What Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation Taught Me About Cinema History, Franchises, and More

So I watched Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation two weeks ago, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. Okay, so maybe I’ve seen in 3 times since it came out. Doesn’t mean I’ve stopped thinking about it.

The Mission Impossible franchise is one of the longest running action movie franchises in Hollywood, with its first movie dating back to 1996. 19 years. 5 movies. 1 Tom Cruise. In an age where Marvel has built an empire out of 12 movies in less than 8 years (the Marvel Cinematic Universe kicking off in 2008 with Iron Man) it’s interesting to compare how the Mission Impossible franchise has evolved, survived, and also– improved, throughout the years.

Mission: Impossible (1996)

The first instalment in the series, and an adaptation of the original 1966-1973 TV series (I know, I just found out too) which, surprisingly, wasn’t received too well by the original cast of the TV show. They thought that the movie veered closer towards the action-adventure genre, thus taking away from the classic “mind game” of the original Mission. It wasn’t held to critical acclaim, but it wasn’t terrible either. I, personally, enjoyed the movie, but nothing particularly stood out to me as genre-defining or #iconic, except maybe the scene from the screencap above, yeah. It was a standard contemporary action-spy flick, with neo-noir elements that gave it some form of character, but what really brought it to heights was Tom Cruise.

In MCU terms, you could liken him to Robert Downey Jr. in the sense that he is the driving force behind the series. Granted, not all 11 MCU movies feature Iron Man, but he brought spark to the franchise, building the foundation for subsequent movies and acting as a very, very reliable anchor. (An anchor that keeps the $$$ in place, that is.)

Mission: Impossible II (2000)

The tragedy of the series. The fall of the empire– without it striking back.

One of the best things about Mission Impossible is that the franchise is fluid. Continuity? Only needed when convenient. Consistency? Nah, directors can do as they please with the movie they get, and if the director wants to make the movie emulate semi-Western, semi-Rambo style vibes, then it’s going to do it.

Unfortunately it left a bad taste in my mouth. Like cough syrup, but not the minty sweet cherry type you get in Chinese drugstores. I tried re-watching the movie a couple days ago to refresh my mind on the overall picture. I didn’t make it past the 30 minute mark.

For starters, nothing actually happens in the first 30 (probably 40) minutes of the movie. Tom Cruise plays hide and seek with Catwoman, a strange romance ensues which includes Sensual Spanish Instrumentals, candlelit settings, unnecessary love scenes, and there’s a car chase where she nearly falls off a cliff. (Of course, he saves her.)

Surprisingly, the plot isn’t too bad. In theory. Bad Guy’s Plan: create a deadly virus, sell the cure, bathe in the profit. Sounds pretty cool, right? Unfortunately, this is where everything right comes to an end. While in the first film, the movie’s espionage vibes matches perfectly with the dark tones we’re given visually, the weird, Western, bike riding, dirt kicking, flame-throwing imagery just doesn’t really fit with the idea of a bio-weapon as the world’s biggest threat. Tonally, it felt outdated.

But then again, this is an excerpt from director John Woo’s wiki page:

He is considered a major influence on the action genre, known for his highly chaotic action sequences, Mexican standoffs, and frequent use of slow-motion.

Chaotic action sequences: check. Mexican standoffs: double check. Frequent use of slow motion: triple check. Write me a check book for movie sins while we’re at it.

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Tell me the above image looks like the poster for a Bourne movie. Tell me. That’s because in the 6 years between the second and the third instalment of the Mission Impossible franchise, the action movie genre in Hollywood managed to find its sweet spot in terms of action, plot, and giving us a main character that we actually care about. It was released during a time where action movies thrived, and dominated the box office: The (Contemporary) Golden Age. Action movies were sleeker, smarter, and more fast-paced than ever before.

Mission: Impossible III was J. J Abrams’ directorial debut – most of you may know him from the Stark Trek franchise – and it was a pretty commendable one. Out of the first three instalments, this was the movie that solidified the Mission Impossible series as a serious action flick, as opposed to a stylish knockoff of the original TV series high on special effects. There were no complaints of the plot being too “convoluted”, no issue of being “too much action, loud action” – it was just right.

The premise was simple: Ethan Hunt has been out of the game for a while, but he’s forced back into the IMF on a hunt for the elusive ‘RabbitsFoot’ – and also, he’s engaged. Again, what is continuity. But the movie benefitted from his most formidable villain yet – Plutarch Heavensbee. In many ways, he was the star of the movie, smart and ruthless, while Ethan Hunt played the helpless agent desperate to save his wife. (Oops, a spoiler.)

The stakes were high, and unfortunately, the classic damsel-in-distress trope works for amplifying tension in a movie. Abrams does try to subvert this idea at the end, by giving Michelle Monaghan a moment to shine in the climax, and the fact that Ethan Hunt eventually reveals to her the details of his IMF life (the lies get so tiresome eventually) places the movie in a better position than  most action movies in terms of how they treat women. Think about it, how many movies kill off the male protagonist’s love interest for the sake of furthering his development? (Some examples: The Bourne Supremacy, John Wick, The Dark Knight, Ant Man… the list goes on forever.)

