Mission: Impossible series review

My mother loved the 1960s TV series, created by Bruce Gellar.

I remember that much about it, and that it starred, at one time or another, Leonard Nimoy, Sam Elliot, Greg Morris, Barbara Bain and Martin Landau—who I knew better as a kid from Space: 1999—and Peter Graves as Jim Phelps, the guy calling the shots for the Impossible Mission Force, a group of American spies unbeholden to the usual security agencies and with a knack for doing the, ahem, impossible in the cause of global security. I also remember the amazing Lalo Shifrin theme, maybe the coolest thing about it.

Culturally speaking, it was probably the most prominent and lasting intellectual property Hollywood came up with to counter the success of James Bond, at least until the arrival of Jason Bourne.

(And, no, despite the imminent Guy Ritchie feature version of The Man From UNCLE, it’s no threat, nor the hit-and-miss Jack Ryan movies.)

There was a short revival of the show in the 1980s, but it really came back to life with the success of the first movie and its inevitable sequels.

What follows is a spoiler-heavy look back at the four movies in the franchise to date. Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation opens Friday. Expect a review for that up on FITI soon.

Mission: Impossible (1996)


Directed by Brian De Palma, Written by Steven Zaillian, David Koepp, and Robert Towne

I’ve seen this picture a lot of times over the years, and I certainly have enjoyed it. It seems to be on regular rotation on cable TV, and when I stumble upon it I can’t help but watch at least part of the movie. It’s almost comfort food entertainment at this point, and in that it really does share something with 007.

De Palma, better known for his lurid and provocative Hitchcockian dramas, has made a solid side-career as a director-for-hire, on movies such as this one, The Untouchables, and The Black Dahlia. He’s a real pro, and with his team make confident use of dutch angles, swooping camera movement, a compelling score, stunts, production design, and a great selection of locations from Prague to London.

The casting is also superb—bringing aboard recognizable faces like Kristin Scott Thomas, Emilio Estevez, and Jon Voight as Phelps early on, and then killing most of them in the first 20 minutes. It’s a great way to ratchet up the suspense. This spy world may be more playful than some, certainly more upbeat than where Bond has gone in recent years, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t also about life and death. Ving Rhames, French stars Jean Reno and Emanuelle Beart (with her oddly puffy lips), and the Canadian actor Henry Czerny (who also played an agency asshole in one of Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan movies), certainly make for an international mix of characters.


Maybe the key relationship here is between Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and Vanessa Redgrave’s arms dealer, Max. Who’d have thought such an unlikely pairing of actors would make for such great chemistry? They both really seem to enjoy each other, and both have such shiny, white teeth. I want to see a spinoff where they just hang out and flirt.


But I did notice, watching the movie again, in the almost 20 years since it opened, it has dated. Certainly the surveillance and communication tech is archaic, along with the way the internet works.


Maybe it’s just because I’ve seen it so often that it seems over-familiar, I can’t manage any kind of objectivity. I can see the twists coming a mile off. All the reversals feel transparent in this story of a group of agents set up to take the fall around a list of spies’ Non-Official Cover identities, who then turn the tables on their corrupt bosses. It’s all very convoluted, more like Mission: Implausible. But then, maybe this material has always been like that. You’ve just got to go along with it, enjoy the unfurling of the unlikely plot, and hopefully the thrills multiply.

Ethan Hunt is kind of a cypher, defined by his athleticism and clenched jaw, like too many of Cruise’s heroes. Surrounded by so many oddball characters, his laser-like focus and confidence is actually the calm centre of the story and serves it well. You believe his ambition can accomplish almost anything, and that makes the incredible feats—like breaking into the CIA headquarters in a rarely bettered central set-piece—just this side of believable.


Great to hear U2’s Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr’s take on the Shifrin score once again. For their 1996 hit they added an extra beat to make it work as a club anthem, but it’s still a lot of fun.

Mission: Impossible II aka. M:I- II (2000)


Directed by John Woo, Story by Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore, screenplay by Robert Towne

I’d forgotten that the legendary Chinatown screenwriter Towne worked on the first two Mission: Impossible movies.  But it’s unlikely this work-for-hire stuff is what he’ll be remembered for. Especially not this one.

The sequel is a disaster. Its first mistake is asking Tom Cruise to actually be an American James Bond. Whatever his gifts as an actor and action star, suavity isn’t one of them. When he tries to be sexy he just comes off as smug.


Another problem is John Woo. I think the reason he was practically a rock star in Hong Kong but so frequently hamstrung in Hollywood is the cliches of Asian action movies—the Mexican stand-offs, the slo-mo, the melodrama, the doves—rapidly calcify in English-language action pictures. It simply comes off as so much cheese.

There definitely is entertainment value in these operatic action sequences—the motorcycle chase/gun-fight at the conclusion is something to see—but it’s hugely difficult to take seriously. His style, as an action filmmaker, is actually at odds with what makes the franchise work. A certain subtlety is required, and Woo, for all his ability, isn’t subtle.


The third issue is the casting. Anthony Hopkins cashes a cheque sleepwalking through a cameo as Hunt’s new boss, and Brendan Gleeson comes and goes. Thandie Newton, absent the charisma required of the leading lady, plays a professional thief who ensnares Hunt’s interest and forms a point of the love triangle between him and the villain, Dougray Scott.

