‘Mission: Impossible’ — The Most Underappreciated Spy Franchise in Cinematic History

January 2, 2023David Maccar
mission: impossible

Photos by Farooq Naeem/AFP.

The Mission: Impossible film series deserves a place on the mantel of action-adventure spy movies right next to the never-ending James Bond franchise and the Jason Bourne films, regardless of what you think about Tom Cruise. Forget about the tabloids, all the Scientology business, and that time he went nuts and danced on Oprah’s couch. In many ways, the M:I films eclipse all of it. Cruise’s dedication to the series, and to the stunts he’s done for it, has been tremendous. 

While the regular releases of the globe-trotting M:I movies and Cruise playing superspy Ethan Hunt may seem mundane after six installments (with two more on the way), these films have offered audiences consistently solid, bombastic, and well-structured action since the mid-1990s. Indeed, it’s one of the only franchises left that features so many practical effects and non-computer-generated stunts that could get its lead actor killed. 

Plenty of people have apparently been able to get over whatever trepidations they have about Cruise — because of his weirdness, it’s far easier to count the few box-office duds he’s made than it is to count the many box-office successes he’s had over the past 40 years. That list of winners now also includes Top Gun: Maverick (2022), a record-breaker at the box office that was finally released after extensive coronavirus-related delays. 

In fact, if you know anything about the crazy shit he puts himself through to do what he does on screen, you have absolutely no choice but to respect Cruise’s dedication and the sheer size of his balls.

The guy learned how to fly jets for Maverick, and he’s planning to actually go to space to do some filming soon — like, off-planet, as in outer space. For the M:I movies alone, he’s been blown up; slammed into shit; hung off planes, cliffs, helicopters, and mammoth skyscrapers with the most minimal of safety devices; nearly drowned; rolled around atop high-speed trains; and done all kinds of suicidal things in cars and on motorcycles. He’s basically a Hollywood superstar who also does his own expert-level, pro-stuntman-caliber stunts, and then some.

He’s also 60, by the way. 

There isn’t an actor in Hollywood half his age doing half as much.

Cruise is a fuckin’ beast who has come a long way from the white-smile-flashing Teen Beat cover boy he started out as, and he’s no longer trying with all his might to win an Oscar (after being nominated three times between 1990 and 2000). The dude is simply addicted to adrenaline, stunts, and having a blast in front of the camera while nearly dying, which is absolutely conveyed through the screen. If you have regarded the M:I films as anything less than Bourne or Bond, you’re missing out.

Tom Cruise Films Mission Impossible III In China

Tom Cruise in action, filming Mission: Impossible III on Nov. 25, 2005, in Zhejiang province of east China. Photo by China Photos/Getty Images.

The original Mission: Impossible (1996) is plain fantastic, even if it is a little too much fun to poke at its “cutting-edge tech” from here in 2022. It’s unreal that Brian De Palma, a director who was practiced at dark 1980s thrillers about homicidal, cross-dressing maniacs, voyeurism, porn, and blood-soaked gangsters, wound up helming such an accessible, big-budget, big-cast spy movie. Even though it’s arguably his last really good film, he struck gold with M:I and started something big.

M:I is visually simple and clean with De Palma’s unique camerawork and composition all over it. There’s some spy shit and intrigue, but no labyrinthine plot that needs a half-dozen rewatches to figure out it doesn’t make sense, like the later Bourne movies. 

The NOC list (a digital account of all secret agents and their true identities) is a straight-up MacGuffin, and it works perfectly. The Langley scene with Cruise’s wirework as he descends from the ceiling to steal the list from a gigantic desktop computer (using a floppy disk) is sublime and has become a classic. You absolutely forget that the temperature-sensitive room with a laser-guarded ceiling vent and the pressure-sensitive floor would have been drastically improved by a freakin’ security camera if this mainframe is so damn important, but I guess Luther (Ving Rhames) would have just hacked that too.

The Mission: Impossible series is remarkable for what it isn’t, and the formula was right there in the first movie. In a lot of ways, the series is the anti-Bond.

But it doesn’t matter in the moment because it doesn’t matter to De Palma. And it worked then, and it still works today. The scene is about the sound meter, the rat in the air duct, the drop of sweat trembling on Cruise’s eyeglasses — it’s perfectly done tension, and it’s all FUN. M:I is a spy movie that’s also a heist movie, and while the stakes are high and characters certainly die, it never tries to be anything it’s not.

Mission: Impossible has a tremendous rhythm, naturally and quickly introducing the audience to IMF tactics before the first mission gets rolling. (And it’s revealed in the third movie that, yes, the initials really do stand for Impossible Mission Force, just like on the original TV show.) Then it’s a glorious buildup to the Langley break-in before the turn and the big train-versus-chopper climax in the Channel Tunnel, aka the Chunnel — a 31-mile railway tunnel that connects the UK with France beneath the English Channel.

That scene’s blend of stunts, practical effects, and CG absolutely holds up and looks better than similar, copycat scenes in much newer films.

De Palma made a big-screen adaptation of a niche spy TV show that was a staple for some in the 1960s, but it had been off the air ever since, save for a weak revival effort in the 1970s. The cast had some big names, but other than that, it really shouldn’t have made much of a splash. 

Tom Cruise Films "Mission Impossible 3" In Rome

Tom Cruise, left, and Ving Rhames, right, take a break from filming Mission: Impossible III on the Tiber River in Rome, July 12, 2005. Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images.

