This Friday, at theaters across the country, a movie opens that carries with it the weight of four prior installments, more than $2 billion in worldwide box office receipts, and one of Hollywood’s biggest star’s most reliable role. Why, it seems like only yesterday…
I can pretty much guarantee you that I’ll find my way to a theater this weekend to see Tom Cruise reprise his role as veteran IMF agent Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation. Overabundance of colons aside, I’m sure thousands more will do the same. But I don’t get the sense that a new Mission: Impossible occupies cultural headspace the way it should. I mean, if a new Bond movie was opening this weekend, people would be losing their minds, even though Ethan Hunt’s escapades stack up more than favorably against the Bond franchise’s much-celebrated, Daniel Craig-led renaissance.
Yeah, yeah, heresy-sacrilege-blah-blah-blah. Whatever. With Craig as James Bond, that series has suffered under the weight of its own desperation for gritty “realism.” Craig has become flatter and more humorless as the series has progressed, and the harder the movies have tried to live up to the spy movie standard set by the Jason Bourne movies, the further away from those lofty heights they seem to fall.
Meanwhile, Mission: Impossible just goes on being itself, making slick, occasionally comedic action films with tense, satisfying conflicts and resolutions. In short, they do what people think James Bond films did back when Sean Connery was still wearing the tuxedo. I say “think” because those early Bond movies are almost entirely awful. Seriously, go back and watch one. It’ll have more in common with Austin Powers than Casino Royale.
I mean, watch what you want, but when it comes to voting with my dollars, I know the series to which I’d rather give the nod.
Why, exactly? Let’s start with Tom Cruise. I’ll admit, Cruise is nothing if not easy to mock. His bizarre mid-to-late-2000s escapades – inextricably linked to Scientology – tipped the scales against him. He went from ultra-bankable megastar to slightly less bankable weirdo known more for jumping on couches than his work on screen. Sadly, it made people forget that the same goober who was on the front page of every tabloid in the world had killed it in A Few Good Men, Jerry Maguire, Magnolia (his greatest role), Vanilla Sky (underrated), Minority Report, and Collateral. Yeah, there were a few clunkers in there too, but go look at Jimmy Stewart’s or Cary Grant’s IMDB page sometime. How many forgotten films did they make?
The Mission: Impossible series has been an anchor for Cruise throughout, spanning three decades and serving as the clearest example of the kind of movie Cruise does better than any actor of his generation.
And what kind of movies are the Mission: Impossible films? What makes them work better than even the best of the Bond movies? Both feature stylized action, outrageous stunts, scantily-clad women, fancy tech, and Marvel-level super-villains. The key difference, I think, is that whereas the James Bond movies rest on the shoulders of just one character, Mission: Impossible shares the load. Yes, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is clearly the main attraction, but the success of the heroes in Mission: Impossible movies always comes down to the effectiveness of the team. That iconic scene in the clip above is actually a perfect metaphor for the way these films work. Hunt is the one at the end of the rope, but he couldn’t do any of it without the assistance of his crew. The group dynamic adds suspense (more characters close to the action means greater plot variability), humor (especially since Simon Pegg came aboard), and ups the stakes (there’s always something to lose). Win-win-win.
And yeah, Bond has MI6, but Moneypenny, Q, M, and the rest mostly just serve as background noise to allow Mr. Shaken Martini to play over top of.
I’d be remiss to leave you without admitting that M:I 2, directed by John Woo, is a terrible movie. And it is. But it also serves as a great example of why the Mission movies have been otherwise so excellent. M:I 2 got caught up in trying to be something unlike itself. It dialed down the spy stuff and cranked up the action to 11. Think about the vault scene from the original movie. That scene is at least as harrowing, if not more, than the helicopter-train chase that ends the movie, and De Palma spent a hell of a lot more time on it. Why? Because espionage is at the heart of these movies, and the one time a director forgot that, the product was awful.
My bet is that they won’t make that mistake with Rogue Nation. And of course I’ve seen the Hunt-hanging-onto-an-ascending-airplane scene from the trailer, so yeah, there’ll be plenty of action. But if I know my Mission: Impossible, there’s some really freaking important intel inside that plane.
So what say you, Funkhouser-ers? -ites? -ians? Whatever. Are you gonna catch Rogue Nation in theaters?