I marathoned all six “Mission: Impossible” movies. Please send help.

A surprising wave of enthusiasm hit right before the new Mission: Impossible movie dropped. I read phrases like “god-level,” “best movie of the summer,” and “best action movie since Mad Max: Fury Road.” The summer blockbusters of 2018 hadn’t previously done much to excite me, so I was intrigued.

Unfortunately for me, part of my brain hates it when I enjoy things, so I immediately devised a plan to make sure that Mission: Impossible: Fallout would be as minimally entertaining as possible.

I decided to marathon the entire series, ending with seeing Fallout in theaters.

All snark and sarcasm aside, I have a soft spot for the M:I series. The original was my first real introduction to espionage movies as a kid, and I loved it. The last few haven’t disappointed either, although even at its best these movies mostly seem like excuses for Tom Cruise to run around and do big stunts in iconic locales. There are probably better ways for humanity to spend $150 million, but hey, there are probably worse ways, too.

I was especially curious about how watching the movies back to back to back would impact my perception of the series. Would it completely fry my brain and ruin the silly action franchise for me forever? Or would I notice details that made me appreciate the individual films more? How would the wildly different tones of the movies play when seen so close to the preceding one?

I hope you’re ready, because it’s time to follow me on my pointless journey spanning 22 years of Tom Cruise jumping off buildings, getting cool looking facial injuries, and repeatedly saving the world from nuclear destruction.

Mission: Impossible

Released: 1996
Director: Brian De Palma
IMDB Score: 7.1

I was ten years old when this movie came out, and I thought it was perfect. It had everything! A few big action scenes, intense computer hacking, betrayals, exploding gum, and a helicopter blade that almost chops Tom Cruise’s head off. Sure, ten-year-old me probably (definitely) didn’t understand the story, but it didn’t matter. It was easy to stare intently at the screen during the exposition and pretend that it all made sense, especially since I knew in only a few minutes Tom Cruise would blow up an aquarium themed restaurant with a stick of gum and sea life would spill all over the streets of Prague.

A few things I noticed:

  • Most of the stuff in this movie that was cool to me as a kid is still cool to me as an adult. Sure, there’s plenty of cheese in this sandwich, but it’s tasty. The 2001-esque heist scene in which Ethan rappels into a vault is still great. The train/helicopter chase at the end holds up surprisingly well. Action feels earned, as opposed to just relentlessly hurled at you, which might be the most noteworthy (and best) difference about the first movie and the rest of the series.
  • How refreshing to watch an action movie where the object isn’t to save the world from annihilation, or a city from nuclear destruction, or from countries going to war. The MacGuffin in this movie is a list of names of under cover agents. If the list got out, the agents would be killed. Is the list important to the Impossible Mission Force, the series’ goofily named espionage agency? Sure, obviously. But the scale is smaller, meaning success isn’t a guarantee, which goes a long way to creating drama and tension. If you tell me a group of Australian anarchist super nerds are going to hack the United States’ nuclear silos and blow up every major city in the country, I’m going to assume, as a viewer, that this is not going to happen. No amount of intense music or money shots of nuclear missiles getting ready to launch will convince me that our heroes will do anything other than stop that launch. On the other hand, our heroes could lose a list of names. As illogical as it may seem, a floppy disc with a list of names on it is more exciting than a nuclear bomb hidden in the New York City Subway.
  • Parts of this movie have not aged well, especially anything related to computers. In 1996 the public’s experience with the Internet was far less extensive, so you could get away with these things back then, but in 2018 there are scenes that are so dumb they play like parody. In one scene, for example, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) stays up all night sending emails to random email addresses that he makes up, based on an eye-rollingly silly hunch (an Ethan Hunch?), in hopes that one of the addresses he’s banging out happens to belong to an arms dealer named Max. This is after he fruitlessly attempts to navigate to “MAX.COM” on the internet. Top. Tier. Espionage.
  • This movie savagely fails the Bechdel test. There are only two significant female characters in the movie, one of whom exists solely to bang and betray Ethan. The villain goes as far as to describe this sexual encounter as Ethan “tasting the goods.” Max, the arms dealer, ends up being the only interesting woman in the whole show, but she is tragically underutilized.

