Road To 'Fallout': How 'Mission: Impossible' Became The Best Modern Action Franchise

Talk about impossible: somehow, Mission: Impossible has blossomed into the best modern-day action franchise. Since 1996, Tom Cruise has been inviting audiences along as he defies the odds, risks his life, runs like hell, and delivers increasingly entertaining adventures. Unlike most franchises, Mission: Impossible has generally improved with each subsequent entry. Now, Mission: Impossible – Fallout is ready to draw us in once again.

Before the film arrives, we've decided to accept the most dangerous mission of all: a journey through the entire Mission: Impossible franchise in an attempt to learn what makes it tick.

mission 1

Mission: Impossible

The Director

Brian De Palma, ultimate Hitchcock fanboy and the auteur behind Blow Out, Body Double, Scarface, The Untouchables, and more.  

The Mission (Should You Choose to Accept It)

After nearly his entire team is killed off and he's framed for the crime, IMF Agent Ethan Hunt has to scramble to clear his name. To do so, he must break into the CIA and steal the NOC list, which contains the real names of every undercover espionage agent.

The Team

Mission: Impossible is historically a team effort, but the first film throws a whopper of a twist at the audience: almost the entire team is killed in the first half of the narrative. Tom Cruise is our lead: cocky, constantly-grinning agent Ethan Hunt. Jon Voight is the team leader, Jim Phelps. Emmanuelle Béart is Claire Phelps, Jim's wife.

Later, Ethan recruits Ving Rhames as master hacker Luther Stickell, and Jean Reno as Franz Krieger, who is clearly evil from the get-go.

The original team consists of Kristin Scott Thomas as Sarah Davies; Emilio Estevez as Jack Harmon; and Ingeborga Dapkunaite as Hannah Williams – all of whom die rather gruesomely (especially Estevez) in the first half-hour of the movie.

The Femme Fatale

Emmanuelle Béart's Claire Phelps is technically the Femme Fatale of the film, but we don't really know that until the third act, when it's revealed she was in cahoots with evil Jim Phelps the entire time.

The Villain(s)

Jon Voight's Jim Phelps, a character who was a good guy in the TV series, turns out to be the bad guy here. Vanessa Redgrave is also on hand as the charming arms dealer Max. She's kind of a villain, but she seems really nice, so it's hard to think of her in these terms. And then of course there's Jean Reno's Franz Krieger again, who is in league with Jim and has some really cool-looking knives. 

The IMF Director

Henry Czerny as Eugene Kittridge, who suspects Ethan of being the traitor who killed his entire team. Czerny is great here – his voice is smooth as silk, and he seems constantly furious. While bigger name actors would eventually play the IMF Directors to come, Czerny's Kittridge is one of the most memorable.

Crazy Stunt That Could've Killed Tom Cruise

There really aren't any. While the Mission: Impossible franchise has become renowned for its death-defying stunts, the first film is very low on that aspect. The scene where Ethan Hunt dangles from a cable while hacking into the CIA became instantly iconic, eventually parodied and referenced in countless other films and TV shows. But I wouldn't call it dangerous. I suppose if the cable had snapped Cruise could've fallen hard on the ground and got the wind knocked out of him, or broken a bone. But it's not deadly like future Cruise Mission stunts.

There's also a moment where Cruise runs from a wall of rushing water, but again, that's not that life-threatening. The end of the film has Cruise jumping around on a speeding train, but almost all of this was done in studios via green screens and digital effects.

***

very upset

It's a little jarring to compare the start of the Mission: Impossible film franchise to what the series would become. It's safe to assume most people think of M:I as an action franchise, but the first entry doesn't quite fit in that mold. Sure, there's plenty of action in the movie, but Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible is more of a paranoia-tinged thriller, like Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View. This plays to De Palma's strengths – he can stage thrilling set pieces, but he's much more interested in intrigue.

De Palma – and the script by David Koepp and Robert Towne – is also interested in shattering expectations. Within the first half hour, Mission: Impossible takes what fans of the original TV series might remember and kills it, literally. The M:I TV show was all about teamwork, and in the opening scenes, De Palma goes ahead and slaughters virtually the entire team.

Only two members survive: young hot shot Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), and Emmanuelle Béart's Claire Phelps, who seems like an innocent babe in the woods but is, of course, hiding a big secret.

This is, first and foremost, a star vehicle for Cruise, and the actor is in full-blown Tom Cruise mode here. Extremely cocky, a devilish grin almost always on his face, and supremely confident in his abilities to do pretty much anything. Cruise is very good at playing this part, but Ethan Hunt isn't a particularly interesting character when all is said and done. And his character is secondary to the set pieces De Palma is setting up. In fact, when Mission: Impossible went into production, the script wasn't even finished. De Palma designed action scenes, and the writers were then in charge of trying to find ways to connect these particular scenes together.

This knowledge makes Mission: Impossible all the more impressive, because gosh darn it, the movie works, and works well. There's no sense of an unfinished script here, or a troubled production. One moment flows into the next with ease, and De Palma's incredible direction anchors it all. The filmmaker employs all his trademarks: point-of-view shots, split diopter, titled angles, and even a few smatterings of queasy, sexually-tinged violence (or at least as much as he can get away with in a PG-13 movie).

