Two film franchises, both just now reaching their fifth film, but nothing alike in overall execution. What makes “Mission: Impossible” so rich and robust as a series, and why is “Vacation” such a drag?
The answer to the first part of that question has to do with Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner, and anyone looking to understand how to build a 21st century franchise would be wise to closely study the model that they've established. Not only has it proven incredibly limber, it seems like they're still just picking up steam.
All they have to do now is figure out how to keep Tom Cruise alive and looking exactly like he does right now for the next 100 years.
Since it's the IMF we're talking about, I assume they will succeed.
When you look at Tom Cruise's career, he came out of the gates really strong. He made his screen debut in “Endless Love,” directed by Franco Zeffirelli, and that one fact may have pushed him towards his ongoing plan-of-action: only work with exciting or emerging filmmakers.
You know… like Francis Ford Coppola. “The Outsiders” was a book I really liked, and it was sold as a movie for girls and starring nothing but shirtless thick-necked goons. When he was in “Losin' It,” Curtis Hanson was a strong filmmaker and a solid choice. I'll bet cash money right now that wasn't the title on the first page of whatever script Cruise signed on to star in.
“Risky Business” is the movie Cruise thought he was making when he made “Losin' It.” Paul Brickman's film hit theaters in August of that year, and the result was like someone dropped a bomb on all of pop culture. Sunglasses sales spiked. Bob Seger had a ginormous hit song. Tighty whiteys. Rebecca De Mornay. siiiiiiiiiiigh
He ran through quite the list of directors over the next thirteen years, including Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Martin Scorsese, Barry Levinson, Oliver Stone, Rob Reiner, Sydney Pollack and a prime-fighting-weight Neil Jordan. Sure, he also made “Cocktail” and “All The Right Moves,” but by and large, he has an uncanny knack for picking winners. Even so, during the early '90s, there were many conversations in LA about putting Tom Cruise together with the right franchise, and he was clearly looking for the right fit. When he and his producing partner Paula Wagner were given permission to dig into Paramount's past developed-but-never-shot projects, where they stumbled over the original “Mission: Impossible” series. Cruise immediately saw the potential, and they ended up bringing in David Koepp to write it and Brian De Palma to direct. De Palma always tended towards the margins as a filmmaker, creating a singular filmography in the meantime. Whoever brought him in for “Mission: Impossible” is a genius, though. He was the perfect fit, and he made a really entertaining movie. It also successfully re-introduced the tropes the original show.
“Your mission, should you decide to accept it…” The masks. The team of specialists. Double-crosses and fake-outs. And Jim Phelps, the reliable and long-standing leader of the IMF. You can't do “Mission: Impossible” without Jim Phelps… right?
I don't like “Mission: Impossible 2” at all, but I can certainly see how it made sense on paper. John Woo directing? Check. Robert Towne writing? Yep. The movie? Nope. Not interested. I admire the choice, though. Still, it freed Cruise/Wagner from another filmmaker, and when they made the decision to make a third film, they made a fascinating choice by hiring JJ Abrams. One of the things he did best was once again subverting the conventions of this particular series to make not only the most genuinely emotional of the “M:I” series, but probably the one that has most clever villain idea in the series. In the show, they used to have the “M:I” version of a red shirt, the poor bastard who would get captured, tied up, and dumped in some closet somewhere while one of the team members puts on a perfect replica mask of the poor bastard's face. In “M:I III,” Philip Seymour Hoffman played a guy who had that happen to him, and he has sworn to hurt Ethan Hunt as a result. It's great seeing a red shirt fight back, especially when they're as good at it as this one.
When they hired Brad Bird for “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” it looked like an odd fit, but I'm not shocked that Bird knocked it out of the park. His '60s Bond fetish was in full effect in “The Incredibles” and as a fan of spy movies in general, he knew what he wanted to see and he made it. He also started the tradition of bringing back random rotating members of Ethan Hunt's team. Simon Pegg was a great addition to the team, as was Jeremy Renner. I wish Paula Patton was back in the new one, but Cruise/Wagner knows what they're doing with these films. They know how to have fun within the constraints of franchise films, and by bringing in a new director every time, they don't have to worry about someone melting down from exhaustion.
Christopher McQuarrie's got a great relationship with Cruise, so bringing him on this film was a great idea. He made something that is both slick and genuine, with a strong bad guy character and a huge star turn by Sweden's current best export, Rebecca Ferguson. And once again, he colored carefully inside the lines, made sure that it does all things that one of these films should do, and made something that's fun. As the films have gone on, they've gotten funnier, and McQuarrie's film often made me bark out loud from laughter.
Regardless of what you think of him, it's hard to argue with the way Tom Cruise has kept that game plan in place. Between part two and part three, he worked with Cameron Crowe, Paul Thomas Anderson, and some dude named Stanley Kubrick. And after part three, he went back to Cameron Crowe, worked with Steven Spielberg twice, and absolutely killed it in his Michael Mann movie. Between three and four, he added Robert Redford, Ben Stiller, Bryan Singer, and James Mangold to his collection of directors he's worked with, and that ain't poverty.
The secret to the ongoing quality of the “Mission: Impossible” series is that Cruise and Wagner have always gone out of their way to make these BIG movies, fun experiences, something you really need to see theatrically. By rotating through directors, they're making it clear that no single filmmaker is as important to this series as Tom Cruise is. He's as indispensable piece of the puzzle as anyone else in
You'll find a gallery below where I've rated all of Tom Cruise's films and performances, from best to worst, because I am 100% sure that what I think is important to him, and it will drive him crazy.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to make your due, as soon as possible in a big theater near you. “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” is in theaters everywhere today.