The Mission: Impossible film series (1996+) shares the same name and theme tune as an earlier popular American spy-fi television series.
The original television series ran 1966-1973 and 1988-90 and remains America's longest-running television spy drama1. Unlike other spy series of the time it did not revolve around guns, glamour or car chases. Instead each week a group of spies would collaborate and, by working together and relying on each member's specialist skill and contribution, they would be able to achieve their goal and save the day. Series creator Bruce Geller wrote when conceiving the series that the IMF (Impossible Mission Force):
operate as one man while... the [villains'] relationship is one of mutual suspicion and distrust. It is this human factor that is they key to the impossible being accomplished.
The recent film series starring Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt has a completely different focus. Ethan Hunt is a master-spy in the same vein as James Bond and instead of collaborating with a number of individuals with different specialist skills, he tends to accomplish his goals solo. In complete contrast to the original series ethos, in every film he is uncertain of whom he can trust.
As the original television series' unique identity revolved around the IMF team approach to the mission at hand has been removed and replaced with one master spy, what differentiates the Mission: Impossible films' plots from that of other spy series? In a word – nothing. Outside the plot, the main character is played by Tom Cruise. He is a spy whose first name does not begin with J - unlike James Bond, Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan, John Wick, Jack Reacher or Johnny English. Unlike James Bond, Hunt is more likely to drive a motorbike than a classic car. Cruise famously does his own stunts, including the really dangerous ones, something virtually unheard of among A-list celebrities. This is because the films are co-produced by Tom Cruise's own company, Cruise/Wagner Productions, which gives him virtually complete artistic freedom, including the ability to hire and fire directors.
Frequent themes include dangling down on wires from things, such as down air shafts from the roof, helicopters or walls. Another recurring occurrence involves both the agents and villains wearing rubber masks to disguise themselves and mislead their opponents. Similarly, good secretaries are very hard to find; Hunt's boss, usually the Secretary of State, changes in every film and many are murdered. It is obviously not a job that comes with pension benefits.
The Mission: Impossible films have also been getting steadily longer, reflecting a wider cinema trend since the 1990s. Another 21st Century trend that these films reflects is that how they have stopped numbering the sequels - from the fourth film onwards they have subtitles2.
The tables below lists the main characters in each film. Characters in Bold are recurring characters, actors in bold show that these recurring characters are played by their original actor. Also mentioned is whether the films pass the Bechdel Test. This can be summarised as whether the film involves two or more named female characters who have a conversation together that is not focused on men.
1. Mission: Impossible (1996)
|Director||Brian De Palma|
Jim Phelps and the Impossible Missions Force are in Prague to recover a stolen copy of the NOC (non-official cover) list, which contains details of every CIA agent around the world, only for the team to be murdered. Only Ethan Hunt and Claire Phelps survive. IMF director Eugene Kittridge reveals that the mission was fake and intended to capture a suspected traitor in IMF who was trying to sell the NOC list. As Hunt has survived, he is believed to be the traitor.
Only by stealing the real NOC list and contacting the potential buyer can Hunt learn who the traitor really is and clear his own name. In order to do this he gathers a new taskforce. Who can he trust? Will his willingness to believe people self-destruct by the end of the film?
|Setting||Prague, CIA Headquarters in Langley, Channel Tunnel, Eurostar|
The original intention had been to have as many of the original stars of the television series cameo only to be killed off at the start of the film; however, unsurprisingly, they chose not to appear. Many fans of the original show were disappointed that the only character from the television series, Jim Phelps, now played by Jon Voight and not Peter Graves, was portrayed as a possible traitor. Still, the scene in which Ethan Hunt dangles down from the ceiling, unable to touch the floor without setting off an alarm, quickly entered the cultural consciousness and has been copied and parodied numerous times since. Another key sequence featured a helicopter flying through the Channel Tunnel, which had only been open two years at the time the film was released. This might explain why the Channel Tunnel doesn't actually look anything like how it does in real life3.
