Mission: Impossible

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With Mission: Impossible-Dead Reckoning Part I (2023) out everyone is talking about Tom Cruise and his stunts. At some point after John Woo’s ill-fated outing in the franchise Tom Cruise became the single auteur heading up this multi-million dollar adventure series. These films were or claim to be inspired by the television show of the same name that was a hit back in the seventies and they have begun to feel like single episodes of a series that have been bloated to MCU proportions. But the show Mission: Impossible (1966-73) rarely had a two-part episode let alone a season arc. The Mission: Impossible films Tom Cruise has ushered into the multiplex over the last twenty years feel more like television today on streaming platforms than anything else; especially when shows like Stranger Things have episodes clocking in at two and a half hours in length.

When Brian De Palma made the first Mission: Impossible film back in 1996 he had already had success taking a classic television show and giving it the blockbuster treatment with The Untouchables (1987). What De Palma succeeded at in these adaptations was to take enough plot for a fifty-minute episode of the show and open it up for more action, more spectacle, and generally more business. The dramatic beats in Mission: Impossible match the format of the show perfectly with only more time granted to heists, operations, fights, and Tom Cruise running.

At the time De Palma made Mission: Impossible he did everything he could stylistically to avoid comparisons to Golden Eye (1995). Today the wacky adventures of Ethan Hunt and James Bond all look like knock offs of the Jason Bourne movies with hardly a film released in this genre asserting its own aesthetic agenda. De Palma mined his bag of tricks to pull shots and ideas from Blow Out (1981), Body Double (1984), Scarface (1983), and Raising Cain (1992) to give the visual tropes in spy movies a distinct, personal flavor. Mission: Impossible may feel like your average super spy thriller, but nothing else in the genre looks like it.

So if Mission: Impossible is the most faithful to the source material and wholly unique in the franchise cinematographically, how else do we measure its success? Financially it was a major hit, critically, it did well, and audiences still enjoy it. So why was this model that made Mission: Impossible so distinctly De Palma and Mission: Impossible 2 (2000) so uniquely John Woo abandoned? Was Tom Cruise afraid that an auteurist director would compete with him for the spotlight? Could a filmmaker overshadow a star?

Success comes with only the slightest moderation to formula in Hollywood and the bigger the star, the more power they will exert. Tom Cruise has become a kind of artless imitation of Warren Beatty in terms of how much control he has on set. And the Mission: Impossible films cannot risk financial failure for the sake of art. Therefore, as a standalone film Mission: Impossible is a success but as an episode in a blockbuster franchise it leaves something to be desired. The success of superhero movies has very clearly indicated that audiences are happy to see the same stupid movie twenty times with only the slightest variations.

Brian De Palma’s wedding of television storytelling with the post-modern blockbuster aesthetics of Steven Spielberg remains one of the great monoliths of popular culture in the nineties when American opulence went unchecked. It’s this timeliness that has made the Mission: Impossible movies so endurable. As bankrupt as these films appear today, they are as much the product of their moment as De Palma’s film was.