TL;DR review: A pretty cool and kinda dumb action flick that thinks it’s smarter than it actually is, but is still smarter than most modern action movies. I had a good time.

Mission: Impossible II

Released: 2000
Director: John Woo
IMDB Score: 6.1

Mission: Impossible II is absolute overblown insanity and comes across like it actively wishes it took place in an entirely different universe from the previous movie. M:I is a restrained, adult spy thriller compared to this sequel, which right out of the gate decides to forget about pesky annoyances like basic human behavior, physics, and comprehensible plot structure, and instead just tries to act as cool as possible. Unfortunately, the version of cool MI:II strives for is horribly dated and makes M:I II feel like a kid playing with action figures after watching the first movie.

“Now do a flip! Now kick a guy in the head! Watch out Ethan, there’s another guy! Flip and kick him in the head too! There’s too many of them! Get your guns out, Ethan! BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM! Quick, jump on the motorcycle! Do a wheelie! Oh no, the bad guy is doing a wheelie too! VROOOOOOOOOOMMMM!! THE HOT GIRL LOVES YOU ETHAN YOU HAVE TO SAVE HER THE BAD GUY HAS HER!”

I get that style and action over logic and substance is John Woo’s bread and butter. I’ve seen Hard Boiled, Face/Off, and Broken Arrow, and I know how much everyone loves The Killer. I understand the charm that comes from a complete devotion to unapologetic schlocky action. I can get into movies like that. But Mission: Impossible II just doesn’t work — it’s simply too bizarre and otherworldly. By the time the credits rolled, my face was sore from the twisted look of confusion I wore through pretty much the entire two hour runtime.

Anyway, some things I noticed:

  • There were so many zooms, and so much slow motion. I should have kept count of all the zooming and slow motion shots. I did count the number of mask pull reveals, though. (Five. There were five.)
  • Ethan and Nyah, his new love interest, fall in love in a supremely stupid way. Their first encounter reeked of thick, sweaty cheese, but it had a Batman/Catwoman vibe and was at least mildly fun. After that entertaining scene, though, they immediately get into an incredibly dangerous flirty car chase and almost kill each other. Ethan pulls her from the edge of a cliff he chased her off of, and bada bing, bada boom, now they’re totally in love. Is the writer of this movie an alien?
  • Women in general are treated even worse in M:I II than they were in the first film. If the first movie was flippant towards the female gender, this one is downright chauvinist. The one and only independently minded woman in the entire movie is used as bait, and ultimately plays the role of a damsel in distress.
  • So much for the smaller scale and at least mildly believable plot of the first movie. M:I II’s story revolves around a virus that the bad guy wants to release into the air of major cities so he can sell people the cure. At least, I think that’s the plot. It’s been a few days and I now remember the experience of watching Mission: Impossible II like I would a distant fever dream.
  • Floppy hair! Metallica! Limp Bizkit! If you hate yourself and want to be transported back to the year 2000, I highly recommend this film.

TL;DR review: I’m just so confused. Also, I might be the worst person alive for thinking binging all of these was a good idea. If you have a recommendation for a quality therapist in the Houston area it would be much appreciated, just toss it in the comments section. Thanks.

Mission: Impossible III

Released: 2006
Director: J.J. Abrams
IMDB Score: 6.9

It came out six years later, but Mission: Impossible III seems like it came out of an entirely different era of film compared to the previous two. It doesn’t pretend to be as smart as the first movie, but it’s infinitely more competent, self-aware, and entertaining than the second. And hey, the movie doesn’t hate women! What a relief.