Mission: Impossible was the third most successful film of the year, behind only Independence Day and Twister.
2. Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)
|Mission||Ambrose, a rogue former Impossible Mission Force agent, acquires a deadly genetically engineered virus named Chimera. The only means Hunt has to locate him is through the rogue agent's ex-girlfriend, a thief. Despite falling for her, he must ask her to rekindle her relationship with Ambrose in order to stop him.|
Also marketed as m:i-2, this film dramatically increased the amount of action from the previous film. It was also heavily edited to keep to a two-hour runtime. It had been intended to make the sequel sooner after the success of the first film but Cruise was committed to filming Eyes Wide Shut (1999) with Stanley Kubrick, a particularly meticulous director. Sir Anthony Hopkins replaces Henry Czerny as Hunt's boss, giving the series a touch of class that is strongly reminiscent of the Bond films; the car chase between Hunt and Nyah looks like a carbon copy of one in GoldenEye (1995). It also has plot similarities with two Hitchcock classics, Notorious (1946) and North by Northwest (1959). Curiously, with the fate of the whole world in the hands of a rogue agent with control over a deadly virus, Hunt is informed he is only allowed to have a team of three and can pick two of them.
The sequence in which Hunt climbs a sheer rock face was filmed at Dead Horse Point, with Cruise filming most of the sequences despite telling the insurance company it was all going to be done by the stunt team. Cruise's insistence on doing the stunts himself caused clashes and tensions with director John Woo, who was not asked to return to direct Mission Impossible III.
Mission: Impossible II was the most successful film of 2000.
3. Mission: Impossible III (2006)
|Mission||Hunt has retired from IMF missions and trains new recruits, happily settling down to married life with new bride, nurse Julia. That is until an evil, sadistic arms dealer named Davian brutally captures, tortures, toys with and murders Lindsey, one of the recruits Hunt was particularly fond of. Having kidnapped Julia, Davian now threatens to kill her unless Hunt hunts down and captures a device known only by its codename, the Rabbit's Foot. Can Hunt rescue his wife or will he give a murderer a doomsday device? How is Davian able to elude capture – is there yet another traitor in the IMF?|
|Setting||Berlin, Vatican City, Chesapeake Bay Bridge, Shanghai|
Also marketed as m:i:iii, in this film we finally get to see Hunt working as part of a larger team. However, once again Hunt's boss has changed, possibly because yet again there is a question over whether someone in IMF is actually a traitor and the audience is unlikely to believe that it might be Sir Anthony Hopkins' character from the preceding film. Scarlett Johansson had originally been approached to play Lindsey but was unable to due to other commitments,
Mission: Impossible III was the eighth most successful film of the year4, beaten by James Bond film Casino Royale which was fourth.
4. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)
|Mission||Hunt and his team are sent to acquire information from the Kremlin about Hendricks, a Russian megalomaniac with plans to start a nuclear war. Yet they have been set up; a bomb goes off in the Kremlin while they are infiltrating it, to cover up Hendricks' theft of a nuclear-launching device. IMF are blamed and labelled terrorists. With the entire IMF disavowed and chased as wanted criminals, can Hunt and his team operate undercover and prevent the start of a nuclear apocalypse?|
|Setting||Budapest, Moscow, Dubai|
It took three films for IMF to be shown as a team and now, at the start of the fourth film, the IMF is disbanded. No ghosts appear. Instead of being the correct etiquette and rules of propriety involved in addressing the undead and deceased, and what to do if the first wife of a widower who has remarried is resurrected, the title 'ghost protocol' means that the whole IMF, not just an individual member or team, has been disavowed. Presumably after preventing the apocalypse they are avowed again at the end.
One character, William Brandt, is haunted by the events of the past, which almost threatens to give the film an element of character development. This time Ethan Hunt does some dangling off the side of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which was then the world's tallest building. Tom Cruise did many of his own stunts halfway up the side of this building, but connected to several cables, which were digitally removed in post-production, to ensure he could not plummet to his death.