After Hunt's team is slaughtered, he attempts to find out what the heck is going on while also breaking into the CIA to help out very polite arms dealer Max (Vanessa Redgrave, who seems to be having the time of her life). This gives De Palma the opportunity to stage a thrilling break-in sequence involving costumes, computers, and of course, Cruise dangling from the ceiling like a spider. The stunt looks so quaint and simple compared to the increasingly elaborate stunts the franchise would eventually employ, but it still works like gangbusters. We can feel the tension mount as Cruise struggles to remain silent and still in the high-security CIA computer room. We tense up as a bead of sweat runs down his hilariously unfashionable '90s eyeglasses. It's a treat to watch. (Speaking of hilarious '90s stuff, the biggest laugh in the film comes from watching Hunt surf the web, and fire off an email to the impossible email address Job@3:14.)

The biggest flaw in Mission: Impossible is that it's a bit front-loaded. The opening sequence, in which the team is brutally dispatched one by one, is engrossing to the point of being hypnotic. Ethan's panic as he tries to piece together the mystery draws us in. And then the big CIA break-in ratchets up the action to the extreme. But the film is only half-over at this point, and there's a sense De Palma and company don't quite know where to take things. So they reveal a big twist – Jim Phelps, Ethan's team leader, is still alive! Rather than keep things a mystery much longer, De Palma then instantly clues us in (via Ethan's imagination) to the fact that Jim is a mole and responsible for killing the entire team. One can't help but think that the script should've held this info off just a little bit longer, because by revealing it so early, a considerable amount of dramatic weight is sucked out of the film. What follows is a sequence aboard the TGV train that just can't quite stack up to everything that came before it (even though it's a hoot to watch Cruise shout "RED LIGHT! GREEN LIGHT!" before mashing together a piece of explosive chewing gum).

By the time Mission: Impossible ends, Ethan Hunt's name has been cleared and he's ready for his next mission, should he choose to accept it. But where would the franchise go from here? Would it try to recreate the energy of this first film, or would it mutate into something, much, much different? I'll tell you in the next section. This message will self-destruct in five seconds.

mi 2

Mission: Impossible 2

The Director

John Woo, master of slow-motion gun fights featuring flocks of doves, and the director of The Killer, Face/Off and more.

The Mission (Should You Choose to Accept It)

Ethan Hunt must re-enact the entire plot of the Alfred Hitchcock film Notorious. Also: he has to destroy a biological weapon called "Chimera", which is in the hands of rogue IMF Agent Sean Ambrose.

The Team

Of all the films, M:I 2 has the smallest team. In fact, it's barely a team. There is, of course, Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt. Ving Rhames returns as Luther Stickell. And the third member of the team is John Polson as Billy Baird, the most boring, forgettable character in Mission: Impossible history. Let's never speak of him again.

The Femme Fatale

Thandie Newton as Nyah Nordoff-Hall, a master thief who also happens to be very attractive. Newton is quite good here, and she and Cruise have surprising, sexy chemistry together.

The Villain(s)

Dougray Scott as Sean Ambrose, the dullest of all the M:I villains. I don't even know what this character's deal is, but he's willing to crash a plane full of people in order to pull of a scheme, so I guess he's pretty evil. He's also lifeless.

Richard Roxburgh plays Ambrose's right-hand-man Hugh Stamp, who at least has some personality. Brendan Gleeson is also on hand as a greedy CEO John C. McCloy, who is in league with Ambrose in some vague, boring way.

The IMF Director

Anthony Hopkins in Hannibal Lecter mode as Mission Commander Swanbeck. Hopkins is having fun, but he's the weakest of all the IMF directors. He also delivers the cringe-worthy lines, "To go to bed with a man and lie to him? She's a woman – she's got all the training she needs," and, "Mr. Hunt, this isn't mission difficult, it's mission impossible. 'Difficult' should be a walk in the park for you!"

Crazy Stunt That Could've Killed Tom Cruise

In M:I II, you can see the seed of what the series would grow into: scenes of Tom Cruise risking his life for our entertainment. At the start of the film, we see Ethan Hunt in the middle of nowhere (well, technically Utah), performing some dangerous free solo rock climbing. Cruise wore a harness, but there was no safety net below him. Had the harness snapped, he would've fallen to his certain demise. Paramount was very nervous about this, and begged Cruise to not do the stunt himself. Director John Woo wasn't happy about it either. "I was really mad that he wanted to do it, but I tried to stop him and I couldn't," Woo said. "I was so scared I was sweating. I couldn't even watch the monitor when we shot it."

But Tommy Cruise has a death wish, and he insisted on it. And the rest is history.

***

mission 2 thandie newton

Mission: Impossible 2 has a reputation for being the worst entry in the series. While that's technically true, the film is a lot better than its reputation suggests. With this film, the M:I series had yet to figure out what it wanted to be. It's clear that Cruise and the producers were starting to think of the films as an American version of the James Bond franchise, with Cruise's Ethan Hunt as the American 007. Eventually, everyone would wise up and realize that the franchise should turn into something different (and better) than this, but for now, we're stuck with a Bond-esque narrative.