Scott does manage to deliver a certain dead-eyed menace as Hunt’s nemesis. He’s stolen a viral bioweapon—or, at least, has tried to—invented by an old friend of Hunt’s, and the IMF force is looking to get it back. Except they haven’t really stolen it. So the IMF is gonna steal it. Or something. It all gets a little convoluted as it goes along and seems to matter less and less what they’re fighting over, as it seems to be more about saving Newton than actual world-saving derring-do.


Much of the wit of the first movie is missing, along with the robust supporting cast. Aren’t these stories supposedly about a team of spies? Where’s that crew? It’s good to have Ving Rhames back as Luther, but he doesn’t get much to do. There’s also an Aussie guy who makes absolutely no impression.

Compounding the problems: As a location for a spy movie, Australia misses some of the mystery the spy thriller genre requires, and the CGI in this picture has aged much more poorly than the FX in the previous film, made four years earlier.


A little trivia: Dougray Scott was cast as Wolverine in X-Men before hurting himself doing a stunt in this film and had to drop out. Hugh Jackman steps in, and Hollywood history is made. For the record, I think Scott would’ve made a fine Wolverine. Maybe a little tall, but then, so is Jackman.

Mission: Impossible III aka M:I-3 (2006)


Directed by JJ Abrams, Written by Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci

Watching these movies stacked, one after the other, it’s startling how much the styles vary. As an approach to franchise, this is definitely the Alien model: every new director brings a different approach to the material.

Full disclosure for those who don’t know: Kurtzman and Orci are the biggest blockbuster hack writers in Hollywood. That’s not to say they don’t have a certain savvy efficiency. They’re also veterans of Abrams’ Alias series, from which this movie imports its spy-hiding-in-suburbia model, with Ethan Hunt lying to the people around him and shacking up with a new lady. (I guess we can assume it didn’t work out with Thandie Newton.) And the reliance on hand-held camera is a little annoying. The best news: very few lens flares. JJ saved those to spoil the look of his Star Trek movies.

The suburban deceit does provide fresh stakes, especially when Ethan’s new sweetheart, Jules (Michelle Monaghan), is put in harms way, as we see in the flash-forward pre-title sequence.


Big credit on the highly capable opening action scenes, topped with a terrific helicopter chase through a field of windmills, something I’ve never seen before. Abrams gets a demerit for setting it in Berlin and not including a single shot of that very lovely city for a sense of place.

Abrams goes back to what worked in DePalma’s film: surround Cruise’s Ethan Hunt with stylish character actors, and kill them. In this case, only one dies early: Keri Russell, but it’s effectively gruesome.


Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys Myers are solid as new team members, Ving Rhames gets much more to do this time around, and Simon Pegg as tech specialist Benji gets to make a great speech about something he calls “the anti-god”. Lawrence Fishburne gets a bunch of funny lines as the new IMF boss.

Only Billy Crudup underwhelms as an espionage middle manager, while Philip Seymour Hoffman, as threatening as he is, doesn’t seem to be having a lot of fun as the heavy.


The good news: everyone else is, so that more than makes up for it. The laughs are back, and a light, sophisticated touch that makes for great spycraft and action hijinks. Abrams exhibits so much confidence in his mise en scene he stages an entire set-piece where Hunt leaps onto a Shanghai skyscraper in order to gain access and steal the movie’s McGuffin, something called The Rabbit’s Foot, and we never even see him inside the building. Abrams uses that moment to check in with the other members of the team as they wait for Hunt to jump out a window with a parachute. It’s slightly perverse, but it works to allow a breath before the final showdown.


And that final sequence, where Hunt has to find a way to disarm the tiny explosive in his head, and Monaghan takes matters into her own hands, is white-knuckle action stuff.

I give Abrams a lot of grief for his crimes against Star Trek, but his may be the overall best of the four Impossible Missions. We’ll see about #5.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)


Directed by Brad Bird, Written by Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec. 

OK, just for starters, how is it Léa Seydoux is in this, and yet will soon appear in the James Bond movie, Spectre? That’s crossing the streams! There are rules about that kind of thing. Or, at least, there should be.


Also, the montage of forthcoming scenes through the title sequence makes the picture feel like a cartoon, or a superhero movie. And whatever else this franchise is, it shouldn’t go that far into fantasy.

But that’s where Mission: Impossible movies have often gone, for better or worse. I called it back in 2011 when I first saw this and reviewed it on FITI. Go there for my first impressions and more particular plot details.

Watching these movies again makes even clearer that the more characters Hunt has around him, the better Cruise is. It’s a strike against Ghost Protocol that his team in the first act is reduced to just two: Carter (Paula Patton) and Benji (Simon Pegg). The franchise is certainly diminished by Ving Rhames’ absence—and a cameo appearance in the final scene doesn’t count. Fortunately, about halfway in, Jeremy Renner shows up to fill an empty slot, and he’s a nice addition.


Interesting that Tom Wilkinson makes an appearance as Hunt’s boss. Where’s Anthony Hopkins or Lawrence Fishburne? Lots of turnover in the executive of the IMF, apparently.


That thing with Cruise dancing around the outside of the world’s tallest building in Dubai is still one of the greatest stunts I’ve ever seen in an action movie, though watching it on the small screen does reduce some of the awe. This is truly a movie best seen in the cinema.


One funny thread through all these four movies: In each one, someone falls from a high place face first, arms spread like a skydiver, just barely stopping before hitting the ground. In the first three it was Cruise, and in #4 it’s Renner. I dig it—stunt continuity.

Please check back to FITI this weekend: I’ll have seen the new one, Rogue Nation, and will share my thoughts.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.