03/06/2012 07:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Impossible Missions and 50 Years of Bond

As the latest Mission Impossible film, a surprise mega-hit, prepares to ease its way out of North American theaters and the newest James Bond continues in production, it's a good reminder of the vitality of the spy film genre in this 50th anniversary year of the Bond film franchise. As usual, there are a few spoilers ahead.

It should be no surprise in this post-9/11 era that it's flourishing, with three huge franchises -- Bond, Mission Impossible, and Jason Bourne -- doing extremely well and the gritty 24 series having finished a near decade-long run on television that began at the same time as the Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington.

But the one that is suddenly doing best, at least right now, is the one that, along with its star, ironically had been in danger of becoming an afterthought.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, released over the holidays, rocketed past Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace (both of which nearly made $600 million) and the Iron Man movies in global box office, as well as War of the Worlds, Cruise's previous career best, and is closing in on $700 million.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol with Tom Cruise is the biggest hit of recent spy films.

So it's bigger than Bond, at least the modern Bonds, and much bigger than the Bourne pictures, whose biggest entry, the third of three released so far -- another is filming now in the Philippines, though without Matt Damon -- did over $442 million in global box office.

I thought it would do really well, but not this well.

What accounts for it? It's very entertaining and smart, with a sense of humor that isn't jokey and a star who delivers. Tom Cruise isn't a star I know, though I've met him briefly and he seemed nice enough. And why wouldn't he? He's an actor and entertainer. Which is how I take him. The Scientology, the personal life, whatever it is, I don't look to Tom Cruise for political or cultural leadership, I look to him for entertainment, and he delivers. His movies are consistently good, well-chosen and well-produced -- with films like Born on the 4th of July and Jerry Maguire and Magnolia along with more predictable fare -- and he's very good in MI4. He's pushing 50, an age I no longer think of as especially old, and is in fine form as a very believable action star. Hanging off the side of Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, racing through a sand storm, practicing krav maga or Keysi whichever movie fu variant it's supposed to be, Cruise is every bit as credible and effective as IMF agent Ethan Hunt as he was in the first Mission Impossible back in 1996.

He's greatly aided by ace animation director Brad Bird in his live action debut and a strong ensemble cast with Jeremy Renner (who stars in the new Bourne movie and is part of The Avengers superhero crew) on hand as a mysterious analyst, Paula Patton as an agent with a need for vengeance, and the always amusing Simon Pegg (the new Scotty in MI4 producer J.J. Abrams' rebooted Star Trek) as the cyber whiz thrown into field work.

The plot? I've seen the movie twice, and, ah, it's something to do with a diabolical plan to blow up the Kremlin and nuke San Francisco and make the US and Russia each think the other is responsible to, um, make a better world by destroying it. Or something like that. That bit is very Bond, though the villain lacks the dramatic flair and sweep of a Bond villain.

And Cruise's Ethan Hunt isn't Bond, either. Like the leading characters in the '60s TV series that Cruise rebooted in the '90s as a film franchise, Ethan Hunt is a bit of a cipher. Mission Impossible always relied on masquerade, con game, and sleight of hand, frequently technology-driven, and the film series is no different.

When Cruise brought on J.J. Abrams to direct the third film and help produce the fourth, Ethan Hunt became more humanized as a character. Which was not surprising, since before he sprang Lost on an unsuspecting world, Abrams created Alias, another TV spy hit of the past decade, with the terrific Jennifer Garner as a soulful kick-boxing grad student double-agent/super-agent with a reasonable semblance of a life beyond the secret world. All in the midst of incredibly elaborate plots which were not unlike the old Mission Impossible, with the exception of having a driving X-Files-like mythology that paid off a little better in the end than that of Lost.

It's 50 years since Dr. No launched the James Bond film franchise.

Yet, good as MI4 is, and good as the new Bourne film, which co-stars Bond star Daniel Craig's Oscar-winning actress spouse Rachel Weisz, may be, this is a year of Bond.

After a four-year delay caused by the near crash of its parent studio, the Bond film franchise returns to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its beginning with Dr. No with Skyfall, to be released in the UK in late October and in the US and elsewhere in early November.

There will be far more to say about Skyfall, as the latest film is called, and the rest of the 50 years of Bond films as we go.

But to begin, let us stipulate, naturally, that Bond is politically incorrect, has long been inherently sexist (though he's improved decidedly of late), and is an agent of an imperial power, albeit one whose imperialism and power have faded dramatically since his creation by novelist/journalist/ex-naval officer Ian Fleming in the early 1950s, when Britain was in its late imperial stage. It's also been quite ridiculous at times.