From what I understand, Thandie Newton, the actress that played Nyah, Ethan’s love interest in M:I II, decided not to return for the third flick. The plan was to make her a trained agent of the IMF, which would have been a nice touch and retroactively help correct her broken character arc. It’s a bummer it didn’t happen.

I stumbled through a few fan run Wiki articles about what happened to Nyah’s character after II, and supposedly she had a long term relationship with Ethan until she was brutally murdered in her bed. Ethan found her and was, according to the un-sourced Wiki articles, devastated.

Despite my furious Googling, I could not figure out where in the hell this information came from, because nothing of the sort is mentioned or shown in the J.J. Abram’s directed third movie. Was there a deleted scene? A novel that ties the second and third movies together? A comic book? Was it printed on the back of the DVD box? I seriously have no clue. If you happen to know, for real, please, leave a comment below. I’m dying here.

So, instead of continuing with the relationship that started in II, we meet up with Ethan years after he’s retired and settled down with a woman named Julia, who has a respectable and more traditional day job than anyone else in Ethan’s life. Of course, he’s called back into duty and blahblahblahblahblah.

You may think I’m being overly dismissive about the plot of this movie, but the film itself does not care about its own story. An example: the MacGuffin of M:I III is a weapon called “The Rabbit’s Foot.” Aside from that code name, we never know what the weapon is or what it does. It literally doesn’t matter. It’s all an excuse for Ethan to be a cool action guy.

Alright. Some things I noticed:

  • Does anyone actually have parties like the one we see at the beginning of this movie? Ethan and Julia have like three hundred close, attractive friends. I’d be jealous if it didn’t seem so exhausting.
  • Aaron Paul, the actor who would play Jessie Pinkman in Breaking Bad a few years later, has a bit part as a slacker/mooch dude. I don’t think the movie needed his character, but seeing him was comforting, like running into an old friend after the traumatic experience of watching the second movie.
  • Speaking of actors I like, Philip Seymour Hoffman crushes his role as the villain. I think the movie implies Hoffman is just a pawn and that there are bigger, more sinister forces at play behind him, but forget that malarkey. Hoffman is the best bad guy of the series, and it isn’t close. He’s creepy, unnerving, and perfectly hammy.
Most scenes with Hoffman look like this
  • There’s some quality cliche dialogue at play here. The classic “we’ve got company” had me rolling my eyes, but Ethan Hunt looking directly at the camera and saying “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall” after scaling the wall surrounding the Vatican both baffled and cracked me up. My complete guess is that the line is a reference to the original T.V. show and is meant to make the seven or eight remaining fans of the show smile. If outrageously deep cut fan service isn’t the reasoning for that legendary piece of writing, then, well, I just don’t know.
  • Something about this movie feels like top-tier network television as opposed to a Hollywood blockbuster, but no matter how much I think about it, I can’t seem to pinpoint exactly what that something is. Maybe it’s the soapy writing, the pacing, the cinematography, or the action choreography. Likely, it’s simply that I got so used to seeing Abram’s style on the small screen and it comes off as out of place on the big screen.

TL;DR review: Tom Cruise gets electrocuted, Philip Seymor Hoffman acts his ass off, and Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. I liked this movie.

Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (IV)

Released: 2011
Director: Brad Bird
IMDB Score: 7.4

I remember my confusion when Brad Bird got tapped to direct a M:I movie. Previously only working in animated films, Bird helmed my favorite Pixar movies, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, along with The Iron Giant and some classic Simpsons episodes. Really, though, the choice made perfect sense. To be successful, the M:I movies need to be visually dynamic and exciting. They need to feel intense, but should also be fun and not take themselves too seriously. Bird’s previous filmography speaks for itself in proving that he knows exactly how to execute all of these requirements.

With Ghost Protocol, Bird delivers a perfectly executed summer blockbuster that nails the fun/intense balancing act. While there are notable high points in some of the other movies, Ghost Protocol is the peak of the series.

