Top 5 Reasons Why Mission:Impossible is the Best Action Movie Franchise
By Bret Dorman
(As always, SPOILERS! may be in the following article)This week Mission:Impossible:Ghost Protocol came out on DVD/BluRay. If you haven’t already seen it, do yourself a favor and build a time machine and go back to when it first came out and watch it on iMax. Because I can confirm watching this on my iPad was not nearly as awesome. If for some reason you don’t want to invest that sort of time and energy to risk all sorts of apocalyptic paradoxes then I GUESS watching it at home on a TV screen will do just fine. It’s still guaranteed to be the Best Straight Up Action Movie of 2011 and definitely sets a new bar for pacing/characterization in Actioners.
Which made me start thinking… what action franchise actually gets better the more sequels it has? And how does this even happen? I said while reviewing Underworld: Evolution I have a very finicky depiction of what a franchise actually is. To me it is more like a movie that branches out to beyond just film and also has toys, games, and clothing apparel. M:I has none of that really (except for some video games here and there). But, in the true ‘franchise’ sense of the word, M:I feels like a brand name that is bought and used to sell “Action Movie with spies starring Tom Cruise”. It’s not until M:I:3 -> M:I:4 did we have any real story connection.
But when competing with Die Hard, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Fast and The Furious, Underworld, Terminator and more, what makes M:I stand out as the best collection of a singular franchise? Here are the answers!
5) Perfect use of PG-13.
While PG13 can mean big money, it can also mean lame action. Much more of a death sentence for horror movies, the widely controversial rating is usually something a movie studio will have to lower itself to. An R Rated cut is made and then stuff is taken out to make it ‘nicer’ and ‘more family friendly’. Yeah… Right…
The Action Genre usually excels when it is at its most riveting, and the easiest way to do that is to make something graphically violent (but even this can get messed up or done crappily). There needs to be some sort of violence in your action movie, but it does not have to be explicit. The trick is… if you know you’re going for a PG13 rating… then don’t make every pay off a deliciously violent pay off that you cut short, because then your audience will feel robbed of something every time. Instead, make the action more adventure based. Make it your main character running away from something or chasing someone. Make it an escape scene or espionage scene where a device is the threat, not people that need to be ‘taken out’. Make your badguys more anonymous and less of a direct personal threat so we don’t crave to see them horribly ended, but are still satisfied when their evil plan is cut short.
In each M:I, the badguy is a badguy regardless of whether or not Ethan Hunt is on the job. And his actions are not explicitly horrible on a pure evil scale. Instead they ambiguously have done bad stuff in the past and desire to somehow end the world in some way or just want a couple of files. The worst (aka best) badguy of the group is Philip Seymor Hoffman who threatens to “hurt” Ethan’s wife and indeed kidnaps her. But even then nothing is done explicitly to her and his ending is pretty good (mirroring the first movie as well).
M:I excels at putting its characters in exciting situations and seeing how they can get out instead of the usual plethora of one on one fights and bloody kills. Check out this exciting scene from 4 where Brad Bird conveys so much of the action (and story) through visual gags and devices. No one is killed but you never feel disappointed or let down:
4) Release Date Appropriate
Mission: Impossible – 1996
Mission: Impossible II – 2000
Mission: Impossible III – 2006
Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol – 2011
With an average time gap of 5 years, M:I always manages to be relevant enough but not over done. It seems today most new franchises are greenlight the Monday after their opening weekend. Before the first one hits DVD we already know the plot of the second. Before we can fall in love with one actor’s portrayal of a character we are already getting upset he is being replaced in the next. On the other hand, some franchises wait too long and face obscurity. The people who loved the franchise have moved on, as if everything was set in stone. They own all the DVDs and now that nicely packaged boxset is incomplete. Even if you keep the same actors the magic might just be gone. And more often than not it becomes a punchline for a joke, usually involving a mock poster of its future sequels with a large number behind it or saying the main character will be wearing adult diapers this time around.
