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March: Missions: Impossible

This month I dove into the series of Mission: Impossible movies from 1996 to 2015. The series is based on the TV show from the late '60's-early '70's that was a reaction to the James Bond movies that had an emphasis on a team of spies rather than an individual hero. I believe I've only seen a couple of reruns of the original series back in the mid-nineties and even though I don't remember quite what happened in the episode but I do remember it left me with a feeling of excitement from the opening credit theme song and burning fuse. While the movie series seems to be based around the superhuman stunts of Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt character, he always has a team affiliated with him even if a lot of what he does is ignoring their advice when the story needs a little extra tension.

A grab bag of directors

The five movies that have been released (so far) all have different directors, most have different styles, and there are just three constants. Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt is always the hero, Ving Rhames's character is always on his team and they are all executive produced by Cruise. There isn't always a consistency of love interests who is on the IMF team or who is Hunt's boss.

These movies are Tom Cruise's babies, he picks his stunts, the directors and sometimes he comes up with the stories. Obviously he's a weird guy in real life and some of his acting choices have been just as weird, yet some of them have been brilliant. It's as though there is more than one Tom Cruise. I think I like him as an actor because I like him in Magnolia, Edge of Tomorrow and Eyes Wide Shut, but there have been large chunks of his career where it is hard to watch him because he is only playing characters that have boners for being Tom Cruise that they can't stop grinning about. Why do you think he runs like that? Yet, in his good roles he pokes fun at himself or works especially hard as though he feels he'll never be in a movie again like in Eyes Wide Shut where Stanley Kubrick tried to break him down and throw serious tension at his marriage with Nicole Kidman (success!). Yet there he was, working on shooting Eyes Wide Shut for just under two years without any other projects in the meantime. Whether it's being tortured by Stanley Kubrick for two years or being strapped to the outside of a plane, the guy puts in effort.

Mission: Impossible poster, 1996.

For the first installment of the franchise, a skinny Tom Cruise worked with director Brian De Palma. M:I1 was a bit of an odd playful action movie compared to darker entries of his filmography: Carrie, Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables, Carlito's Way and The Black Dahlia. This first Mission movie is a dark concept to open the series with as it establishes the IMF team with Tom Cruise chuckling it up with the other team members including an uncredited Emilio Esteves. They don't wait long to kill off the rest of the team and so 1996 was the last time Emilio Esteves was in major movies released in theaters.

This is a movie about breaking up the spy team and the loss of trust in a team. Jon Voight is the first head of the IMF and is the first to double cross the team. Hunt reforms a team out of the ashes with disavowed agents and is double crossed again by one of these members played by Jean Reno. Ving Rhames joins the Ethan Hunt IMF team in this movie and he comes back in every movie, yet they hardly ever seem to have a buddy relationship as characters or a storyline with just the two of them. Rhames is often the guy in a chair for missions as noted in Spiderman: Homecoming.

We get a very skinny Tom Cruise in this movie. His baby face might be what makes him passable as an action star that plays a few decades younger than he really is now-a-days, so it's only in hindsight looking 22 years back that this Ethan Hunt looks like a kid. There is a little of that hindsight realization with technology in this movie. As the second IMF team is trying to steal back a list of agents, the movie relies on the slower, clunkier, single purposed technology of the time to create great tension especially in the iconic "dangling from the ceiling" scene. If this movie took place today it would be absurd for him to he hanging for so long as a guy gets back from the bathroom as he waits for the flash drive to download the info. In a refreshing way, the antiquated technology absolutely makes this movie.

Because of the iconic dangling scene in the middle of the movie it is easy to forget 22 years later that there is a pretty impressive action sequence for the climax on the train. It starts with a pretty cool establishing shot of the high speed train in the countryside from a distance and the camera slowly swings in from a distance and ultimately comes through a window on the moving train in on a briefcase. It's a bit of a Citizen Kane camera move of coming in from the sledding slope through the window and into the den where the adults are negotiating the adoption of Kane as a child. This culminates in a fight on the top of the train that echos in The Wolverine set in Japan, and a helicopter chase/crash in the train tunnel.

M:I-2 poster, 2000.

Tom Cruise comes back as Mountain Dew Ethan Hunt with floppy hair and an annoying grin. The floppy hair doesn't in the action of the movie as it makes him look completely ridiculous while running, the one thing Tom Cruise loves to do most of all. This movie introduces Hunt by letting the audience know that it is set in the 1990's with Cruise dramatically rock climbing in the desert so that he can receive his message and toss aside some exploding wrap around sunglasses. The only things missing were some Nu Metal on the soundtrack and a can of Surge... wait, there is some Limp Bizkit on the soundtrack. The actual first scene appears to show Hunt hijacking a plane and crashing it into a mountain before revealing that it is really a baddie in a Tom Cruise skin suit.

John Woo took over the direction of this installment based on his US resume of such classics as Hard Target, Broken Arrow, and Face/Off. As is his style, this has fast cuts, crazy angles, lighting and tints and it happens to have a muddle electric guitar score by Hans Zimmer. Woo's track record as an action director enabled him to entice a big actor who was a fan of action movies to bring some gravitas to the movie, Anthony Hopkins who came on to be the head of the IMF just for this movie.

