Six Damn Fine Degrees #120: Missions Impossible

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Learning that films are going to disappear from a streaming service is a good motivation for finally watching them. Suddenly there’s a deadline, and if it’s missed, who knows when there’ll be a chance to catch up. So it was that at the end of February 2023, I found myself rushing through the entire cinematic Mission Impossible franchise, as a sinister countdown clock ticked down to all the films self-destructing (on that streaming service only).

I’d seen a couple of them before, in cinemas on release, but had drifted away from the franchise just as it was becoming increasingly more critically acclaimed. But in the back of my mind there was a faint coded signal reminding me that all these films existed, that they were meant to be good and that I should probably get round to watching them one day. With the upcoming release of a two-part finale to the franchise – or at least Tom Cruise’s iteration of it – I decided to accept going through them all.

1996’s Mission: Impossible bears the unmistakable stamp of director Brian De Palma. Several of his films – Obsession, Dressed To Kill, Body Double – are rightly ascribed as Hitchcock homages. But it’s surprising that this film doesn’t also get that tag. It does feel like a script that Hitchcock would have loved to get his teeth into. A storyline centering on a man on the run, not knowing who he can trust, tense sequences that exist to be purely cinematic (the plot reasons for it all evaporating if you actually think about it) – De Palma dons the mask of Hitchcock to pull off the film’s best moments. Being reminded of Hitchcock does have its drawbacks though: you can’t stop noticing that Tom Cruise really is no Cary Grant. And the whole film collapses in a Channel Tunnel action setpiece which is genuinely risible.

The ending aside, it’s still a pretty good film. Audiences at the time thought so, so four years later Mission: Impossible 2 turned up. If the first one had been a little light Hitchcock, this turned out to be Don Simpson coke-fuelled High Concept Action turned up to 11. Unfunny, misogynistic, nonsensical – it’s a mess of a film, and even the John Woo-directed action sequences have aged appallingly. Tom Cruise, having given up on trying to be Cary Grant, now gurns his way through the film like a smug Fabio.

There are six years before Mission: Impossible III turns up. It is odd binging these things. You press a button while the end credits of film 2, and in a fraction of a second there’s a huge jump. A lengthy production gestation period with numerous false starts gets compressed into a moment. This makes the turnaround all the more startling. For a third film, this is the first one that actually feels like a script designed to launch a franchise. And it works. Saying something is “solid” always feels like damning with faint praise, but when so much entertainment out there fails to reach that level, it really shouldn’t be. It’s great that this film is so solid across the board. The script is engaging, the antagonist is a credible threat and the set pieces are superb, especially when Cruise and his team need to extract the MacGuffin. You feel that most action films since should be shown this film and told, “If you aren’t willing to be at the very least this good, why are you bothering.”

There was a five year gap before the franchise returned with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the numbers being ditched ironically just when the films were becoming more clearly episodic. It’s still learnt all the right lessons from the last film – and is an entertaining spy adventure. The script isn’t quite as good, though. As the story progresses it becomes ever more convoluted and nonsensical. And this unfortunately means the ending, where the film tries to resolve it all, doesn’t feel as tight and exciting as it should. But these are minor quibbles.

Christopher McQuarrie was brought in to do uncredited work on the script, and seems to have impressed Cruise enough to have not just got the gig for co-writing the next film but also to direct it. From here on in, the franchise acquires a very stable look and feel, contrasting with the frankly chaotic vast swings in the first few films. With Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, everything that was good in the last film gets turned up a little to being better. And the end result across the board is the best film in the franchise so far. Halfway through watching the film I had a moment of realisation: I hadn’t seen a single shot of Cruise adopting his smug grin face, frequently his default for important face-offs in the franchise. Instead he’s giving a great and likeable performance as a leading man.

This quality continues into the most recent film Mission: Impossible – Fallout. It probably doesn’t reflect well on me, but just dropping that seemingly smug element of his performance instantly makes his character, and the film he’s fronting, far more engaging for me. He allows himself to panic, to seem vulnerable – making his inevitable success just seem more entertaining.

This film really does follow on from the last one, with characters and even plot points carrying over. It gives the film a greater sense of scale but at the same time it does make the plot become even more vastly nonsensical as the film progresses. It’s still a fun spy film, with a great twist and well-handled action showpiece finale.

That was it – mission accomplished. The film’s disappeared from the streaming service and I now await my instructions to see the next one in cinema in June 2023, followed by a big finale in 2024. If the last two are anything to go by, I expect it to be an entertaining action blockbuster, on an even larger and more confusing scale. And I’ll like Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt in them and miss him when he signs off. After the first two films, I would have said making me feel that way would have been a genuine Impossible Mission.

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