“Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” is now out in theatres, and totally worth seeing — it’s a fantastic action movie with great stunts and a fun cast held together by a good old-fashioned Tom Cruise performance. It’s so good that no one seems to mind that it is the fifth “Mission: Impossible” film, nor do they seem bothered by the fact that Paramount Pictures seems to want to continue making them until Tom Cruise gets sick of it or the sun goes out, whichever comes first. It is, as they say in the biz, a tentpole franchise — a film series that can dependably put out a movie every couple of years and easily meet a studio’s blockbuster expectations. In layman’s terms, it’s something that you want to see more of.
But it might be missing something. Something that the “Fast & Furious” movies do exceptionally well.
This is something I hinted at when I wrote about how well the first “Mission: Impossible” film holds up: It’s hard to figure out why the “Mission: Impossible” movies exist.
Of course, there’s the ostensible one — they’re an adaptation of the classic TV series of the same name, which gives these movies powerful brand recognition and wonderful iconography to take advantage of (like the wonderful theme song). But they’re not really about anything.
Part of the reason for this is Tom Cruise. He’s such a high-profile movie star, conversations about movies he’s in tend to turn into conversations about him. His presence sucks all the oxygen out of a room, and it’s easy to not talk about the other things that make movies like “Rogue Nation” work — like a fantastic Simon Pegg performance, or every scene Rebecca Ferguson is in.
The other big reason for this is, ironically, the source material — one of the things that made the “Mission: Impossible” TV series so successful was its complete lack of context. You didn’t need to know anything about the characters’ personal lives or histories; each episode was squarely focused on the caper at hand. Instead of characterization, we got a collection of distinctive tropes; like the use of masks, or that lit fuse opening credits.
When you take that into consideration, it’s arguable that the “Mission: Impossible” movies don’t actually have to really be about anything other than exciting capers, much like the show. And that’s true! They don’t. But I’m not proposing anything radical, either.
One of the miracles of modern cinema is how, four films in, the “Fast and Furious” franchise suddenly pivoted from being a series about bad boys street racing to a seven-part saga about a diverse group of people bonding together to form a family that specialises in doing impossible stunts in really fast cars. They became a sort of makeshift Avengers, superhuman in their ridiculousness but heartwarming in their earnestness. And you don’t need to watch every single movie to understand this. Everything you need to know in a given film is right there for audiences.
Similarly, the “Mission: Impossible” films don’t have to take on anything profound, or offer smart political commentary or anything remotely ponderous. The “Fast and Furious” movies didn’t — they just sort of looked at what they had, and said “Hey, this makes sense!” when they posited that their movies about stuff like using muscle cars to steal bank vaults were really about family.
The “M:I” films don’t have anything quite like this, but it would go a pretty long way towards keeping the franchise fresh and exciting. As silly as it may seem, appending the central idea of “family” has done a world of good to the “Fast” movies — it makes the characters all the more heroic, it gives the cartoonish, over-the-top action very human, relatable roots, and it allows the franchise to flaunt the fact it boasts a diverse cast, which in turn attracts a diverse audience.
It’s hard to say what similar thematic underpinning could be ascribed to “Mission: Impossible” as a franchise — especially when most of the conversation around them seems to be limited to how cool it is Tom Cruise does all his own stunts. But it’s worth thinking about, and something the filmmakers seem to be thinking about during a crucial moment in “Rogue Nation” where one character goes on an incredible rant about how Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is an unstoppable force of nature, the living embodiment of destiny.
That’s not a bad start.
Destiny’s got a lot in common with the heroes of “Mission: Impossible”. Try as you might to stop them, they always win out in the end.
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