Thandie Newton is a thief turned spy and joins Cruise and Rhames on the IMF team and she is one of the best love interests for Hunt, until the fifth movie. A post-Braveheard, pre-everything else Brandon Gleeson is one of the bad guys who ends up turning on his compatriots. This is a crazy action movie that's so over the top that it's a really fun time. John Woo's career as a director in the US didn't last much longer as a relic of the '90's, but a good chunk of the cast either continued their success or were given more opportunities since then. Unfortunately Thandie Newton wasn't given a chance to continue in the film series, however she has had a pretty successful career ever since.

Mission: Impossible 3 poster, 2006.

J.J. Abrams takes the reins as director in the third installment and he didn't mess around when it came to casting this movie. This has a strong trio of actresses in Keri Russell, Maggie Q and Michelle Monaghan. Unfortunately, Monaghan is the main love interest in a storyline that is awkward and uninteresting (she doesn't know she's engaged to a spy!) and her character is too wholesome for the movie. Russell is an exciting character who seems to nearly bring as much weight to the movie as Cruise himself, even though she is disposed of pretty early in the movie. Maggie Q is a really cool member of the IMF team although she doesn't get to graduate to the next movie with Rhames and Simon Pegg who is introduced in this movie.

This was Abrams' first feature length movie he had directed after running a few successful TV shows and he seemed to be figuring out his own style compared to the two previous MI movies. Perhaps Abrams was trying to jump off the stylization of the John Woo installment but he made the curious decision to shoot this with the coloring of Tony or Ridley Scott movies and the handheld camera of the Bourne movies. This was the first post- Bourne movie for these movies and by this time it was well known how the James Bond franchise had nearly killed itself by not adapting to a more realistic style. Daniel Craig did not have his first Bond movie released until seven months later and at this time the only talk about that franchise was the controversy that James Bond would be blonde.

This was Philip Seymour Hoffman's first major role after winning an Oscar for Capote and he gave a more understated performance than one would have expected if he were to play a Bond villain. It's a shame he never got the chance to cackle at Daniel Craig while hanging him off a cliff in Switzerland. Billy Crudup is a mole in IMF and he comes across as a more interesting villain than Hoffman and he is more of a henchman.

The action sequences aren't quite as big as the other movies. There is a clever set piece where the IMF team shoots baseballs at a building to distract security as Cruise swings in and slides along the roof but it lacks the grandiosity of other MI stunts. The one interesting action sequence has Hunt running through the streets of Shanghai. When the sequence ends and Hunt and his fiance are out of danger the color scheme changes to a more natural tones that the next two movies employ.

Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol poster, 2011.

To quote the great American poet Xzibit on the Dr. Dre song "Loose Cannons," "I spent my birthday in Dubai, sky rise surprise and I'm dressed like a spy. Black tux all you fucks guess what? I'm going to blow your, oh no." Brad Bird was a first time live action director with Ghost Protocol and he left the Pixar drawing room to take Ethan Hunt to the tallest building in the world. Rhames and Pegg are back on the team and Jeremy Renner joins as a permanent member of the IMF (and maybe the head or spokesperson?).

The ladies don't quite get a chance to hang around. Maggie Q has disappeared, replaced by Paula Patton who really could have been the Maggie Q character, and Michelle Monaghan is treated as though she had died since the last movie (it turns out she faked her own death and moved on from her relationship with Hunt so that no spies feel like killing her to get to him). Paula Patton may be the new girl on the team, but she mysteriously disappears from the team for the next movie. Lea Seydoux is a pretty great villain in the movie, although maybe not as menacing as she gets in The Lobster, but it is a chance for Tom Cruise to work with a future Bond Girl.

This movie is the start of the great set pieces in this series, and it only took them four installments to get there. There's the highlight sequence on the side of the at the Burj Khalifa in Dubai that extends to a foot chase then car chase involving a sandstorm. A pretty great prison break to opens the film and tries to give some explanation of where Ethan Hunt has been between movies. The break into the Kremlin and subsequent explosion sequence ends up being a plot point that carries over to the main crux of the next movie where IMF is under scrutiny. Finally, the movie comes down to a relatively small fight in a fancy car garage that results in a missile tumbling from the sky in San Francisco. All of these action sequences are chances for Tom Cruise to show how he thinks humans run and also let us know that even though he has longer hair, it's not nearly as ridiculous as it was in Mission: Impossible 2.

This was Brad Bird's first live action movie after directing The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille. He followed up his live action filmography with Tomorrowland, a movie that was not enjoyed at the box office or by critics but I'll admit that I find to be a nice movie about trying to make an effort to make a better future for the world. He worked with cinematographer Robert Elswit who is probably to thank for the much better coloring and lighting of the movie after the previous two installments were a bit too harsh in the color tones or filters. Not only had Elswit worked on a Bond movie before (Tomorrow Never Dies) and a Bourne movie (The Bourne Legacy) but he has a pretty prestigious filmography working with Paul Thomas Anderson on Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood and Inherent Vice, and being nominated for an Oscar for Good Night, and Good Luck.