Much has been written about how screenwriter Robert Towne lifted the plot of Hitchcock's Notorious for this film: like Cary Grant recruiting Ingrid Bergman to get close to Claude Rains, Hunt recruits a beautiful woman to go undercover to get close to her ex-lover in hopes of seducing answers out of him. The plot is really secondary, though. What Mission: Impossible 2 is really about are big, physically impossible action scenes that allow master action director John Woo to shine. Like the first film, the action scenes were plotted out before the story itself, and Towne had to work to make them fit. While this isn't as obvious in the first Mission, it's glaring here. Anytime the movie has to slow down and focus on plot, you're tempted to check your watch and wonder how much longer before we get a beautiful ballet of action staged by Woo.

All that said, there are some other things to like here besides the action. First and foremost: the sexual chemistry between Cruise's Hunt and Thandie Newton as recruited thief Nyah Nordoff-Hall is palpable. Cruise and Newton have real sparks together, and the scene where they share their first kiss – after nearly killing each other in a car chase – is hot. Newton is a big reason why this all works – she's charming and flirty in the film, and it's easy to fall for her.

At the same time, there's an ickiness here – Hunt is asking Nyah to essentially prostitute herself to get close to smug creep Sean Ambrose, the worst villain in the entire franchise, played by Dougray Scott. (An interesting side-note: Mission: Impossible 2 rewrote film history by casting Scott. The actor was originally supposed to play Wolverine in X-Men, but dropped out due to his commitment to this film instead. Hugh Jackman took the role and built an incredible career off it. Scott, meanwhile, has continued to act but has nowhere near the career of Jackman.)

Sean Ambrose is boring. He shouldn't be, because he's dealing with a virus – Chimera – that could bring about a world-killing plague. But he just seems like a sleazy creep and little else. Ambrose isn't the only boring addition to the franchise here. Hunt gets a new "team" in the film –  Ving Rhames is back as Luther Stickell, and he's backed-up by John Polson as Billy Baird. Rhames' Luther is as welcome as always, but holy shit, what is the deal with Billy Baird? This guy has to be the dullest Mission character of all time. He does nothing. Why is he even here? At one point he dresses up like a bellboy – that's about the extent of his field work. Bang-up job, Billy. 

Mission: Impossible 2 all but makes up for its flaws with its lengthy ending sequence. Here, Woo stages a seemingly never-ending chase scene, where Cruise hops on a motorcycle and rides it faster than the speed of sound. Cruise's Ethan Hunt bends, twists and spins his bike every which way, jamming the breaks so he can flip around firing guns as he does so. If you tried to do any of this stuff in real life you'd be instantly thrown from the bike and killed, but Woo's direction makes it all seem real, and exciting. Eventually, Ethan and Ambrose both ride their respective motorcycles at each other, only to LEAP OFF THEM AT THE SAME TIME. They collide in mid-air and then immediately engage in a fist-fight. It's stupid! It's wonderful!

After their big brawl, Ethan ends it all by casually kicking a gun buried in the sand. This move somehow makes the gun fly straight up into the air, enabling Ethan to grab it and blow Ambrose away. R.I.P., world's most boring bad guy.

Mission: Impossible 2 could've been the beginning of the end for the franchise. If subsequent sequels had continued following this film's formula, I doubt the series would still be going today. But ultimately, this sequel was a learning experience for Cruise and company. From here on out, the Mission franchise would reboot itself, forging a new, exciting identity. It was also the start of a continuing trend: each Mission film would bring on a new director, with each director bringing their own distinct style. Mission: Impossible had all of Brian De Palma's style and paranoia; M: I 2 had John Woo's gloriously over-the-top action. These were two very big names at the time. And yet, from here, the franchise would go with a surprising, untested choice to helm Mission: Impossible III.

MI III

Mission: Impossible III

The Director

J.J. Abrams, making his feature film debut. At the time, Abrams was primarily known for TV work – Alias, Lost, Felicity – as well as screenwriting. After M:I III, Abrams would, of course, go on to helm even bigger blockbusters.

The Mission (Should You Choose to Accept It)

Ethan Hunt is retired from field work, and about to get hitched to extremely pleasant nurse Julia Meade (Michelle Monaghan). However, Ethan gets called back into action to rescue his protege Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell). The rescue mission goes badly, and Ethan and his team end up in a race against the clock to stop evil black market dealer Owen Davian, who wants to get his hands on a deadly MacGuffin known as the "Rabbit's Foot."

The Team

This is the first M:I film that truly makes use of the "team" concept. Tom Cruise is back as always as Ethan Hunt. Ving Rhames returns as Luther Stickell, who gets to shoot some guns this time. New team members include Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Declan Gormley, and Maggie Q as Zhen Lei.

There's also Keri Russell as Lindsey Farris, who gets to kick some ass before being killed almost immediately. Simon Pegg's Benjamin "Benji" Dunn joins the franchise here as well, and while he's not officially a member of Ethan's team yet, he does help Ethan out several times. Michelle Monaghan isn't a part of the team (or even an IMF agent), she does get to take part in an action scene at the end of the film.

The Femme Fatale

This is the only Mission that doesn't have a femme fatale. Go figure.