The danger action movie franchises face if they wait too long is being replaced. We have gone from every year having a couple of major tentpole big budget summer blockbusters to having at least a dozen new franchise entries or aspiring newcomers. And for most action movies its go big or go home. No one wants to see a dinky movie with lame special effects when there’s giant robots looking nice and polished on screen beating each other up. M:I has skirted that line of being not quite a huge blockbuster but always being a big enough pull to warrant its continuation. It is almost as if the franchise continues to exist purely for the fans but anyone who likes actioners or just wants to have an exciting time at the theater the week one comes out can totally enjoy the movie. In that regard, I hope to see M:I:5 no earlier that 2015.
3) (Lack of) Source Material
Mission: Impossible is not based on any source material. “NOT TRUE! Its based on a TV show!” Okay. Yes. It is LOOSELY based on a TV show. But to my knowledge Ethan Hunt was not a character on that show and neither were any of the movies’ missions. The show, in that sense, made a perfect movie franchise (as well as a show). It was a bunch of random missions usually performed by some of the same people.
Today we have movies based on lame board games (okay, the board games might not be lame in and of themselves, but to make full on action movies out of them? come on) that make people more confused than excited. Movies are remakes of older movies and everyone gets mad because the originals are (obviously) better. Movies are adaptations of books or comics that make fanboys (and girls) mad at EVERY LITTLE CHANGE made in the translation to the big screen. But M:I doesn’t have that. It has name recognition without the burden of having to take stuff from the previous incarnations and rehashing them. Sure, a Mission: Impossible without spies would make people furious (and confused) but I don’t see that happening any time soon. The point of the M:Is is to tell an exciting spy story, but that’s it. Luckily, so far the franchise has only had itself to measure up to and hasn’t become silly enough to become self-parodying yet. Unless you count this:
2) Tom Cruise
I know Tom Cruise went crazy once and that he believes in some crazy religion because they tell him he is awesome. I know that what people do in real life shouldn’t necessarily affect how we view their work, but it does (for some we are willing to overlook it over others i.e. Michael Jackson and his whole child molestation thing, Roman Polanski and his whole statutory rape thing, Richard Gere and his whole gerbil thing). But the fact is, Tom Cruise is a mega movie star. Whatever that X factor is he has it in spades. His acting style is so calculated its almost robotic. He knows how to milk every line or expression for all its worth. And throw him in a fast paced action movie with tons of comedic relief? Forget it. He nails every beat and is compelling enough to care for and has a semi-smug just-right amount of charm to do it all. He’s a pro. That’s all there is to it.
And for an action movie it gets even better. He wants to do all his own stunts (obviously he can’t for insurance reasons) and he has that action figure sense of body composition to heighten every stance or movement to its utmost coolness. Here are my favorite moments from each movie:
1) The specific way he gets blown off the helicopter onto the train.
2) The look he gives when he walks by the doorway that is on fire (and the John Woo doves fly by).
3) How he is thrown into the car door from the missile blast (and the back windshield breaks).
4) His “no shit” moment and how right after he FUCKING NAILS the window during his jump.
Tom Cruise gets the shit beat out of him in these movies (ESPECIALLY the fourth, where he NEVER sticks a landing and always gets right back up to solve whatever problem is about to arise next while his team is always so quick to give up). Also, thanks to the internet, I’m glad to find out I’m not the only one who thinks Tom Cruise is the best Cinematic Runner ever:
1) Every Movie is Different
Let’s look at the caliber of Directors behind this franchise.
Mission: Impossible – Brian DePalma
Mission: Impossible II – John Woo
Mission: Impossible III – J.J. Abrams
Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol – Brad Bird
Holy Shit! That is four awesome directors that all bring in their own unique sensibilities. DePalma has his vouyeristic paranoia. Woo has his operatic action scenes. Abrams has his comedic chemistry infused with high stakes drama. Bird has his relentless pace and visual gags.
As mentioned before the only two that feel similar are 3 and 4 (Abrams served as producer on 4). When it was announced that Abrams would not be directing 4 I think a lot of people were dissapointed since they loved 3 so much (well, those who saw it since it was the first big Cruise movie since his whole jumping on the couch thing) but I was excited to see what other great director could add his unique vision to the mix. In fact, I hope Bird doesn’t direct 5 for that same reason (please let Rian Johnson want to do it and be able to (fingers crossed)). And I hope 5 doesn’t follow the same story as 3 did to 4. So many times we see an action movie where the hero spends all his time saving a girl and falling in love and then the next movie its completely undone but they still take out so much screen time to justify it. Luckily, the VERY LITTLE justification we have in 4 is revelevant to the plot and Cruise’s relationships for Renner’s character (adding in a very spy-appropriate mysterious past and Cruise helping him get his groove back) and Patton’s character (Cruise consoling her about losing a loved one). And really the time they spend actually talking about all this adds up to 5 minutes. Maybe 7. Tops.