Here’s what stuck out to me:

  • The action in this movie is just so damn perfect. The danger feels real enough to be exhilarating, thanks to Cruise’s devotion to practical stunts and plenty of smart directing, but it never goes too long without reminding you that you’re here to have a good time. Example: Ethan climbs the side of the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, with futuristic special gloves that stick to the windows using sweet-ass spy technology. After one of the gloves fails, he takes it off and allows it to float away in the wind, leaving him to make the rest of the climb with one functional climby spy glove. Moments later, he sees the glove again, now stuck to the building and flapping around. He gives the glove an “oh, brother” glance before it falls back off and dances away in the sky. It’s these kinds of Saturday morning cartoon visual gags that imbue this movie with character and charm. Mission: Impossible II is big and stupid. Ghost Protocol is big and playful. It makes all the difference.
u kiddin me m8
  • Not a lot of talking in Ghost Protocol. More so than any of the other movie in the franchise, the story here gets told visually. I imagine the shooting script is incredibly short, but there are stacks and stacks and stacks of storyboard pages. As a quick, non-scientific test, I skipped to thirty random points in the movie and let it play out for about five to ten seconds at each point. There was no dialogue spoken in twenty three out of the thirty random spots I chose, and most of that was character driven stuff, as opposed to exposition heavy dialogue. I like it.
  • The head injuries Ethan endures in Ghost Protocol are bothersome. I get that he’s essentially a cinematic super human and can’t physically be inured in any significant way, but a number of scenes feature Ethan destroying his skull. We get gnarly crashing sound effects and nasty reaction shots from Ethan himself, but of course he walks away from all of them with no apparent cognitive side-effects. Typically, these kinds of movies give you the impression that the characters feel no pain and can’t be hurt, so it’s no surprise when they jog off a gunshot to the leg or drag themselves out of a burning, crashed vehicle. In contrast, Ghost Protocol does a good job of making you believe that the main character is getting physically demolished, while still having him walk off his injuries. The effect for me as a viewer is disconcerting. Get this man to a hospital.
  • The climax of this movie, a hand to hand fight scene in an automated parking garage, is one of the series’ most memorable moments. I love how personal it felt compared to the climaxes of all the other movies, which typically involved vehicle chases or big explosions.

TL;DR review: This movie is a blast and I wouldn’t mind watching it again, even after this marathon. MI:III has a better villain and Fallout outpaces in terms of sheer action, but Ghost Protocol understands what makes visual storytelling successful and entertaining in a way very few movies do. Hot take: Brad Bird is the second best bird in the entertainment industry.

Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (V)

Released: 2015
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
IMDB Score: 7.4

Requiem for a Dream. The Wrestler. The Shawshank Redemption. Her. Synecdoche, New York. Wild Strawberries. La La Land. Boogie Nights. No Country for Old Men. Unless something traumatic happens to my brain, I will remember these movies (among others) until the day I die. Some kind of magic gave these films the power to impact me and stay with me forever. Rogue Nation is missing even a sprinkle of this magic.

I watched MI:V in theaters during its initial release, but aside from the awesome opening sequence, which features Cruise hanging from the side of an airplane during takeoff, I remembered almost nothing about it prior to re-watching it this last week. I recalled enjoying it, even thinking it was better than pretty good, but in just a few short years it faded into the list of things I’ve seen, liked, and forgotten almost entirely.

Watching it again proved a strange experience — like seeing a dream I had once three years ago play out again in its entirety. My vague notion that Rogue Nation was an enjoyable film proved to be true, but, just like last time, I could feel my brain letting go of this movie almost immediately after the credits started rolling.

