How the Mission: Impossible Franchise Has Overtaken Bond and Bourne

Chris Tilly

This week sees the release of Mission: Impossible Fallout, the sixth film in the lucrative spy series. And what started out an action-packed adaptation of a 1960s TV show has turned into one of the most consistently entertaining blockbuster franchises. One that delivers both excitement and thrills, and pushes the envelope in terms of what’s possible onscreen. In our opinion, the Mission: Impossible movies have out-Bonded Bond, and out-Bourned Bourne. For the following reasons…

The Star

When the first Mission: Impossible movie hit screens in 1996, movie adaptations of beloved TV shows were all the rage. Some were good (The Fugitive, Maverick) and some were bad (Sgt. Bilko, Car 54, Where Are You?). What made Mission: Impossible stand out from the crowd was the fact that the lead was the biggest movie star in the world at the time. Namely Tom Cruise.

Ethan Hunt isn’t the most interesting protagonist. He’s tough. Brave. Honourable. Meaning it’s been interesting watching his moral code get challenged as Hunt goes rogue, and makes some questionable decisions to save his loved one and/or the world. However, he doesn’t have Jason Bourne‘s mysterious past. Or James Bond‘s many demons.

But when Tom Cruise is playing the role, that doesn’t matter. He’s quite simply one of the most watchable actors in film history. The biggest movie star in 1996, and still the biggest movie star today, some 32 years on. When he started playing Hunt, Pierce Brosnsan was a solid if slightly smug 007 about to make some pretty average Bond films. He was replaced by Daniel Craig for brilliant reboot Casino Royale. But Craig looked utterly disinterested in his last outing, which could be felt by audiences throughout Spectre. Something which Cruise could never be accused of, no matter what the movie.

Matt Damon was a breath of fresh air as Jason Bourne, imbuing a trained assassin with true humanity, and giving Cruise a ‘run’ for his money when it came to looking good while sprinting onscreen. Indeed Identity/Supremacy/Ultimatum is one of the great film trilogies. But then all that good work was undone by pointless Jeremy Renner spin-off The Bourne Legacy. And when Damon returned for Jason Bourne, the material wasn’t up to scratch, and the star floundered.

That doesn’t happen with Cruise. Even in the weaker Mission Impossible movies — and M:I2 seems to be the least popular with critics and fans alike — he’s still selling every scene for all it’s worth. And of course, regularly putting his life on the line. Speaking of which…

The Stunts

From the moment Ethan Hunt attached himself to a wire suspended from the ceiling at CIA headquarters, the Mission: Impossible movies have taken movie action to the next level. So much so that the marketing campaigns for the more recent movies have focussed on stunts over cast and plot.

Bourne has his fair share of action, though it isn’t really in the same league. While Bond features amazing stunt-work, most notably in those legendary pre-credit sequences. But while the Bond actors — aside from Connery and Moore in their later years — do their own action on occassion, the 007 movies also utilise the world’s greatest stunt-men.

With Mission: Impossible the wow factor comes from the fact that it’s Cruise himself performing. Risking life and limb for the sake of his art. The first film ends with a stunning sequence that finds Ethan Hunt on top of a train, then on the side of a train, then leaping onto a helicopter. Which blows up, sending him flying back to the front of the train.

Trouble is, that scene was shot largely using CGI. In the intervening years, as that technology has come to dominate blockbusters, so audiences have been craving a dose of reality in their action. And the Mission: Impossible movies have delivered via Cruise’s derring-do.

We’ve watched him hold his breath underwater for six minutes (Rogue Nation), leap between skyscrapers in Shanghai (M:I3), ride a motorcycle like it’s a horse (M:I2), cling onto the outside of a plane as it takes off (Rogue Nation), and free climb in Utah (M:I2), flashing that trademark grin as he hangs from a cliff.

Ghost Protocol saw Cruise scale the Burj Khalifa using suction cups, a stunt that Fallout director Christopher McQuarrie told Rolling Stone casts a long shadow over the series. “It’s everything every Mission aspires to be. I risked my neck more than once making these movies and all the while, I could feel the Burj mocking me.”

In the new movie, Cruise becomes the first actor to perform a HALO Jump onscreen. Climbing to 25,000 feet in a plane travelling at 165mph. Then leaping out and flying toward the camera at 200mph, where he has to hit his mark. Without getting hypoxia and the bends, or hitting the cameraman and dying. A special helmet was crafted for the actor that was both prop and life-saving device. While Cruise had to perform the stunt 100 times before it was in the can. Now that’s commitment.