The Villain(s)

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Owen Davian, the greatest villain in M:I history. No other Mission bad guy comes close. The late, great Hoffman never phoned in a performance, and he's giving 110% percent here. Davian is the first Mission: Impossible villain who seems genuinely evil, rather than just a cold-hearted opportunist. He's icy, calculated and really doesn't give a shit about anyone. In lesser hands, the character could've been a bit one-note. But Hoffman finds a way to make Davian seem terrifying. The opening in medias res scene, where we see Davian torturing Ethan and Julia, is downright horrifying because of how Hoffman plays it – jumping back and forth between calm threats and explosive rage.

The other villain is Billy Crudup as John Musgrave, the IMF Operations Director who turns out to be bad for...vague reasons. Crudup's character is underwritten, but he makes the most of it, making Musgrave seem very likable...until he's not. Also on hand: Eddie Marsan as Brownway, Davian's right-hand man. Marsan is a great character actor, but he's severely underused here.

The IMF Director

Laurence Fishburne as Theodore Brassel, a no-nonsense guy who is set up to be a secret villain, even though it's clear this is a fake-out almost immediately. Fishburne is great, but I have to take umbrage with how his character is written. The "what if the IMF Director is the real villain?" angle was also used briefly in the first Mission: Impossible film, and recycling it here seems cheap.

Crazy Stunt That Could've Killed Tom Cruise

The series still hadn't fully embraced the "let's try to kill Tom Cruise!" angle it would become known for. Cruise does perform a stunt scene that requires him to run and jump between a series of buildings in Shanghai, but the scene was shot against a green screen on a studio set. Cruise is really jumping around, but it's not nearly as dangerous as stunts he would perform in the future.

***

MI HOFFMAN

Here, in the year 2018, hiring J.J. Abrams to helm your big blockbuster makes sense. He's responsible for bringing both Star Trek and Star Wars into the 21st century, and his Bad Robot Productions is slowly taking over the entertainment world. But at the time of Mission: Impossible III, Abrams was a bit of an odd choice for a director. For one thing, he had never directed a movie before. And for another, the previous two Missions were helmed by established, respected names.

Of course, Abrams was never the number one choice for the gig. Originally, David Fincher was brought on to helm M:I III, but departed due to creative differences. After Fincher left, Joe Carnahan, director of Narc, signed on and spent months developing the movie. A cast took shape: thespian Kenneth Branagh would play the villain, while Carrie-Anne Moss and Scarlett Johansson also joined the film, likely as Cruise's potential love interests/teammates. But Carnahan clashed with Cruise and the producers over tone, and soon the director walked.

From here, Cruise reached out to Abrams based on Abrams' work on the spy series Alias. Abrams took the job, but the production had to be delayed for a full year due to Abrams' work on Lost. Interestingly enough, rather than ditch Abrams and find a director more readily available, Cruise and company agreed to wait. As a result, Branagh, Moss and Johansson all walked, and a brand-new film had to take shape. This all could've been a disaster. Instead, it may have just saved the franchise.

What makes Mission: Impossible III so unique is that it's the first film to portray Ethan Hunt as human. In the previous two films, there was nothing Ethan Hunt couldn't do. He was the perfect agent, capable of getting any job, no matter how impossible, done. He always came out ahead. M:I III, however, breaks him. In fact, the very first scene of the film – an in medias res moment that we catch up with near the end – shows Ethan beaten and weeping, unable to talk or fight his way out of a deadly situation.

Watching Tom Cruise succeed is fun. Watching him fail is even better. Cruise has made a career playing cocky, highly capable individuals, and that's fine. But whenever he steps outside his comfort zone and plays a character capable of failure, people pay attention. Think of him as the angry, jealous husband in Eyes Wide Shut. Or think of him as the bumbling coward in Edge of Tomorrow. These are roles that stand out in Cruise's filmography. And M:I III might be the first of Cruise's action films to seize on this angle.

The Ethan Hunt we see here is not the Ethan Hunt of the previous films. He's more mature, more down-to-earth. He's also given up field work to settle down with nurse Julia Meade (Michelle Monaghan). Julia could've been a thankless love interest role, and she does get boxed into a damsel-in-distress situation. But Monaghan is so good, and so likable, that she elevates the part. Please take a moment and marvel at how wonderful she is in this scene where Ethan and Julia have an impromptu wedding. The actual wedding sequence, where Monaghan keeps trying to fight down a goofy grin as Abrams' pushes the camera in on her, is so heartwarming and charming that it practically makes you melt.

We like Julia almost instantly, and early scenes, where Ethan and Julia act flirty and casual with each other, and where Ethan meets Julia's family (look for a cameo from Aaron Paul!), are fun and breezy. That breeziness doesn't last, however. Because M:I III ends up being a surprisingly nasty movie. The gritty, grainy cinematography, courtesy of Dan Mindel, makes the flick look less slick than all other entries, and gives it an air of unpleasantness. And then there's the tone. M:I III is frequently disturbing, and that is almost entirely due to the performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman. No hyperbole: Hoffman's sociopathic baddie Owen Davian deserves to be mentioned alongside Heath Ledger's Joker as one of the best movie villains of the 21st century.

