Tom Cruise isn't the only hero of this series.
There are a lot of ways cinephiles could dismiss the Mission: Impossible franchise as "unimportant garbage." To those who don't have an intimate knowledge of the films, they have all the pitfalls of your average cash-grubbing blockbuster tentpoles: giant explosions, rough and tumble machismo featuring a male lead whose personal life was once embroiled in controversy, and Limp Bizkit-covered theme songs.
For those of us who have understood the truth, however, see this series as what it truly is: the only remaining action franchise that gives a damn about experimental filmmaking (it's a hell of a lot of fun, too). The fact is that these films have always been about in producers trusting in a director's vision to break free from the prototypical action blockbuster formula. The "mission" of the Mission: Impossible series is not so impossible, but rather a pure exercise for directors to make their version of a classic spy movie starring arguably the best action hero our world will ever know.
Speaking of Tom Cruise, let's pause a moment before we delve into the men and women behind-the-camera. Let's focus on a guy who gets a lot of negative attention despite the numerous contributions he's made to American cinema. Sure, he might be a little crazy (and part of a terrifying and abusive cult) but I'll be damned if the man isn't one of the smartest actors in the game.
In his video essay defining the genius of Mission: Impossible, Patrick H. Willems breaks up Cruise's career into three eras. The first, from 1981-1984, is when he rose from obscurity to become the biggest movie star in the world. But for every sexy teen movie he made, he made sure to take on a project in which he'd be able to work with a legendary actor to learn something from their craft. Think Paul Newman in The Color of Money, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, or Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men.
In 1999, Cruise worked with both Paul Thomas Anderson and Stanley Kubrick on Magnolia and Eyes Wide Shut, respectively. That's one hell of a year.
From 1986-2005, Cruise began producing his own movies, purely as an exercise in taking on interesting projects and working with the greatest directors alive. He acted for Steven Spielberg in Minority Report and War of the Worlds, Michael Man in Collateral, and, in 1999, with both Paul Thomas Anderson and Stanley Kubrick on Magnolia and Eyes Wide Shut, respectively. That's one hell of a year.
Ok, now let's get back to the main reason we're here, Mission: Impossible and Patrick H. Willems fantastic, twenty-minute ode to the series which has convinced us the franchise is a director's dream come true.
The main thesis is that the decision to throw away continuity made the Mission: Impossible franchise not only successful at a commercial level but on a filmmaking level as well. These movies aren't about the plot or story, so much as what Willems calls "the feeling of danger, the thrill of that very moment and the pleasure of watching pros execute impossible plans." We're not really talking about pro spies here; we're talking about pro crews.
This is a trend started by a little director named Brian De Palma, with the first Mission: Impossible. Cruise and co. made sure that the film wasn't a knock-off or a reboot of the old TV show. This was a Brian De Palma classic spy thriller and he had full license to employ all of his favorite tricks: zooms, split diopter shots, POV tracking shots, and voyeurism.
Mission Impossible: 2 stuck with this philosophy and many would say it suffered because of it. A lot of people would go so far as to say the film was "bad," but ten-year-old Jon Fusco would disagree. For this sequel, Cruise brought on John Woo, which meant lots of sliding around, crazy martial arts and, of course, lots of doves. Admittedly, the film feels nothing like Mission: Impossible 1, but again it's all about featuring the director's trademarks.
"The Mission: Impossible films rely on real filmmaking craft and classic physical action."
With Mission: Impossible 3, Cruise decided to take a chance on a young upstart TV director, JJ Abrams, who had never made a feature film before in his life. He got the gig for this, his debut feature, after his success on the show Alias. Once again, we see Ethan Hunt's character evolve to fit Abrams' trademarks: dual life aspects, family drama, kinetic action, and an empty MacGuffin.
2006-2011 marked the third of the Cruise eras, and it's one he most likely wants to forget. His star power was failing as his presence within the Scientology community grew more heavily scrutinized. As a result, Paramount was considering firing Cruise from the franchise he began.
Cruise then made Ghost Protocol, and with it, we saw director Brad Bird's first crack at a live-action feature film. Bird, who was coming to the project fresh off winning Oscars for both The Incredibles and Ratatouille, gave the studio the critically acclaimed hit it was looking for. Paramount immediately canceled any plans of dropping Cruise.
Willems argues, however, that of all the films, the fifth entry, Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation, is the best one. The majority of critics agree, with the film's Rotten Tomatoes score coming in at 93%. Cruise once again made a bold choice and handed over the reigns to Christopher McQuarrie, a man who had limited directing experience but penned the equally unbelievably good Edge of Tomorrow.
The result was probably the most cohesive film of the franchise. Why? Because McQuarrie finally commits to the fact that Hunt (and maybe Cruise) is a crazy man. That's strong writing.
McQuarrie did such a good job with the film that for the first time ever, the franchise is breaking its winning formula and having a director come back to make a direct sequel to the previous film. Will it work? Chances are, yes, but even if it doesn't, we're pretty sure it'll be a hell of a lot of fun.
If you still don't respect these films, take a minute to reflect on the process in which Cruise has continued to push through a digital age. "Tom Cruise has a kind of visceral hate of the electronic image on a motion picture," former M:I cinematographer Robert Elswit once espoused. Every one of these films was shot on film, because as Willems puts it, "The Mission: Impossible films rely on real filmmaking craft and classic physical action."