Mission Impossible Fallout Trailer

What if Tom Cruise was James Bond? The Mission: Impossible series, now six films strong, is the answer. Through the decades-spanning franchise, Cruise has played a secret agent surrounded by gadgets, spycraft, and gorgeous women. The major difference between Ethan Hunt of the IMF and James Bond of MI6 is that Hunt has a habit for indulging in death-defying stunts.

Which is the craziest? Which film is the best? Where does new film Mission: Impossible – Fallout fall in the series? Read on.

(Major spoilers for the first five films in the series and minor spoilers for Fallout lie ahead.)

6. Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)

If the first Mission: Impossible is all about Tom Cruise embodying the origin story of an Americanized James Bond, then the second Mission: Impossible is all about Tom Cruise trying very hard to be cool. He feels like a human version of Poochie from The Simpsons. When we first see Ethan, he’s climbing up a cliff face, ‘cause why not. Throughout the film, Ethan (with longer hair than the close-cropped ‘do Cruise had in the original) dons snappy dark sunglasses, wears black, rides motorcycles, and sports a slick black leather jacket. Because, see, he’s cool.

The self-consciously forced sense of coolness is amplified by the man behind the camera: John Woo. Woo was only a few years removed from Face/Off, and while this movie isn’t quite as gory or bombastic, it has its moments. The basic premise is intriguing enough—Ethan faces off (ahem) against a rogue IMF agent named Sean Ambrose, who’s an inverted version of our hero—but Woo’s style is something you get behind or you don’t. (You can gather which side I’m on.)

Woo’s recognizable trademarks — slow motion, physics-defying stunts, a shit-ton of doves — are all present, and unavoidably goofy. (When, in a slow-motion shot, we see a dove fly in front of Ethan, basically introducing his presence, it’s hard not to laugh.) The climactic battle between Hunt and Ambrose, you may recall, involves them playing chicken with motorcycles, after which they run into each other, dive off said motorcycles (which explode in mid-air), and grapple to the death.

What’s unique about this movie, much like its predecessor (we’ll get there in a bit), is how much of it belongs to the director. It’s understandable to see this as Tom Cruise’s franchise, both in terms of who headlines the film and who produces it. But Mission: Impossible is unquestionably a Brian de Palma film, and Mission: Impossible 2 is unquestionably a John Woo film. Cruise was likely careful in selecting the filmmaker, but this isn’t a case where a director comes on board specifically to service the star’s vision. (Or Tom Cruise’s vision was, “I want John Woo to make a John Woo movie featuring me.”)

Mission: Impossible 2 features little continuity with the original, aside from Ethan and his cohort Luther Stickell. Otherwise, the cast is new, including an uncredited, pleased-to-get-paid Anthony Hopkins as Hunt’s superior, and his future Westworld co-star Thandie Newton as Nyah Nordoff-Hall, a gorgeous thief whose previous romantic connection to Ambrose makes her a vital part of Hunt’s mission to stop Ambrose from selling a murderous virus to terrorists.

As with the first film, this sequel heavily pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock, specifically his masterpiece Notorious, in which a sly secret agent recruits a beautiful woman to use her looks and charm to seduce an evil man. (The original Mission: Impossible has lots of Hitchcock allusions, but none of them are so specific to one film and the action isn’t…goofy.) Part of what makes the homage odd is that the second half essentially jettisons it; Newton is indeed jaw-droppingly beautiful, enough so you buy Hunt and Ambrose battling over Nyah, but the character is a prop in the second hour.

The other problem plagues the whole franchise: the villain is pretty dull. Dougray Scott plays Ambrose, a Scottish IMF agent who we first see in disguise as…Ethan. (He wears that mask often in the film. Lots of masks in this one. So, people take their…faces off. Ahem.) The notion that Ethan and Ambrose are two sides of the same coin allows for Ambrose to spot Ethan’s character traits and exploit them as flaws. During a mid-film break-in, Ambrose is smart enough to know what Hunt will do; he also mocks Cruise’s constant, shit-eating grin. But Scott can’t make Ambrose terribly exciting. He’s slightly better than Jim Phelps was in the original, but only just. The rest of the movie can’t even begin to compare.

5. Mission: Impossible III (2006)

In 2018, Mission: Impossible III is compelling to watch for unexpected reasons. In this film, the series doubles down on the idea that Ethan Hunt is both charming and insane. (Considering how public opinion on Tom Cruise soured in the mid-2000s, it’s interesting subtext.) Think of an early scene, when Ethan co-hosts a party with his fiancée Julia (Michelle Monaghan). She’s talking to friends in the kitchen, telling the story of how she met Ethan; he’s 50 feet away in an entirely different room, spying on them by reading their lips before he corrects her (again, from 50 feet away in a house full of music and chatter) about the name of the lake where they met. He’s charismatic. But he’s nuts.

This movie also features the best possible distillation of Tom Cruise in cinema. By the Shanghai-set climax, Ethan has been put through the ringer emotionally and physically. He’s failed to rescue one of his IMF trainees (Keri Russell), leading him to try and nab a nefarious arms dealer, Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Soon enough, Davian escapes, kidnaps Julia, and blackmails Ethan into robbing something called the Rabbit’s Foot in 48 hours, or else he’ll kill Julia. When Ethan learns of Julia’s location, even with an explosive charge in his head, he can only get there on foot.

So what does Ethan do? He does what Tom Cruise does best, and most compellingly on screen: he runs. J.J. Abrams, in his feature directorial debut, films Cruise running down the Shanghai harbor frantically, in an unbroken 20-second shot barely keeping pace with the star. (In this specific movie, 20 seconds is a long time for a single shot; it’s a bit too jittery.) Why not 20 seconds? There’s something weirdly hypnotic just watching Tom Cruise run and run and run.

The movie surrounding that scene is as straightforward as these films get. Abrams, and co-writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, tells a story with another IMF mole but in a way that feels familiar to their TV work. Simon Pegg’s first turn as IMF techie Benji Dunn feels like a British version of the nerdy Marshall from Alias. (Cruise chose Abrams only after binge-watching that ABC drama.) The twists regarding the mole feel similar to the back-and-forths on Alias about which characters are working for or against the enemy; hell, having Russell appear is a nod to Alias being pitched as “Felicity as a spy”.

That said, Alias proved a decent testing ground for Abrams’ feature career. He’s come a long way since then — would you have believed that this film’s director would take the lead for new Star Wars films? — but Mission: Impossible III is a solid start. The action sequences, from a rescue in Berlin that culminates in a chase between two helicopters in the middle of wind-powered fans to a massive shootout on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, are suitably intense without featuring insanely death-defying stunts. There’s even continuity here, though you have to listen for it — when Luther lays out a plan to break into a Shanghai laboratory to steal the Rabbit’s Foot, he offhandedly mentions that Langley was comparatively a cakewalk.

This film’s most remarkable/frustrating element is Owen Davian. Hoffman is the series’ best villain, while also being painfully underused. He has basically four scenes and not even a half-hour of screen time. When he shows up, he makes an incalculable impact. In the opening scene, which takes place near the finale — an in medias res storytelling choice that Abrams used a lot on Alias — Owen makes good on a threat as he seems to kill Julia because Ethan didn’t give him the Rabbit’s Foot. Ethan, who thought he had given over the Rabbit’s Foot, tries to negotiate but fails. It’s a fake-out, but this scene’s tension isn’t topped by the rest of the film. Mission: Impossible III is a good movie. Shame that Abrams started with the best scene and left his villain on the sidelines.

Continue Reading Ranking the Mission: Impossible Movies >>

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