Hoffman's Davian is so scary because he doesn't seem to care about anything, or anyone. He's not someone with a cause, or a mission, or a code. He's just a guy who likes to do bad things, and he keeps one-upping Ethan Hunt at every turn. At the start of the film, Ethan is drawn back into field duty to help rescue his former student, played by frequent Abrams collaborator Keri Russell. She's been captured by Davian and his men for vague reasons (just what Davian and company are up to is never actually specified in the film). Ethan and his team go through a pulse-pounding action sequence and get Russell's character out of there – but it's all for naught. She dies almost immediately due to a device surgically implanted (by Davian) into her skull. It's a jarring way to start the film – Ethan is instantly defeated. This is a trend that carries throughout the bulk of M:I III.

Midway through the film, Hunt and his team actually capture Davian (during a break-in sequence at the Vatican!), and yet even when Davian is in custody, he never breaks a sweat. At one point, in a fit of rage, Hunt threatens to drop Davian out of an airplane. And yet while Davian looks a bit uncomfortable, he never actually cracks and gives in to Hunt's demands. Not long after, Davian's goons spring him from IMF custody during an exciting attack sequence on a bridge. The old Ethan Hunt would never be so easily ambushed. The Ethan Hunt here, however, is caught completely off-guard. Simply because he's still operating under the assumption that he can achieve the impossible. That he can always come out ahead. But that's not longer the case.

Until it is. Look, there's no way Ethan could keep losing, so eventually he does get the triumph. He rescues Julia after she's abducted by Davian's goons, kills Davian after a brutal fist fight, and stops turncoat IMF Operations Director John Musgrave. Julia, who is apparently a-okay after finding out Ethan has been lying about being a secret agent for their entire relationship, is introduced to Ethan's teammates, and everyone (living) has a happy ending. Surely, Ethan Hunt will now settle down with Julia and live a quiet life, right?

ghost protocol

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

The Director

Brad Bird, making his live-action debut. Bird's career up until here was primarily in animation, having directed Pixar films The Incredibles and Ratatouille, as well as having worked on The Simpsons and directing the animated classic The Iron Giant. Bird's animation is renowned for its constant, kinetic movement, and he brings that talent to his live-action work here as well.

The Mission (Should You Choose to Accept It)

Ethan Hunt is busted out of a Russian prison by an IMF team to help stop a mad man from starting nuclear war. Along the way, the Kremlin explodes and the entire IMF agency is disavowed. So, just an average work week for Ethan Hunt.

The Team

Ghost Protocol has the best team yet. Tom Cruise is back as Ethan Hunt, of course. A new member to the team and franchise is Jeremy Renner as William Brandt – a character that may or may not have been set-up to take over the series (more on that later). Simon Pegg returns Benjamin "Benji" Dunn, who is now a field agent. Paula Patton is the ass-kicking Jane Carter, who has a score to settle. And the ever-present Ving Rhames puts in a cameo as Luther Stickell, although he doesn't take part in the main mission (for some strange reason).

The Femme Fatale

Léa Seydoux as Sabine Moreau, a deadly assassin. Seydoux's part isn't very big, but she makes the most of it.

The Villain(s)

Michael Nyqvist as Kurt Hendricks, a Russian nuclear strategist who also happens to be crazy. Hendricks wants to start a nuclear war because he thinks it would bring balance to the world. Or something like that. The weird thing is, even though Hendricks is clearly bonkers and starting a nuclear war is a super bad idea, he's somehow managed to compile an entire roster of henchmen willing to help him with this. Nyqvist is okay in the part, but even though Hendricks' plan is diabolical, he's kind of forgettable.

The IMF Director

Tom Wilkinson, whose character doesn't have a name, and gets shot in the head almost instantly. R.I.P., buddy.

Crazy Stunt That Could've Killed Tom Cruise

Here is the moment when the M:I franchise fully embraced the idea of putting Tom Cruise's life in danger. The biggest set piece in Ghost Protocol involves Cruise's Ethan Hunt scaling the outside of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest structure in the world at 2,717 ft. To be clear: Cruise had a whole bunch of cables and harnesses hooked up to him that were digitally erased, but he still went and hung off the side of the tallest building in the world. It's a jaw-dropping moment.

The stunt was so dangerous that Cruise had to fire the film's original insurance company in order to do the stunt himself. Skydance Production CEO David Ellison explained the scenario to Collider:

"We wanted to hang Tom off the side of a building and we actually couldn't get insurance, and Tom wanted to fire the insurance company...And we did and we got somebody [else] to insure the movie. A hilarious but true story is it was the day we were actually rehearsing the Burj Khalifa, it was the whole stunt team, Tom on the side of the building, me, [director] Brad Bird, and [producer] Bryan Burk, and Tom was padded up, had the helmet on, and we had rehearsed for months inside these hangars and sound stages and Tom kicked off the building and, as he would describe it, spectacularly crashed into it head first, and me and Burk and Brad were like 'this is a really bad idea'. In true Tom fashion, while we were all arguing amongst ourselves about how we were the largest idiots known to mankind for putting ourselves in this situation, Tom reset back to one with the stunt guys and nailed it perfectly on the second rehearsal. And we all kind of looked at each other and were like, 'Well, that's why he's Tom Cruise.' We shot it the next day. We shot it twice and it was spectacular."