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation poster, 2015.

Elswit was back for Rogue Nation but this time worked with director Christopher McQuarrie who Tom Cruise enlisted for the job by asking him on set of Edge of Tomorrow after the two of them had previously worked on Jack Reacher. The team holds on to Pegg, Rhames and Renner and the new head of the IMF Alec Baldwin establishes himself to probably return in the upcoming installment. There appears to be a new love interest/ female team member of the IMF team in Rebecca Ferguson. She is introduced in the opera sequence wearing a yellow dress. This dress has become a iconic image of this movie and it only came about to be functional for steadying a rifle and as another color of gown compared to the back dress and red dress of Maggie Q and Thandie Newton in previous movies.

On the back of Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation is filled with great action set pieces. The movie opens with Tom Cruise clinging to the side of a plane and gets to the opera sequence in the same act that is used as an introduction to Ferguson's character. This all leads up to the big action sequence in the middle of the movie where Cruise dives into a water turbine, drowns, is resuscitated, enters into a car and motorcycle chase that results in a pretty dramatic wipe out. There is a face swapping sequence with the Prime Minister of the UK and a dramatic shootout where Hunt cannot be shot by the bad guys because he has memorized all of the numbers in the world. Okay, the memorization of the bank accounts is pretty dumb and feels like an idea from on set where everyone high-fived their own douche-y "brilliance" for an hour after.

This is one of the more unfortunate movies for Ving Rhames who is barely there and is only used to show how immobile he is in his older age and lack of physical prowess. This doesn't have to be in the movie even if it is the case for the actor because of EDITING. They could have made him run as fast Captain America... let's face it, Tom Cruises erect running style isn't getting him anywhere fast even his longer than short, shorter than floppy hair. Not with that erection. It appears Ving Rhames has lost some bet where he is doomed to be in all of these MI movies to act out of shape and confused before Tom Cruise says "Jesus Ving, you're still alive!?!"

So far, this is the best of the Mission: Impossible movies and it came out in a great year for spy movies. Bridge of Spies was an Oscar nominated spy movie, Spy was a Melissa McCarthy slapstick comedy, American Ultra was a drugged out action movie that forgot about laundry day, MI-5 was a Kit Harrington vehicle made to confuse people of the fifth Mission: Impossible (okay it's really based on a British TV show) and Sicario is a flat-out great movie that happens to involve the CIA.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E poster, 2015.

Mission: Impossible wasn't the only 60's TV show that was a reaction to James Bond to hit the big screen, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. hit the screens staring Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill and Alicia Vikander. Vikander won an Oscar that year, Hammer was in an Oscar Nominated film and Cavill had to have his mustache digitally removed from his Superman face because he was also shooting the next Mission: Impossible movie. This under-the-radar movie might have been one of my favorites of the year as the only franchise spy movie that was made as a period piece.

Kingsman: The Secret Service was not based on a TV show but a series of graphic novels that were a reaction to James Bond. Kingsman gives a James Bond-type the origin story that Bond never had and it also delays the fade outs of romance or celebration or brutal violence that preserved the modesty of Bond in his own movies. It's not quite a spy team like Mission: Impossible, but more about a spy organization with a focus on an individual, which is still an expansion on Bond who only show's his boss, M, his secretary, Moneypenny, and his equipment manager, Q, with no further explanation of the double-Oh system of spying.

This brings us to one of the more disappointing spy movies of the year, the headliner, Spectre. This was the Bond movie of the year, it does have an opening in Mexico City that I enjoy and a plane sliding on a snowy slope set piece that works well, but it tries just too hard. The first two Daniel Craig Bond movies were great because they were a continuation of each other, Quantum of Solace begins moments after the end of Casino Royale and the end of Quantum wraps up a loose end from Casino. Spectre tries to tie all of the Craig Bonds together under the masterminding of Blofeld, a character that the Bond producers did not have the rights to nor did they have plans to include until the making of Spectre. The result is pretty clunky and coupled with the awkward age difference and lack of romantic chemistry between Craig and bond girl/MI villain Lea Seydoux this is the least compelling Bond movie in a while. Ultimately, it is this mishit by the Bond franchise that made the Bond inspired spy movies of 2015 that much more impressive.

In the end of this experience of watching all five Mission: Impossible movies in a month I have found a few interesting things. Tom Cruises hair can do a lot toward how unbearable or how relatable he is as an actor. It's pretty clear he invested so much into these movies perhaps not because of an affinity for 1960's spy TV shows, but an affinity for James Bond movies and their stunts. It hasn't just been in the Mission: Impossible movies, I recently caught some of Oblivion on TV and the love interest for Tom Cruise in that movie is former Bond Girl Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace). These movies have been a playground for big directors or rising stars who have always wanted to make spy movies and weren't getting calls from the Bond producers. Finally, I don't get what they're doing with Ving Rhames, maybe he keeps showing up because they have great craft services or the Scientology tent is hilarious, but it can't be because they're giving him much respect in the scripts to give him a story line.

Next Month: There is a bit of excitement in the Talbot Household over the Fantastic Beasts trailer for the fall so I am going to enlist my wife's great Potterverse fandom to team up on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

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