Let’s see if I can remember some of what I noticed:

  • Tom Cruise almost definitely sold his soul to Xenu in exchange for immortality — the dude is almost sixty years old and still looks good hanging off of planes. Still, it has been wild seeing him age throughout the series. He looks 30-something in Rogue Nation and not old enough to drink in Mission: Impossible.
  • There is a scene in which a government advisory panel questions the insanity of the Impossible Mission Force. It makes sense for this conversation to happen — it’s actually surprising it took five movies before it did. However, their decision to shut down an efficient task force that’s literally saved the world so many times strikes me as pretty stupid.
  • The big heist/infiltration scene of this movie was pretty weak. On paper, it sounds awesome, and parts of it are cool, but all the under water stuff felt too much like a cartoon for me to buy into the danger. I hope Cruise didn’t actually do some insane under water stunts to film that scene, only to have it look like it was all done on a computer later.
  • The villain if this movie is almost cool, but like most of Rogue Nation, he doesn’t have quite enough flavor for me to have much to say about him. He reminds me of a slightly better version of Moriarty from the Bennedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock, which isn’t a compliment. The character returns in Fallout, where he’s handled a little better, but he’s still fairly bland.

TL;DR review: Good while you’re watching it, but you might just forget all about it right after. It just made me wish I was watching Ghost Protocol again instead.

Mission: Impossible — Fallout (VI)

Released: 2018
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
IMDB Score: 8.5 (expect this to settle lower after the movie has been out a while)

Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie, the first returning director of the series, decided to do something a little different and make Fallout a direct sequel to the events of Rogue Nation. This mainly means that Sean Harris’ bad guy character and his cronies from the previous installment are still the primary mission in Fallout, but with plot mattering so little in this franchise, you would be fine if you watched this one without seeing any of the previous films. There are a few nice touches here for loyalists to the franchise, though.

There are only a handful actors, other than Cruise, who return for significant parts with any amount of consistency throughout the franchise. You got Ving Rhames, who is objectively a bad actor but whom I like anyway, you got Simon Pegg, who feels a little out of place but does bring some much needed levity to the scenes he’s in, and… that’s about it. Rebecca Furguson has been in a couple of them now. Jeremy Renner was too, but he missed Fallout due to Marvel owning his body. They didn’t even mention his character, the poor guy. Someone could have at least said he was on another assignment or something. You got Michelle Monoaghan, who played Ethan’s fiancée in III, but afterwards the series got bored of her and more or less wrote her off, other than occasionally using her existence as a convenient plot point or character motivation.

You would think the constant ramming of new characters in your face would get old, but the newcomers in Fallout add some nice spice to the mix. My favorite is Vanessa Kirby, who plays the daughter of the arms dealer Max from the very first movie. (A callback to the original, and it kinda actually matters! Nice.) Henry Cavill plays a robotic lunatic who does most of his own stunts. I was hoping for a little more from Cavill, but watching him throw people around in a bathroom was fun.

Okay. Here’s some of what I noticed:

  • Seeing Tom Cruise sprint is hilarious, but his cyborg stiff-body method does seem effective. That guy can go. Watching the entire series back to back gives the impression that Cruise started running in Mission: Impossible III and is still zooming around to this day.
  • The villain's scheme is pretty much identical to Ozymandias’ from the Watchmen comic book, sans the big squid thing. Derivative.
  • The stunts in this movie are absolutely nuts. Cruise broke his ankle jumping from rooftop to rooftop in Paris (the shot in which he breaks his ankle is used in the final cut), he hangs from a helicopter, pilots said helicopter, preforms a HALO jump (according to reports, Cruise himself jumped out of a plane 94 times for this sequence), drives a motorcycle through traffic with no safety gear on, and has a fight scene on a dangerous cliff-side with Henry Cavill, who also didn’t use a stunt double for the cinematic confrontation. All of the Mission: Impossible movies boast seriously impressive stunts, but this installment is non-stop in a way that the others aren’t.
  • Will Ethan’s employer cut him a break already? In literally every movie but the second, he is at odds in some way with the IMF. How many times does he have to save civilization as we know it before he gets a little respect? At this point, it would make more sense for Ethan to become a super villain as opposed to continuing to save the world. Even stranger, I can’t recall him ever saying a single bad thing about the IMF, or any of the people in his own government who make it so hard for him to do his job. He’s so single minded, it’s almost disturbing.