***

ghost protocol fight

Mission: Impossible III wasn't a smash hit. In fact, it underperformed. And a curious thing had happened: Tom Cruise's stardom was in decline. Cruise is in many ways the last movie star. Marvel has proven time and time again that audiences don't care about "names" so much anymore when they go to the multiplex. Yet Cruise persists, and remains a consummate entertainer, always willing to go above and beyond for his films – even dreck like The Mummy.

But around the release of the Cruise-lead War of the Worlds, Cruise's image had taken a hit. At the time, Cruise had begun a relationship with much younger actress Katie Holmes. While promoting War of the Worlds, the actor went on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and proceeded to have some sort of meltdown on the air. Rather than simply promote War of the Worlds, Tom Cruise got very...emotional when describing his relationship with Holmes. To the point where he got up and started jumping on Oprah's couch like a kid on a sugar high.

I'm sure the actor did this to prove how giddy he was over his new romance, but it backfired. People were confused, and began wondering just what the heck was going on with Cruise. That same year, Cruise drummed up some bad press after he criticized Brooke Shields when the actress admitted to using antidepressants to treat postpartum depression. Cruise then went on The Today Show, and got into an argument over the validity of psychiatry. It was not pleasant.

Things got so bad that Paramount actually decided to sever ties with Cruise in 2006. The studio had had a 14-year history with the actor, but his public persona had taken such a nosedive that he was no longer considered a hot commodity by Paramount.

Let me be clear: I'm not bringing all this up to drag Cruise. But it's important to remember that between Mission: Impossible III and Ghost Protocol, Cruise's image was severely tarnished. And there wouldn't be another Mission: Impossible film until 2011.

At some point between 2006 and 2008, thpugh, Cruise and Paramount head Sumner Redstone decided to rekindle their working relationship. Paramount was not ready to let M:I rest, and they also weren't quite ready to forge ahead without Cruise, even if he wasn't quite the mega-star he once was.

In many ways, Ghost Protocol helped rehabilitate Cruise's image. He seems much more carefree, much more loose here than he does in all the other entries. The tension is gone from his shoulders. Part of this has to do with tone: even though Ghost Protocol involves the threat of nuclear war, it is, in many ways, a comedy. Brad Bird brings his comedic sensibilities to the story and action, and Cruise embraces this in full-force. The Ethan Hunt of the other films was more of the strong, silent type. The Ethan here sarcastically yells out "No shit!" when told he's in danger.

Ghost Protocol was the most exciting Mission to date. It was also one of the flimsiest. When you really start to break the film down, you find that there's little connective tissue between all the fabulous set pieces. The plot is weak – in some ways, barely existent. At the end of the day, that doesn't really matter. We're not here for plot, we're here for Tommy Cruise running around like a madman. But after the joy of watching the action scenes fades, you can't help but see the cracks in the narrative. For instance: there's a subplot running through the film about Ethan mourning Julia's murder, only for it to be revealed that this was a fake-out, and it never quite works.

But it's hard to fault Ghost Protocol much for this, because the movie is just so much damn fun. Brad Bird really knows how to stage an action scene. The director uses his animation background to keep the momentum at a breakneck pace – things are always moving in this film, both in the foreground and the background. It's not enough that Bird stages a terror-inducing sequence where Cruise's Hunt scales the tallest tower in the world. He also intercuts a fist-fight sequence between Paula Patton and Léa Seydoux. You'll have a shot of Tom Cruise dangling thousands of feet off the ground, and then you'll smash-cut to Patton and Seydoux kicking off their high heels so they can start beating the shit out of each other. Who wouldn't be entertained by this? 

The same goes for the climax of the film. It's not enough that Ethan Hunt is trying to stop a nuclear missile that's just been launched. He also has to battle the bad guy in an insane motorized car park, where cars are constantly being moved around from place to place. It's like Ethan is literally caught inside the gears of some great machine. 

As an added bonus to all of this, Simon Pegg ends up being the best new addition to the franchise. Yes, he made his debut in the previous film, but Pegg's Benji truly gets to shine here, adding constant comic relief and even getting to take part in a few big action moments as well.

Yet while the team aspect in Ghost Protocol is the strongest it's ever been – Ethan Hunt does almost everything here with the help of others – this is, first and foremost, a Tom Cruise movie. And by the film's end, any lingering doubts about Cruise's stardom were put to rest. Audiences were ready to embrace the actor again, because he's just so much fun to watch.

And yet...there's Jeremy Renner as William Brandt. At the time of Ghost Protocol's release, rumors were rampant that Renner was being set-up to take over the franchise (something that seems to happen to Renner a lot; see: The Bourne Legacy). Even though Cruise and Paramount had mended fences, the Hollywood gossip suggested that Paramount still had their doubts about the actor based on his past behavior, and were more than happy to hand the franchise over to Renner, an actor whose star was on the rise. For his part, Renner didn't deny the rumors. In an interview with MTV, the actor said, "It's a franchise to potentially take over...I can't predict the future and what they want, but that's certainly the idea."