But De Palma knew what to keep — like the popular theme song (redone for the movie, of course), the identity-swapping masks and gadgets, and the team of badass spies — and what to reinvent and make bigger for the big screen and big stars. 

The Mission: Impossible series is remarkable for what it isn’t, and the formula was right there in the first movie. In a lot of ways, the series is the anti-Bond. Yes, the main protago­nist is Cruise’s Ethan Hunt in every movie, but there’s always something larger, and he’s always at odds with everything. The deck is always stacked against Ethan and his team, whereas Bond always has a card up his sleeve. 

Also important here is the team aspect. The circle of IMF agents Ethan works with has changed — mostly due to the fact that there have been multiyear breaks between the productions, and it’s tough to get actors’ schedules to line up — but they aren’t the disposable side characters found in most Bond movies, nor are they the token characters that must make appearances but don’t really impact the plot, like M and Q. The Bond series even steered away from that stale formula in its most recent Daniel Craig era. 

While the M:I movies are often about secret agents fighting the bad guys and their own agency, they don’t have the gritty and, let’s face it, tiresome lone wolf plot setup of the Bourne movies, which, let’s be honest, became extremely formulaic after the first sequel and used more and more shaky-cam bullshit to cover lame fight scenes as the series went on. The Bourne Identity was awesome and groundbreaking, but as a franchise, the Bourne movies get boring fast.

Mission: Impossible II (2000) threatened to go the Bond route under John Woo’s direction and tried to make Hunt more of a mysterious spy with a complicated romantic life intertwined with his espionage activities, but the third film, under director J.J. Abrams, dragged the series back to the place it needed to be to continue on. While the action and the rock climbing scene in Woo’s installment are undeniably striking, it now starkly stands out among the rest of the franchise and was never a perfect fit. 

Mission: Impossible III (2006) had a great villain in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Owen Davian, and it fleshed Ethan out so he could become more than a name and an occupation. It also resurrected the team-of-spies element, which has remained consistent through the sixth and, hopefully, seventh and eighth films in the series. Abrams knew the characters and the action deserved the most attention, not the spy plot, which was complete but based on a literal MacGuffin in the Rabbit’s Foot device — the function of which is never revealed. All we know is the bad guys want it, and the good guys can’t let them have it, or horrible things will happen. And in the end, you don’t even care. 

He’s come close to serious injury or death more than a dozen times on a movie set, yet he doesn’t seem to actually get hurt very often.

It set the stage and the formula that has been successful so far through Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (2011), Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (2015), and Mission: Impossible — Fallout (2018). All of them have been box-office powerhouses.

Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One is set for a July 14, 2023, release. Part Two is to follow in June 2024 and presumably finish the film series, at least, the iteration featuring Cruise as Ethan Hunt.

Now here’s the question: What kind of shit did Cruise almost die doing, according to multiple media reports, in the two final films? In a world of movies so saturated with CG, it’s great to have a series that still values practical stunts, because they simply look and feel better and likely always will.

In the original M:I, he did the wirework stunt, which was difficult but not super dangerous. In M:I-2, he did some wild rock climbing stunts in Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah and had the tip of a knife stop a few centimeters from his eyeball during a fight scene. In M:I-3, he got slammed into a car by a cable during an explosion and ran down the side of a building. Collectively, he’s come close to serious injury or death more than a dozen times on a movie set, yet he doesn’t seem to actually get hurt very often — or it’s kept quiet. 


Tom Cruise in the film that launched the franchise in 1996. Photo by Maximum Film.

In Ghost Protocol, he climbed the sheer side of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, and swung into one of its windows while more than a half-mile in the sky. In Rogue Nation, he hung onto the exterior of a plane as it took off and had to condition himself to hold his breath for the extended underwater scene or drown (his best breath hold was over six minutes). In Fallout, he did some amazing real skydiving for the HALO (high altitude, low opening) jump scene, performed a rooftop leap that broke his ankle, and dangled from a real flying helicopter, not to mention the insane bathroom-smashing fight scene with Henry Cavill and stuntman Liang Yang. 

In the trailer for the upcoming Dead Reckoning Part One, which brings back Kittridge (Henry Czerny) from De Palma’s original, it looks like Cruise rides a motor­cycle off a cliff into a BASE jump and, in another throwback, gets into a fight atop a high-speed train. Whether those were the stunts that nearly did him in is something we’ll just have to guess at until the behind-the-scenes footage is released. 

Regardless, I’ll be there to see all the new stunts in the new M:I movies, and you should be, too. Mission: Impossible, taken as a franchise, is better than Bond or Bourne, and it’s about time critics and action-movie fans recognize the brilliance of balls-out spy stunts done right, in camera.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2022 edition of Coffee or Die’s print magazine as "Mission: Impossible."

Read Next: ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ — Why You Need To See the Year’s Best Action Movie in Theaters

David Maccar
David Maccar

David Maccar is the managing editor for Free Range American and a contributing writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He has been working in the outdoor industry as a print and digital editor and writer for various tactical and outdoor brands, including Field & StreamOutdoor LifeSHOT Business, Range365Gun DigestTactical LifeGuns of the Old WestBallistic, and others for more than a decade. He is a hunter, a target shooter, and a huge gun and movie nerd who lives in the Northeast with his wife, Madeleine, and faithful Texas heeler, Hunter.

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