And Bond, at least Bond before Daniel Craig, whose excellent performance is more gritty action hero than the traditional gentleman agent, has taken its appointed task of instructing in how to behave as a classy, albeit sometimes decidedly thuggish and caddish, man of the word to the point of snobbery on quite a few more than a few occasions.

It's not the multi-layered drama of a Mad Men, another series deeply rooted in the 1960s, which, as some readers know, I write about very extensively. (And in which Bond undoubtedly looms large in the male characters' psyches.) Yet it endures and prospers and frequently delights.

As MI4 prepares to leave the theaters after its smashingly successful run, so too, a this point 40 years ago, was the last of the Sean Connery Bonds. (Not counting his terrific Bond comeback in Never Say Never Again in 1983, a "rogue" production not made by the official Bond producers.)

40 years ago, Diamonds Are Forever, the last of the official Bond films with Sean Connery (who reprised the role a dozen years later in a "rogue" production), was cleaning up in the theaters.

In the nine years between the release of Dr. No in 1962 and Diamonds Are Forever over the 1971-1972 holidays, Bond, a big literary hit -- especially after President John F. Kennedy declared From Russia With Love to be one of his 10 favorite books -- became a global cinematic sensation and entertainment institution. Dr. No, as you can see from the original trailer here, was somewhat rough, though very polished for a first outing with an unknown star and relatively low budget.

From Russia With Love, still one of the very best of the Bond films, took things to another level. From which they exploded with 1964's Goldfinger, which made Bond a global sensation, and 1965's Thunderball, arguably still the two biggest Bonds.

By the time of Diamonds Are Forever, the series was heavily into gadgetry and self-referentialism. Britain's best secret agent Bond himself was actually a celebrity spy at that point, an obvious contradiction in terms, with female lead Jill St. John -- one of the best Bond girls, except when the producers unaccountably turned her sharpy character into a ditz at the end -- exclaiming as she rifled the pockets of a Bond assailant (whose wallet Bond has just switched): "You've just killed James Bond!"

Which is actually the sort of thing which nearly did kill Bond.

Diamonds Are Forever is where the series takes the larky turn to broad humor that we associate with the lengthy Roger Moore era. Connery is 41 and has lost some of the physical edge he had in the early films, at a time when stars didn't focus so much on conditioning. He actually seemed a bit more fit when he returned to the role in his early 50s. But he still has the air of nonchalant swagger and easy command that still make him the quintessential Bond. (I'll get into the various merits of the various Bonds another time.)

It's not one of the best Bonds, but it's fun and it's Connery and it has another terrific John Barry score with a great title tune sung by Shirley Bassey that's nearly as classic as Goldfinger. The plot? Well, it's Blofeld and outer space and Las Vegas when the casinos were more like semi-glorified Holiday Inns and a Howard Hughes character amusingly played by country music star Jimmy Dean and a pair of wildly camp hit men who are either extremely offensive or mordantly funny or both, take your pick.

Current James Bond star Daniel Craig debuted in smashing fashion with the outstanding Casino Royale in 2006.

Today's Bond, after the latest reboot, of course is very different.

The past decade's success and grittiness of Matt Damon's Jason Bourne in the Bourne film franchise and Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer in TV's 24 (which will eventually make it to the silver screen, too) called for a different sort of Bond.

Pierce Brosnan did an excellent job rebooting Bond for the post-Cold War world of the '90s, making a sagging series a big hit once again. But Brosnan's Bond was an elegant figure in an increasingly inelegant era. And his fourth and what turned out to be final film, Die Another Day, which also featured the great Halle Berry as a very different sort of Bond girl, began with grit but ended with unbelievable techno-spectacle. Not Moonraker, but not that far off, either.

And Brosnan was no longer young enough to play Bond back at the beginning, which is where he is in Fleming's first novel -- flukily brought to movie theaters by other producers in goofy spoof '60s form -- Casino Royale.

Producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson brought Martin Campbell, who helmed the terrific Brosnan post-Cold War reboot of the franchise, GoldenEye, in 1995, to direct 2006's post-9/11 reboot with Craig as Bond at the beginning. This was a Bond without Q or Moneypenny or all the familiar quips and tropes and gadgets. This Bond doesn't seem to be a former naval officer, either, more likely a rougher-edged ex-SAS commando recruited into the secret service. He's not the polished "gentleman agent" touted in the Bond ads of a half-century ago. Only M of the old accoutrements remains, with a decidedly out of continuity but irreplaceable Dame Judi Dench making a critical supporting role even more important in this incarnation.

Casino Royale turned out to be one of the best of the Bond films, and a huge hit, as was the follow-up, Quantum of Solace, though the latter lacked the critical acclaim and fan satisfaction.

What lies ahead with Skyfall remains to be seen.

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