Action movies didn’t always have to be franchises. We live in an age where blockbuster entertainment is driven by recognizable brands, household names, and the de rigueur demand for shared universes, but once upon a time in the mythical land of Hollywood yesteryear, major studios were willing to throw down a pretty penny on the basis of making a standout single film so long as it had the promise of profit. As a result, a film could be the best version of itself without becoming beholding to theoretical future installments.
In that regard, Mission Impossible remains one of the finest examples of its time. That’s not to say that Paramount and then first-time producer Tom Cruise weren’t hopeful for a lasting franchise – after all, sequels aren’t exactly a novel concept and Mission Impossible was banking on some goodwill from the hit CBS series of the same name, but that wasn’t the driving force. When Brian De Palma sat down in the director’s chair, he was focused on crafting a singular spy caper, not building a universe or sowing the seeds of future installments. He just so happened to do those things anyway.
Mission Impossible eschews origin stories and exposition in lieu of presenting a matured, fully-formed team of skillful IMF agents who engage in spycraft with a combination of ease and urgency befitting such a precarious profession. The squad consisted of Jon Voight as the team leader Jim Phelps, Emmanuelle Beart as his wife and agent Claire Phelps, Emilio Estevez, Kristen Scott Thomas and Ingeborga Dapkunaite as field agents, and of course, Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt; the cocky point man and super spy extraordinaire who became the definitive and driving force of the franchise. Then, in a bit of a nasty trick, Mission Impossible killed almost all of them off within the first 30 minutes – a bold, explicit statement of ownership telling the audience that this wasn’t a remake of an old TV property; this is spycraft through the twisted lens of Brian De Palma. And it’s Tom Cruise’s show.
In De Palma’s hands, espionage action becomes a landscape of paranoia, canted angles, and dream logic whereby Ethan Hunt descends into a world of conspiracy and corruption after being framed for the death of his team. Regarded by some as an heir to Alfred Hitchcock‘s command of uneasy tension thanks to his resume of stylish thrillers like Sisters, Body Double and Dressed to Kill, De Palma has a knack for transplanting the master filmmaker’s motifs into bluer material, packed with grisly violence and erotic tension. While he’d earned popularity (and notoriety) with his hit films Scarface and The Untouchables, De Palma had yet to work in the world of blockbusters, exclusively dealing in R-rated fare, until Cruise recruited the director to helm his action vehicle.
With Mission Impossible, De Palma put those sensibilities to good use, offering a vivid counterpoint to the conventions of the action genre by opting for tone and aesthetic over explosive set pieces (though he made room for one of those in the film’s climax in a beautiful compromise that blends his flair for suspense with the insanity of a helicopter in a train tunnel). All the same, Mission Impossible is remarkably contained for a summer blockbuster, especially by today’s standards of extensive property damage. Ethan Hunt, the very same who would be firing a rocket launcher off a crowded bridge just two movies later, doesn’t even pick up a gun.
In a prime example of the way De Palma subverted the standard action format, the film’s most iconic set piece is a silent moment of acute accuracy and stillness. When Cruise repels down into that vault, surrounded by a gleaming white light that showcases his figure, form and every minute movement with exclusive intent, it’s not a matter of spectacle, it’s a matter of tension. It’s not about explosions or fisticuffs, it’s about control and technique, and a small-scale demonstration of the physical command that would come to define Cruise’s later career.
Perhaps most importantly of all, De Palma hinged his unlikely blockbuster on the template of Tom Cruise. Mission Impossible, and all of its subsequent sequels, live and breathe by Cruise’s portrayal of Hunt; a showcase by which he could assert his leading man charisma, propensity for action, and fearless skill for stunts – all of which would ultimately become defining traits of the franchise. De Palma established some broader touchstones that would become trademarks (the identity-concealing face masks, the mid-film set-pieces, etc ) but making Cruise the preeminent voice of the franchise was far and away the most important factor in the equation that has allowed it to remain at the top of the game for two decades.
With Cruise taking the leadership role, both as actor and producer, it opened up the Mission Impossible series to a slant of auterism as a new director came on board for each film, putting their idiosyncratic stamps on the world of Ethan Hunt and the IMF. In addition to De Palma, directors John Woo, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird and Christopher McQuarrie have all tried their hand at that world, and each film bears the trademarks of the individual directors — from Woo’s doves to Abrams’ sentimentality — but because Cruise carries the audience through each journey, every film feels a part of one larger entity despite their aesthetic differences.
With the as yet untitled Mission Impossible 6, the franchise’s age of autuerism may be coming to an end. For the first time, a director will return to helm a second installment when Cruise’s frequent collaborator Christopher McQuarrie steps back into the role of director. That’s not a bad thing. Rogue Nation was arguably the best film in the series, and I’ve made no secret of my love for McQuarrie’s approach to the franchise format, but it is the end of a twenty-year run of flexibility that allowed Mission Impossible to be one of the most fluid and surprising tentpole series on the market. We can only wait and see where it goes from here, but in looking back on the blueprint De Palma created with his bizarre, unconventional slant on the genre, it becomes abundantly clear why Mission Impossible has dominated tentpole espionage for the last two decades.