Anyway, that aside, I think it’s a pretty solid movie. The only thing lacking was the Team Element of Ethan’s IMF squad. Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Maggie Q are painfully underused, and Keri Russell dies in the first 20 minutes. Incredible.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

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I think when Ghost Protocol came out in 2011, no one really knew what to expect. We wanted to be excited, anticipating a sort of grand revival of the franchise, since it had been 3 years since the last Mission: Impossible instalment – but you know how most franchises turn out as they get older. (Hint: not very good.)  Somewhere between 2008 and 2011 (and I am going to go back to my Marvel movie analogy now) people decided that they wanted their movies with a hint of optimism, cutting down on the brooding, gritty, realism that we were used to seeing.

Ghost Protocol was a massive success, critically and in the box office. The director was none other than Brad Bird, who had previously worked on animated movies, making this his live action directorial debut. You might know him as the writer and director of Pixar’s The Incredibles – one of my favourite Pixar movies. Visually, the colours in the movie were stunning and vibrant, and honestly I don’t remember a single moment when they spent more than 10 minutes brooding over tragic backstories and painful deaths. In fact, none of the main characters die in this movie. Nowadays, character deaths are often so overused for the sake of shock value (looking at you, Game of Thrones) that seeing a character survive is often more shocking than anything else.

The tone is kept light and humorous, which I think, really makes it more accessible to a wider audience. I remember being a kid and being absolutely terrified whenever I watch action movies and see the main character being beaten down, bloody and bruised, barely seeing them smile for the entire 90 minutes of the movie. It took me so long to get into action movies because of the fear of watching someone else being too-realistically tortured on screen. I think I walked out of a movie once after the opening scene because of how violent it was. I think I was already 13 by then, but anyways. The point is, I really wished more action movies had taken this approach back when I was younger, I would have been able to enjoy it a lot more. There’s definitely a comic-book vibe in this movie that makes the espionage scenes a lot more delightful, and the action scenes so much more fun to watch.

Also, it’s so refreshing that there wasn’t any type of romantic subplot in the movie. It’s another pet peeve of mine in action movies. Don’t create a romance if you’re just going to end up using the woman as a plot device, only to be tossed aside at the end. It’s boring, it’s frustrating, and more times than not it is painfully awkward to watch. Again, another part of my childhood movie experience that I could have done without.

The team in this movie had such good synergy that it made me realize that this is the first Mission: Impossible movie that kept the entire squad together throughout the whole movie. Typically, they would get killed off one-by-one, or Ethan would just run off and continue the mission by himself because it was Too Dangerous. I keep going back to how Brad Bird is such a fitting choice, because he himself created the ‘Incredible’ family himself, so he should have been familiar with creating interesting character dynamics within the action genre. Most movies have a solo star, a reformed assassin with a troubled past, an ex-agent gone rogue, but this movie was all about Ethan not being able to do it by himself. He needed a team. He needed his friends. Which is, overall, a pretty good message to be selling to the audience at the end of the day.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Mission-Impossible-Rogue-Nation-Poster-Wallpaper

It’s been two weeks, and I still cannot decide which Mission: Impossible movie I liked better – Ghost Protocol or Rogue Nation. Good thing is, the world doesn’t depend on the internal dilemma I am currently battling in my head, so it doesn’t matter anyways. Both. They were both incredible.

They built upon the same fun, comic-book vibe they had from the previous movie and expanded it to incorporate more of the classic spy elements from the earlier movies in the franchise. Which is, smart, to say the least. One thing I’ve learned as a whole is that in order to keep a franchise going, it is absolutely vital to keep evolving; change up the style, the content, align new concepts with current trends in the market and identify opportunities. Mission: Impossible found it’s niche in Ghost Protocol (it took them 15 years to get reviews that averaged at 90%) and they improved upon it in Rogue Nation.

Some of the main improvements: Rebecca Ferguson’s character. Best treatment of a female character in the franchise by far. Seriously, she doesn’t die, she’s not a love interest, and she’s just as integral to the plot as Ethan is (if not more). That’s not to say she’s perfect, some have complained that the movie did have shots objectifying her, but it was kept at a minimal. Also, she’s the only female character – which is, kind of disappointing, considering that I really, really liked Paula Patton’s role in the previous movie. But, oh well.

The synergy between the characters are still there, and they brought Ving Rhames (Ving Rhames!) back. Also Alec Baldwin. Most people think of 30 Rock when they see him, but no. I think of The Shaggy Dog. The scenes were beautifully shot, and the movie also managed to blend neo-noir elements into it, a throwback into spy movies of old, which made for a fully satisfying movie experience.

So, there you have it. The perfect recipe to making a long-lasting franchise. They may have hit some rough spots, but their bold directorial choices and even bolder stunts (Tom Cruise you’re a winner) paid off in the end. If you haven’t seen Rogue Nation in cinemas yet, I highly suggest you do. It’s not every day you see a multi-million dollar movie star hanging off a plane (this was real, in case I haven’t pointed out) for the sake of giving an authentic movie experience. He did it for you, viewers. He did it for you.

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Indonesian. 20. English major at the University of Bristol.

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