The Directors

The Mission: Impossible films are kept fresh thanks to Cruise hand-picking the director for each outing. Matching skills to the material. Or developing the movie alongside each filmmaker. Meaning each outing has its own distinct style and flavour.

Brian De Palma directed the first movie, and as the master of making movies that pay homage to ‘Master of Suspense’ Alfred Hitchcock, it’s maybe the most tense of the M:I movies. Most notably during the aforementioned scene in which Hunt is suspended from the ceiling, but also via the cross and double-cross that results in Ethan not being able to trust anyone. De Palma loves to use split-screen, and utilises the technique here via windows on a computer screen. Which again amps up the tension.

John Woo loves bullets and doves and slow-motion action. And M:I2 features all three. Unfortunately, it also frequently feels like a case of style over substance. But the film nevertheless features its fair share of fantastic stunts. And if this is the worst entry in your franchise, you’re doing just fine.

J.J. Abrams had worked with ensembles on TV via Felicity, Alias and Lost. So where M:I2 felt like a standalone movie revolving around the film’s hero, M:I3 widened the scope to include all the Impossible Mission Force (IMF). An approach that continues as the franchise progresses. Abrams also has a background in writing as much as directing, and so, alongside co-writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, crafted the series’ best villain in the shape of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s deranged arms dealer Owen Davian. While he also supplied Hoffman and Cruise with some crackling dialogue, the grandstanding scene in which they meet rivalling the movie’s action sequences.

Brad Bird directed The Incredibles, and Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol takes its cues from that movie in a couple of ways. The interplay between IMF agents is reminiscent of the banter between members of the Parr family. Making it perhaps the funniest M:I movie yet. Then there’s the action. Being animation, The Incredibles could pretty much do want it wanted without worrying about budget, resulting in action sequences that built and built, folding into each other. In Ghost Protocol, Mission: Impossible endeavours to do much the same, with the Dubai sequence taking up a good chunk of the movie, and kicking off with the Burj Khalifa climb, followed by a desert storm, and then an incredible motorcycle chase. Taking what was previously only possible in animation and turning it into live-action movie magic.

Christopher McQuarrie is very much a writer-turned-director, making his name with The Usual Suspects script before helming The Way of the Gun and Jack Reacher. As the director of both Rogue Nation and Fallout, he becomes the first helmer to pull double duty on a Mission: Impossible movie. Which makes sense, as the two films are linked via an ongoing storyline and a returning villain. With McQuarrie bringing a narrative cohesion to proceedings, which we wouldn’t be surprised to see continue into future instalments.

The Team

James Bond is a lone wolf who won’t let himself get close to anyone. Jason Bourne similarly likes to work alone, for much the same reason. Ethan Hunt should probably do the same, as bad things seem to happen to the people around him. But he’s part of the Impossible Mission Force, and so for most of the movie’s he’s working with a team.

And this sets the M:I movies apart from the competition. The IMF gang providing mission support, comic relief, and the potential for villainy if a double-cross is required. They are also expendable for when the movies need a moment of high drama. Something that happened early in the first film, via the jaw-dropping moment when Emilio Estevez’s unbilled character was murdered in cold blood. The killing of a movie star suggesting all bets were off in the M:I franchise.

IMF members come and go, but a few have stuck around for multiple movies. Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) showed up in M:I2 and is a computer specialist as well as Ethan’s long-time friend. Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) joined the team in Ghost Protocol, and is a technician-turned-field agent who regularly mugs for the camera. William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) first appeared in Rogue Nation, as an analyst and field agent skilled in hand-to-hand combat. While Isla Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) showed up in the same film, and as a former member of both MI6 and The Syndicate, proves to be more than a match for Ethan and co.

They add star power to proceedings, the talented cast able to carry the film when Cruise isn’t onscreen. While more recently IMF has felt like something of a family, encouraging the audience to care about the characters. Which simply wasn’t the case when the franchise kicked off in 1996. Finally, and most importantly, with Hunt being po-faced and super-serious, they bring a sense of fun to proceedings. Making the Mission: Impossible movies not only the most spectacular of the big screen spy series, but also the most entertaining.

Chris Tilly
FANDOM Managing Editor in the UK. At this point my life is a combination of 1980s horror movies, Crystal Palace football matches, and episodes of I'm Alan Partridge. The first series. When he was in the travel tavern. Not the one after.