This was director Brad Bird's debut live-action film; he had been chosen as Cruise had been impressed with his animated film The Incredibles (2004), which combined spy and superhero elements. As with other Bird films there are numerous film references and in-jokes; all Pixar films mention A113 and Ethan Hunt's code is Alpha 113. Similarly, Hendricks discusses nuclear war bringing 'Peace on Earth', a phrase used by insane General Jack D Ripper in 1964 classic Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Many sequences were filmed in 70mm IMAX as Bird believed the format gave a clearer and far more impressive picture than 3D.
Curiously, no explanation is given for how Hendricks knows about IMF's plan to infiltrate the Kremlin and is able to use this knowledge to frame them for his own attack. Presumably the explanation is that there is yet another traitor in IMF, this time undiscovered. This would explain why assassin Sabine Moreau, played by Léa Seydoux, is able to intercept Hanaway's mission at the start of the film. Léa Seydoux would later star in Bond-film Spectre (2015).
2011 was a particularly unimaginative year for film, with every picture in the top ten a sequel, except The Smurfs in ninth, which was a remake. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol came fifth5.
5. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)
|Mission||A former MI6 agent has formed an evil terrorist organisation called The Syndicate, which Hunt is determined to destroy. Yet the IMF itself has been merged with the CIA, who do not believe that the Syndicate exists. They consider Hunt himself to be a threat and are hunting Hunt, while the only clue Hunt has to the Syndicate is a mysterious woman who may either be an assassin, or a double-agent trying to infiltrate the Syndicate for MI6. Can she be trusted and can Hunt's friends find and help him before he is killed by the CIA? Will Hunt be able to prevent the assassination of Austria's Chancellor by a Magic Flute at the opera?|
|Setting||London, Vienna, Casablanca,|
The film's title caused a degree of concern with Disney, who were developing Star Wars spin-off Rogue One when this film was released, yet this Mission: Impossible film is less about a rogue nation, more about a rogue bloke called Lane. He recruits former agents to create a sinister secret spy network called the Syndicate, with an unknown agenda other than generally being villainous. The threat he poses is vague – in the film he is merely trying to do the equivalent of robbing a really big bank with billions of dollars at stake – but at least he is played with menace while his henchmen stare silently.
The film is set in Casablanca while the character Ilsa Faust is named after the character Ilsa Lund from Casablanca (1942) and Faust, the legendary character who makes a deal with the devil. Tom Cruise had previously worked with director Christopher McQuarrie on Jack Reacher (2012).
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation was the eighth most successful film of the year at the box office6, once again finishing behind a Bond film, Spectre, which had a similar plot. Indeed, the opening sequence of this film, in which Hunt dangles out of an aircraft, is similar to one that takes place within the Bond film The Living Daylights (1987), although it should be emphasised that Cruise again did his own stunts and dangled off the side of a plane for real. Bond film Quantom of Solace (2008) also features a fight scene behind the scenes of an opera in Austria while Casino Royale (2006) had a car chase scene in which Bond crashes his car rather than run over Vesper Lynd lying in the middle of the road just as this film has a motorbike chase scene in which Hunt crashes rather than run over Ilsa, who is in the middle of the road.
6. Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)
After Solomon Lane was captured in the previous film, his terrorist network became a group of mercenaries named the Apostles who plan to buy enough plutonium on the black market to create three nuclear bombs. Hunt is sent to recover the plutonium but, by saving Sticker's life, he inadvertently allows the theft of the plutonium by a third party to proceed. Only by masquerading as terrorist John Lark and contacting arms dealer the White Widow can he recover the plutonium, but the seller wants Solomon Lane as payment.