TL;DR review: The biggest and baddest of the series. Where the hell can the series even go after a movie like that?

Final Thoughts

When I decided to embark on this journey, I honestly thought the end product would be a snark-filled, smart-assey, armchair critique of a stupid series of action movies. And it is, to a certain extent. What I didn’t expect was for the movies to win me over as much as they did.

Yeah, they’re silly, they defy logic, and they expect you to forget about characters they previously tried to make you believe mattered. But against all odds, these movies won me over. I’ve grown used to big tent-pole movies looking like they were filmed in front of a green screen, so the novelty of big stunts preformed practically feels fresh and is exciting to watch. To be clear, I’m not staunchly opposed to special effects and CG, but I do think we’ve gotten to a point where many big budget flicks are just about indistinguishable from animated movies.

While it is incredibly impressive what special effects artists can achieve, too often these effects don’t compliment the movie, they are the movie. A character falling a long way isn’t thrilling if I can’t suspend disbelief and buy into the fact that the character is actually falling. If you’re still with me, do me a quick favor and watch these two short scenes. This one from Justice League, and this one from Rogue Nation.

There’s way, way more happening in the Justice League scene. In a wild, alien-looking landscape that’s supposed to be Russia, Aquaman jumps off Batman’s car to fight insect people in the sky, he almost falls to his death but is saved by Cyborg, and finally he surfs a bad guy’s body through a building, which he smashes through and walks away from while doing a hair flip. This scene sucks and is boring. I’m never worried about Aquaman while he’s falling, so when he’s saved, it doesn’t matter to me. Plus, he ends up plummeting through a building anyway, and he’s in perfect shape after, so did Cyborg even save him at all? Does Aquaman have the kinds of superpowers that would protect him from that kind of fall? It’s never clear. The filmmakers seem to think that more crazy stuff happening on screen equals more excitement, but it simply doesn’t work that way. This is the cinematic equivalent of a child running in circles and screaming.

Compare that to the scene from Rogue Nation. Ethan jumps onto a plane which takes off with him hanging on the side. Benji struggles to get the door open, but eventually he does, and Ethan gets what he needs off the plane in an amusing way. This is a good scene. The audience can follow the events as they happen, the reactions of the characters help us empathize how it would feel to be in the situation, and when Cruise is hanging on that plane it’s thrilling, because we believe that he is actually dangling off of a freaking airplane. Because he is.

Neither of these scenes is realistic, but the one from Rogue Nation is well directed and feels grounded in some kind of reality. It’s stupid, insane action, but it’s executed in a way that gets the audience to buy into the insanity, instead of just being confused and annoyed by it.

Action films are a dime a dozen, but I’ve grown to appreciate them when done well, and aside from M:I II, every movie in the Mission: Impossible series falls somewhere between good and great. The franchise’s greatest sin, as far as I’m concerned, is that Ethan Hunt is a generic, uninteresting action hero. He’s Jason Bourne, he’s Jack Ryan or Jack Reacher, he’s every Jason Statham character ever. He’s a cheap imitation of James Bond — all of the gadgets and guns without any of the charm or charisma or interesting baggage.

This might be the primary reason the franchise doesn’t have the clout the Bond series does, despite the fact that the quality of the M:I films has proven much more consistent than those in the Bond franchise. Tom Cruise gets a lot well-deserved of credit for being hard working and doing lots of crazy stunts, but a little characterization in this series could have gone a long way. What does Ethan Hunt like? Being a badass! What is he good at? Being a badass! What is his tragic flaw? Is being too badass a flaw? I guess he does like his friends. That’s sort of a character trait.

Still, it’s hard to criticize Cruise too much. After all, he’s almost sixty years old out there climbing treacherous rock faces, flying helicopters, and jumping off buildings, all for our entertainment. I’m just writing about it. I mean, what can you even say to a guy who has his own sweet theme song?

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Adam G.

Adam G.

Books, movies, wine, coffee, and disc golf.

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