Almost immediately after this statement started circulating, Paramount went into damage control and Renner walked it back, later saying the possibility of him taking over "wasn't a possibility." My guess, and it's pure speculation: Paramount, still uncertain about Cruise, really did want Renner to take over, and Renner was more than happy with the idea. But Ghost Protocol ended up being a huge success. On top of that, the press was being kind to Cruise once again. Journalists were no longer talking about his weird Oprah outbursts. They were instead talking about the crazy, exhilarating stunt work he was doing. Ghost Protocol solidified something most people already knew: Mission: Impossible belonged to Tom Cruise. Making new films without him would be, well...impossible.

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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

The Director

Christopher McQuarrie, writer of The Usual Suspects and Cruise's new go-to guy, having scripted the Cruise vehicle Valkyrie, as well as serving as writer and director on Cruise's Jack Reacher and screenwriter on Cruise's Edge of Tomorrow.

The Mission (Should You Choose to Accept It)

Ethan Hunt is on the run (yet again!), as he tries to prove the existence of The Syndicate, a shadowy, far-reaching criminal organization that the U.S. government doesn't think is real. Along the way, Ethan joins forces with the mysterious and alluring Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who may or may not be a double agent.

The Team

This is the first film in the series with multiple team members returning from the previous film. Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt is here, of course, and back with him are Jeremy Renner as William Brandt; Simon Pegg as Benji Dunn; and Ving Rhames as Luther Stickell. A shame they couldn't bring Paula Patton's Jane Carter back as well.

The Femme Fatale

Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust, one of the very best supporting characters in the whole series. Ferguson is phenomenal (and her legs probably deserve their own separate credit).

The Villain(s)

Sean Harris as Solomon Lane, leader of The Syndicate. Harris' Lane is the first villain in the series since Philip Seymour Hoffman's Owen Davian to seem genuinely threatening. The spooky, monotone voice he affects doesn't hurt, either.

There's also Simon McBurney as Atlee, the Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service who is playing all angles and willing to sell out his agents.

The IMF Director

Alec Baldwin as Alan Hunley. Technically, Hunley doesn't become the IMF Director until the very end of the film, but his role for the bulk of the story is more or less that of a director-like character. Baldwin is a blast to watch here, with smugness to spare.

Crazy Stunt That Could've Killed Tom Cruise

Cruise was strapped to the outside of an aircraft that climbed up to 5,000 feet in the air. It looks incredible and dangerous. Cruise later said: "Going down that runway I was thinking, 'Holy shit!", and then added: "The morning came [to shoot the scene] and I'm strapped onto the side of that airplane and I'll never forget, I kept telling the pilot, I said, 'Listen, man. When you're climbing out you've got to make sure because I want my feet against the fuselage. I want that steep climb,'...With an airplane, you got to really know the weight, the balance, the numbers — it's a very powerful, beautiful airplane and I really appreciate they did this." There you have it: Tom Cruise thinks airplanes are beautiful.

Cruise also trained to hold his breath underwater for three minutes for one scene. However, for some strange reason, even though the scene was shot in one take to highlight Cruise's breath-holding skills, cuts were edited in, which kind of spoils the effect.

***

Ferguson

Who is Ethan Hunt? None of the previous Mission: Impossible films seem particularly interested in this question. Hunt is a cipher – he's a good guy who does dangerous stuff to get the job done, and for the most part, that's all we needed to know.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, however, changes things up. It's the first film in the series to really try to get to the heart of what makes Ethan Hunt tick. And the answer is kind of obvious: he's crazy. I'm not talking in the allegorical sense, either. I mean that Ethan Hunt is mentally ill.

In the previous films, Ethan Hunt did crazy things, but Rogue Nation is the first film to stop and suggest that maybe Ethan is actually insane himself. He's addicted to risk, to the point where it's becoming a problem. Ethan Hunt doesn't do what he does out of some noble cause to do the right thing. Instead, he does what he does because he's addicted to winning, consequences be damned. He's willing to put his life, and the lives of everyone around him, at serious risk just so he can come out on top. These are not the actions of a hero. These are the actions of a sociopath.

It's gutsy for the Mission: Impossible series to suddenly take a step back after five films and say that the franchise's main character is kind of a bad person. And it makes for the best entry in the franchise to date.

Writer-director McQuarrie brings a new sensibility to the franchise. His action scenes aren't as kinetic and wild as Brad Bird's, but they are clean and exhilarating. McQuarrie made a point of making sure every action beat in the film is shot in a way that we can see what's happening – no shaky cam, no extreme close-ups. The scenes look like they're really happening – not being pieced together via editing.

On top of that, McQuarrie and co-writer Drew Pearce end up crafting the most plot-heavy Mission yet, and what a blast it is. This script is airtight, folks. Like the first Mission, Rogue Nation draws on conspiracy thrillers like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View, while also keeping the action moving. Sure, there's some derivative stuff here – Hunt and the IMF are once again disavowed; Hunt is once again on the run. Yet it all seems fresh, thanks to the script, and thanks to the welcomed addition of Rebecca Ferguson.

When it came time to make the film, McQuarrie wanted to bring something fresh to the franchise. "I laid the previous four movies on top of one another and realized that the one thing I hadn't seen was a woman who was an equal to Tom and not just a member of his team," the director said. "I wanted someone who would keep him on his toes and drive the story forward, and provide a kind of romantic element but not an actual romance."