As much as I like to see reoccuring characters, having fresh meat come in is more beneficial to the franchise long term. You don’t get too attached and you get to learn about new characters instead of contradicting old ones or making them super-agents (as a result of constantly having to raise the bar i.e. moving Pegg from Desk Jockey to Field Agent). Besides, that’s what cameos are for. If Ving Rhames WASN’T in the fourth one I would have been kind of upset. But he was, without having to be a burden to the script writers or annoying for the audience by just being another character in the mix. So I am hoping that M:I:5 has a mostly new cast and mostly new vibe. Maybe something a little more reality based? Like the first, focusing more on the paranoia of being a spy and trickery involved and more realistic and practical based gadgets? It’s hard to top the over-the-topness of 4, so why not “reboot” the energy without literally rebooting the entire franchise?
Also, every M:I has its own spectacular action set piece that is just action-y enough without making the crowd moan in unrealism. A set piece where the stakes are laid out perfectly and the action is cool. Here they are:
Mission: Impossible – The old-school-vibe-on-adrenaline top of the train chase scene involving a helicopter. It looks slick even by today’s standards and the badguy has the advantage on the goodguy by having more gear and better back up.
Mission: Impossible II – The entire last 30 minutes. Yes, this might be the ‘weakest’ of the M:I movies but John Woo really does a good job of building up the traditional good vs evil and saving all the money shots for the end and putting them one after another. Cruise in sunglasses on a motorcycle doing a front wheelie spinning and shooting a gun and blowing up a car? Fuck yeah.
Mission: Impossible III – The Bridge Scene. This is textbook action. It is exciting (explosions). The stakes are high (If Hoffman gets away he will find Cruise’s wife). And the action is stylish (the HD slightly saturated look, the way the helicopter arises from the bridge with the soldiers sitting on it, Cruise taking down a plane with a machine gun). It’s short and sweet and completely catches you off guard. Nice use of reveals and music to get the audience in a bunch of “aw shit” moments then building that tension and letting it unwind for just a moment as Cruise and Hoffman look at each other as they get further apart.
Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol – The Dubai Sequence. Keeping in theme of the whole movie, nothing goes right and right from the get go. Shit happens and Cruise is always ready with a plan… and a back up plan… and a back up back up plan… and so on. The dizzying display of climbing the building and his fearlessness going about it (whether it be one gloved or with a fire hose) had me cringing and clapping at the same time. This is why the movie needs to be seen in iMax. 30 minutes of unfiltered excitement.
Unlike other franchises, M:I hasn’t built up its own formula that creates that sequel-itis problem most movies face. People love the original and want the sequel to be just that and if it is they complain that nothing new has happened but are disappointed if it doesn’t have all the familiar elements of the first. So far, the only things the M:Is have kept in common are Cruise, Rhames, Spies, and Masks. In fact, the leader of IMF or whoever is ‘in charge’ and the badguys have always changed from movie to movie. The only members who can come back are the immediate team members. And even then it’s not guaranteed. M:I has a big enough draw to get heavy hitters like Jon Voight, Laurence Fishburne, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Tom Wilkinson because of the talent attached behind the camera and the fact that they don’t have to sign on for a daunting amount of sequels because their characters are either expendable or replaceable. I think M:I:5 has to tread carefully in not becoming too similar to 3 + 4.
(Found this after writing the article. Mega-props to Brad Bird. Boo-ya!)
So there you have it. M:I is without a doubt the best action movie franchise out right now. Every entry is solid and for its own good reasons. Every movie sets its own expectations and then surpasses them. Normally, now would be the time where I say “I can’t wait to see what M:I:5 will have in store for us” but I can wait. About 4 more years. And hopefully it will promise us something new and surprise us with another great entry in an already awesome franchise.