the series, Mission: Impossible 2. M:I-2 ditches the Brian De Palma sense of 60s chic for a laughably bad excess of X-treme 90s bad taste. Almost everything pleasant about the first Mission: Impossible film is absent in the second. De Palma’s over-the-top abuse of camera trickery is replaced by straight-faced action movie blandness accompanied by non-sarcastic record scratches. Any enjoyment derived from the removal of faces in the first film is ruined here by an unrestrained overuse of the gimmick. The Danny Elfman score from the first film was supplanted by (I’m not kidding, here) a goddamn Limp Bizkit cover of the series’ original theme. Even Tom Cruise’s wardrobe was downgraded. He traded in his tux for a leather jacket that he shows off on his super cool motor bike while shooting his gun with wild abandon. God, I hate this movie. Pretty much the only element of the first film that comes through unscathed is Ving Rhames, who remains a delight in every scene he’s afforded.
In the director’s chair: John Woo, who takes such a strong grip on the franchise’s throat that it feels a lot more likely that this is a spiritual sequel to his Nic Cage trashterpiece Face/Off than it having anything to do with Brian De Palma’s film at all.
A note on Tom Cruise’s hair: Along with Cruise’s douchier wardrobe, he also adopts a much less respectable hair length that allows his greasy locks to flow in the wind as he slides around on his motorbike & jams to Limp Bizkit. Blech.
It’s difficult to imagine a better corrective for John Woo’s rap rock shit show than the third installment that followed it a whopping six years later. Mission: Impossible 3 opens with a beyond terrifying Phillip Seymour Hoffman moving Tom Cruise’s super spy hero Ethan Hunt to tears while torturing him for information. This moment of intense vulnerability is a far cry from the second film, which was more or less a chance for Cruise to pose as a late 90s badass so X-treme that even his sunglasses exploded. In Mission: Impossible 3, Ethan Hunt becomes a real person for the first time. He’s not Tom Cruise dressed up like a handsome super spy like in the first film or a irredeemable hard rock douchebag like in the second. He’s a vulnerable human being locking horns with a nightmare-inducing Hoffman, who knows how to exploit his weaknesses to get what he wants. Like when the fifth Fast & Furious film discovered its heart in Vin Diesel’s longwinded ramblings about “family”, Mission: Impossible 3 finally pushes the series into a sense of cohesion by reducing its protagonist from an action movie god to a regular dude with a dangerous job. It’s clear how much Mission: Impossible 3 is trying to return to its roots & find itself as early as the opening credits, which bring back the original arrangement of the movie’s theme (as opposed to the Limp Bizkit abomination). What ups the ante here, though, is a one-for-the-record-books performance from Hoffman that elevates the material just as much as Werner Herzog did for that other super soldier Cruise flick Jack Reacher. Hoffman is pure terror here & the movie knows how to put that element to great use. There’s even a scene where, thanks to face-ripping-offing technology, two Phillip Seymour Hoffmans engage in a fist fight in a bathroom. Two Hoffmans! I wasn’t even expecting one, so that was a genuine treat. Bonus points: this film features the most Ving Rhames content of any Mission: Impossible film to date.
In the director’s chair: JJ Abrams, who had only worked in television before rescuing this troubled project from developmental Hell (at one point David Fincher was attached to direct!?). Abrams not only pulled this series’ shit together against the odds, but he also found a way to make the film’s escapist, popcorn movie action clash effectively with its more disturbing elements, specifically Hoffman’s personification of terror.
A note on Tom Cruise’s hair: Much like the movie as a whole, Cruise’s hairdo ditches the embarrassing crudeness of the second film & returns to the handsome tastefulness of the first. I’m telling you; this hair stuff is important.