Ilsa Faust isn't a female Ethan Hunt. She's her own unique character, and in many ways, she upstages Hunt. In the old days of Cruise's stardom, the actor likely wouldn't have let this happen. But the Tom Cruise of the 21st century is a different type of star. Before Rogue Nation, Cruise took a backseat to Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow, which resulted in Blunt stealing the show. McQuarrie later said that there would be no Ilsa Faust without Blunt's character in Edge, and the implication is clear: Cruise had learned that audiences didn't want to see him always in control. They wanted him to take a few steps back and let his female co-stars shine.

It helps that Ilsa is so damn compelling. When we first meet the character, we're not quite sure if she's friend or foe. And this uncertainty continues throughout the majority of the film. She inhabits a grey area, and we (along with Ethan Hunt) are never quite sure if we can trust her. But we want to trust her. This is because Ferguson is so damn good in the part. She somehow mixes an iciness with warmth, making Ilsa seem approachable, but not too approachable. She also kicks some serious ass, nimbly flipping around during one-on-one fights.

And holy moley, does she look great doing it. Please forgive me as I get a bit male gaze-y here, but Ferguson is gorgeous, and the camera knows it. It's clear McQuarrie understands the actress and character's sex appeal, and he plays it up big time – there are several shots where the camera lingers on Ilsa's toned legs that border on leering (I'm not complaining, though).

What's most refreshing about all of this, however, is that the sexuality never seems exploitative. And on top of that, it never leads to a full-blown romance between Ilsa and Ethan. There's a mutual attraction there, and the duo have chemistry, but the film isn't building towards a moment where the two are going to have a big, passionate smooch.

In the film's climactic moments, the true nature of Ethan Hunt begins to shine through. Benji has been kidnapped by creepy bad guy Solomon Lane (and kudos to McQuarrie for making Benji the hostage rather than going with a more-obvious damsel-in-distress angle), and the best way to save Benji is to go after the Prime Minister of the UK.

At this point, Renner's Brandt – and the film itself – takes a step back, and asks: What the fuck is Ethan Hunt's deal? Brandt calls Ethan out for taking so many risks all in the name of winning. Ethan seems hurt by this question – "Is that what you think this is?" he asks Brandt. Ethan may be in denial, and sure, he does want to save Benji. But when you boil it down, winning is what this is all about. Ethan Hunt needs to win. At all costs. Consequences be damned.

It's a dark moment of self-reflection that caught me off-guard when I first saw the film. And it doesn't last long. The movie then barrels towards its conclusion, first staging a hilarious comedy-of-errors sequence in which Ethan impersonates Atlee, the Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service – Ilsa's corrupt boss who secretly created the Syndicate – in order to get to the Prime Minister. Present during this scene is Alec Baldwin as Alan Hunley, a CIA chief who has spent the bulk of the film trying to catch Hunt. Baldwin's work here is magnificent – when he realizes he's been duped by Hunt, he has a stunned, amusing look on his face that's silent acting at its finest.

In the end, Ethan Hunt wins. He stops the Syndicate, and, interestingly enough, he lets the bad guy live. All the other villains in the franchise have met violent ends, but Solomon Lane gets to live another day. And Ilsa Faust gets to go her separate way. All is well.

And where does the franchise go from here? I honestly don't know. Mission: Impossible – Fallout will continue Ethan Hunt's never-ending saga. It will no doubt involve lots of running and lots of impossible stunts. And I never want it to end. This franchise essentially reboots itself with each film – mostly new team, new bad guys, new mission. And Tom Cruise somehow keeps defying the ageing process. As long as they want to keep making these missions, I will continue to choose to accept them.

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The Stats

Best Mission: Rogue Nation. The script is tight, the characters are wonderful, and at entry 5, the series somehow seems fresher than ever.

Best Direction: Brian De Palma, Mission: Impossible. To be clear: all of the M:I films are well-directed, and all have their own particular strengths. Brad Bird is the best at staging action set pieces, while John Woo is the best in terms of fight scenes. J.J. Abrams brings a surprisingly gritty, nasty vibe to the franchise with his direction. And Christopher McQuarrie excels at getting great performances from the cast. But De Palma's direction can't be beat. His film is the most muted of all the Mission's, but he still directs the hell out of the thing.

Best Villain: Owen Davian.

Worst Villain: Sean Ambrose.

Best Femme Fatale: Ilsa Faust.

Best IMF Director: A tie between Eugene Kittridge and Alan Hunley. Kittridge is a lot of fun, but Hunley gets a lot more to do.

Best Team Member: Ving Rhames' Luther Stickell deserves an honorable mention for sticking with the entire franchise, but I honestly think I have to give this to Simon Pegg's Benjamin "Benji" Dunn, who steals almost all of the scenes he's featured in.

Worst Team Member: Billy Baird. Yawn.

Best Crazy Stunt That Could've Killed Tom Cruise: The Burj Khalifa tower sequence from Ghost Protocol. The plane scene from the opening of Rogue Nation is a close second, but the Burj Khalifa tower climb is breathtaking. I literally felt a sense of vertigo mixed with anxiety while re-watching it at home on my couch, so I can only imagine how it felt to actually do it.