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A Director's Sandbox: In Praise of the Mission: Impossible Franchise

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As was announced a few days ago, Paramount is fast-tracking a new Mission: Impossible picture for a May 27th, 2011 release date (literally one day after the release of The Hangover 2). And I thought summer 2011 couldn't get any more crowded. Anyway, the new picture will of course star and be produced by Tom Cruise, and JJ Abrams will have some kind of creative hand. I'm certainly hoping that neither he nor one of his minions (Drew Goddard or Matt Reaves) ends up helming the picture. I have nothing against them or their talents. I liked Cloverfield and Matt Reaves wrote some terrific late-season episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Lost, and Alias respectively. But what I love about the series is that it's really the only ongoing franchise that is absolutely a director's sandbox through and through. For three films so far, we've gotten the chance to see distinctive filmmaker take a crack at the IMF playbook and craft an action thriller that both stays within the 'this mission, if you choose to accept it' realm and exist as a definitive piece of work from that director. Come what may, Mission: Impossible is very much a DePalma picture, just as Mission: Impossible 2 was the ultimate John Woo film. And the third picture, while slightly overrated, remains a thesis study for the strengths and flaws of JJ Abrams.

The first (and best) Mission: Impossible was a Brian DePalma movie through and through. It even has a first-act climax involving that classic DePalma moment where the main character sees or hears someone they care about dying tragically but is powerless to stop it. It still holds up as a stunningly low-key and moody summer tent pole film, a movie that captures the paranoia and loneliness of espionage in a way that surpasses even the first two Bourne movies (to say nothing of the terrible third Bourne film). It's dark, occasionally violent, slowly paced, ice-cold and brutally cynical. And best of all, the plot is dense and complicated, and it actually requires you to pay attention to really get the full impact of the narrative (much of the legendary confusion comes from a hug piece of third-act exposition that is revealed through purely visual montage). There are really only two scenes that would quality as action set pieces, and one of them involves barley a punch or kick thrown (there are maybe four gunshots in the whole film). While the climactic reveal does kinda feel like an 'F&%k you!' to fans of the original television series, I was at best a casual fan of the series. Heck, I had more exposure to the 1988 remakes (created as filler during the WGA strike) than the original 60s adventures. Compared to today's stereotypical summer franchise movie, Brian DePalma's Mission: Impossible is practically an art-house picture. Oh, and it has one of the very best trailers of the 1990s.

The second entry was a goofy romantic epic that felt like John Woo was almost spoofing himself. Its reputation has not grown in stature, but it remains a lush, fun, and epic action film. I personally think the reason MI2 works (for those like me who enjoy it) is that it's so unabashedly 'male wish-fulfillment fantasy'. If you're a ten-year-old boy who plays out adventure scenarios with toy guns in his back yard, Mission: Impossible II is pretty much the movie you're going to make up in your head. Tom Cruise has never looked or acted cooler, the clothes and hardware are sharp, and Thandie Newton is an even match for Ethan Hunt (a Wonder Woman to his Clark Kent) while looking great to boot (bonus points for keeping her relevant to the entire picture without having her play hostage). Granted, I still think the movie works on technical merits, as the action scenes in the second half of the picture are terrific and wonderfully 'clean' (ie - skillfully edited and easy to follow at all times), the romantic subplot is playful and adult, and the picture feels wonderfully big and lush. In a time when summer entertainments try to score novelty points by going dark and anti-hero, John Woo's MI2 was a gloriously old-fashioned and romantic (in a literal and literary sense) action MOVIE.

I'm not as much a fan of the third one, although I seem to be in the minority. J.J. Abrams' feature film debut cribs too much content from Alias and I had a hard time believing that the brutally professional IMF spies would risk national security to save the wife of a fellow agent whom they barely even know. Plus, Hunt's pairing with a Michelle Monaghan's Julia (the character, not the actress) feels like a comedown from the more romantic entanglements with Newton's jewel thief in the second film (to paraphrase Frank Miller, Hunt was settling down with Lois Lane when he could have had Wonder Woman). Still, there is much to like, from the Vatican extraction scene to the 'catch the rolling canister' bit on the streets of Hong Kong, Abrams knows how to shoot a compelling suspense set-piece. And, especially after the almost super-heroic Woo antics of part 2, the third film is a refreshingly plausible adventure story that's only large-scale when the story demands it. Come what may, it IS a J.J Abrams film through and through (alas it feels more like seasons three and five of Alias as opposed to seasons one and two).

I love that each film is uniquely in the style of its auteur. I enjoy the franchise because it truly is a director's franchise. Frankly I couldn't care less if Cruise starred in these films or not, although he hasn't made a truly bad movie since Days of Thunder back in 1990. As long as each sequel allows a different visionary director to take a crack at the big-budget spy genre, it's a series worth keeping. And I'll be first in line (or at the first press screening) to check out (insert director here)'s Mission: Impossible IV.

Scott Mendelson