As the IMF were responsible for losing the plutonium the CIA insist that one of their assassins, August Walker, accompanies the team, with Walker prepared to make decisions that Hunt will not. Will Hunt break known terrorist Lane out of prison and hand him over to criminals to prevent the nuclear attack? How will he react when he encounters former ally Ilsa, who is on a mission for MI6 to assassinate Lane? Or indeed learn that his ex-wife has remarried and is working in the blastzone? Will he be able to stop the countdown to a nuclear apocalypse threatening a third of the world's population? Oh, and is there a traitor, 'cos there usually is?
|Setting||Paris, London, Siachen Glacier in Kashmir|
A surprisingly good film and, despite being the sixth, is actually the best to date. Critics rated it highly and it was the most-successful film in the series in terms of money at the box office, quickly becoming the highest-grossing film to ever star Tom Cruise, although it finished as the eighth most successful film of 20187. Henry Cavill is a particularly strong asset to the film; having been narrowly beaten by Daniel Craig in 2005 when they were casting for an actor to replace Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, he has since played Napoleon Solo in the film remake of The Man from UNCLE (2015).
Nicknamed MI6, this should not be confused with MI6 (Military Intelligence, section 6), the UK's foreign intelligence service. The title 'Fallout' is not referring to what Ethan Hunt does with windows, helicopters and other assorted aircraft but refers both to the danger of terrorists with nuclear weapons and to Hunt living with the consequences of the actions of his past. One of the nods to the past is that the character of the White Widow is revealed to be the daughter of Max, the arms dealer in the first film.
Once again Tom Cruise did his own stunts for the film. These included car, motorbike and helicopter chase sequences. Another involved him jumping off a roof, which resulted in him breaking his ankle when it impacted on the building he hit. The most difficult stunt was performing the HALO (High Altitude Low Opening, referring to not opening a parachute until you are beneath RADAR range) jump in which he jumps out of an aeroplane at 25,000 feet - an altitude in which it is impossible to breathe - rescue the unconscious, falling Walker and pull his parachute. This reportedly took a year of training in which Tom Cruise did eight practice parachute jumps a day and, as the sequence took place at dusk, light conditions for filming were only right for three minutes a day. It took 106 jumps to film the sequence.
Role of Women
None of the films in the series to date have passed the Bechdel Test. After six films and over 12 hours, no two named women have had a single conversation that is not about a man. While it is true that the film series is known for action rather than dialogue, that is still an appalling statistic.
Characters in the Mission: Impossible films are all essentially punch bags, there to be hit and kicked in a variety of entertaining ways. The heroic characters will suffer pain and torture but endure and get their revenge, while the villains and their sadistic henchmen will get their comeuppance and die in the appropriate, fitting manner, despatched by decapitation, defenestration or another demise. While male characters can have gruesome, gory deaths without question, if a female character is so much as rapped on the knuckles by the hero then the film is open to being rapped on the knuckles and accused of being misogynist8. This is because of fears that film violence influences and encourages real brutality and may result in increased aggression towards women, including domestic violence. However this limits the roles that women in this genre of film can have. Consequently, the team usually only has one woman. Her role at some point involves looking glamorous and slowly getting out of a sports car while posing her legs to maximum effect. At some point she will probably be expected to use her feminine wiles to seduce and/or distract someone. While it is acceptable for the villain to punch a woman, the male hero must not as this could be seen as subliminally approving violence towards women.
Similarly, Ethan Hunt has changed boss in every film but one, and not once has his superior been a woman. In one film the head of rival organisation the CIA has been female; she, however, was portrayed as making decisions that hinder rather than help Hunt's mission. Similarly, only one baddie has been female and she was a hired assassin rather than the chief villain. Naturally to adhere to gender lines she was fought by that film's token female member of the IMF team. Of the nine recurring characters to have been in more than one Mission: Impossible film, only two have been female and even then one did not have a single line in the second film she appeared in, being merely a voiceless cameo.
The Mission: Impossible film series has been made with great care and attention by established and respected directors and stars many noted, award-winning actors. For action spy films, they have embraced an approach in which stunts are performed for real and not merely created in a computer. Yet the Mission: Impossible series remains very different to the television series it has taken the name and theme tune from. Every viewer has to ask themselves two simple questions: Is it Your Mission: Impossible? Should You choose to accept it?