The Mission: Impossible Franchise – Hazy Reflections


A look back at the Mission Impossible film series starring Tom Cruise and trying to remember what all those missions were about

Tom Cruise Mission Impossible film series franchise

With a new Mission: Impossible film coming out, (this time a two-parter no less!) it’s only natural for movie fans to reflect on the previous entries of Tom Cruise’s spy franchise.

This is exactly what I was doing with a friend and thought my ridiculous hazy memories about each individual film was amusing enough to share. It became clear very quickly I don’t remember much about them – other than a handful of scenes. It’s usually some action setpieces that I can recall, but have no idea how Cruise’s Ethan Hunt got there or why.

This isn’t to say I dislike these flicks. I was surprised how much I enjoyed some of them, but the story, characters, even just a general broad plot synopsis – that stuff just seems to float out of my head as soon as the end credits rolled.

Curise and Brian De Palma

Probably the most confident and accurate description I can give about each individual film is that each was directed by a different director – Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird – then came director Christopher McQuarrie who appears to have become the M:I regular directing the last three installments.

Tom Cruise plays Ethan Hunt – a character who is a spy. They could just save us the time and call him Agent Tom Cruise. I’m familiar with some of the recurring supporting characters and usually it seems Cruise is disavowed, has to clear his name, break into some high level security joint and catch the bad guy.

There’s typically a ‘MacGuffin’ at the center of the story. It’s a top secret and powerful device that the bad guys are trying to get or have obtained. It’s Agent Cruise’s job to swipe it back from them or prevent it from working and causing the intended destruction it can cause. These Mission: Impossible ‘MacGuffins’ usually have some strange names. Things like ‘The NOC List’, ‘The Rabbit’s Foot’, ‘The Entity’. 

Granted I haven’t watched any of these films since they first came out and I never really felt compelled to rewatch them. The films have become box office gold, grossing more money and generating more excitement as they’ve gone on. The continued quality of Cruise’s spy series have become compared to the James Bond series, with fans debating which is doing the action adventure spy movies better.

John Woo and Cruise filming Mission: Impossible 2

At now age 61, Cruise continues to not only star in the extremely popular series of films, but has also been the producer and a key creative force behind them right from the beginning.

Since he started playing Ethan Hunt in 1996, he’s outlasted two James Bond actors in that film series – and he keeps on going. His age and incredible ability to continue do some of the dangerous stunts has become a talking point around the films. Cruise says he’d like to still do them when he’s 80 years old. With the dedication and eagerness he’s shown to give audiences something truly eye-popping with each film, you believe he will. 

Cruise’s mind boggling stunts have not only become exciting moments within the film, but have become focal points of the promotion for them. And ‘Tom Cruise Running’ is one of the most popular memes around.

Mission-Impossible-films-Tom-Cruise-running-meme-tropeI haven’t re-familiarized myself with anything about the previous M:I films and cheated or refreshed my memory before writing this blog, which I wrote originally back in 2015 on the cusp of the release of Rogue Nation. Since then new M:I sequels have come out and I returned to write about the newer additions to the ongoing series with my ‘hazy reflections’.

Maybe one day I’ll revisit the films, but at the moment I still don’t feel compelled to. For the most part I’ve enjoyed the M:I films, but never felt the need to refresh my memory on any of them in preparation for the newest one.

So here’s my hazy reflections on each Mission Impossible film. I have to warn about potential spoilers, since I might have some things right, but don’t expect all of this to be accurate. I freely admit I probably have no idea what I’m talking about and am about to embarrass myself with fans of this movie series.

Mission: Impossible (1996)

Mission Impossible Tom Cruise 1996The old classic TV spy show gets the big-screen treatment (during a time when it seemed every old TV show was getting one).

Director Brian De Palma seems like an odd choice to helm a big-budget summer action film. Aside from The Untouchables, De Palma is known mainly for more offbeat, cult films. He ends up brining in his unique style and extended suspenseful sequences to the old television show.

A mission goes bad for secret agent Ethan Hunt and his spying team, which includes Emilio Estevez. They are all killed, but Cruise escapes. Agent Cruise finds out he can’t trust his government bosses after one tries to kill him when he meets up with him, but Cruise escapes again, this time by blowing up a giant fish tank with explosive chewing gum.

Luckily Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) is Cruise’s mentor and whom Cruise can trust. Phelps is the only character connected to the original TV show (and I believe the last time), but we do also get the theme song, the ‘if you choose to accept this mission’ tapes and rubber masks. So Cruise sporting some pretty short hair in this one, has to break into CIA headquarters to get a disc or file or something. Ving Rhames, Leon and the first in a line of forgettable IMF leading ladies helps him.

They put some stuff in this computer guys drink to make him have diaharrea so Cruise can lower himself down into the secret room where he can’t touch the floor or make a sound.

Tom-Cruise-Mission-Impossible-1996-break-in-scene-Brian-DePalmaHere’s the big action setpiece I remember from the movie. They make sure they’re quiet enough and check the sound levels by saying the word “Toast. Toast.” into the microphone. I don’t know why I always remember that part.

Cruise gets the file, Leon gets scared by a rat in the vent and almost drops Cruise. They go somewhere in Europe to meet up with Phelps on a bullet train where we learn he’s really a bad guy. I think Cruise uses a rubber mask somewhere in here. There’s a fight on the train with some silly explosions. Oh, and Leon flies a helicopter and tries to use the blades to cut up Cruise who’s hanging on the outside of the train.

The bad guys are taken care of and Agent Cruise is proved innocent or something and goes back to work ready for his next mission.

Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)

Mission Impossible 2 Tom Cruise mountain climbingI remember being surprised when I heard Cruise was going to do a sequel to Mission: Impossible. That never seemed like his thing, but the first movie was a hit and the series would become a steady popular money-maker for him to always go back to.

I always thought after he spent over a year filming Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and doing a supporting role in Magnolia, the best career move at the time was to headline a big glossy audience pleasing action film to bring in the audiences and generate a hefty box office. And who better to get to direct this followup than action auteur John Woo, who would bring along his patented slo-mo action and flying pigeons to the franchise.

Ironically, number two would be the least successful entry both critically and commercially of this franchise. I’m not sure how true it is, but I did hear that Cruise was unhappy with Woo’s original cut of the film and did some recutting of it.

Agent Tom Cruise has longer has long hair this time and is doing some pretty cool mountain climbing stunts. He puts on his sunglasses and is given his mission by boss man Anthony Hopkins. Ummm….I’m going to take a stab at it. A bad guy stole something and is trying to sell it so Cruise has to stop him? Maybe he’s a former IMF agent who is a traitor and used to be Cruise’s friend. I’m guessing here.

Dougray Scott is the bad guy. I only remember him being in this because he lost out the role of Wolverine in X-Men because filming went on too long in this. He must hate thinking about this movie. Thandie Newton is the IMF leading lady. She’s the only Mission Impossible gal I can name. I remember she was one of the current young, attractive up-and-coming actresses at the time.

I think Rhames is in this, but I can’t be sure. He was probably doing his thing at a computer talking with Cruise at some point.

Mission-Impossible-2-2000-Tom-Cruise-motorcycle-stunt-John-WooAction fans were hoping for a lot of cool John Woo action, since he dominated the 90’s with all his distinctive slo-mo/explosive flair – but I don’t remember what the action was in the movie.

There was definitely some slo-mo, since I remember Cruise kicking in slo-mo and Thandie Newton disappearing behind blowing curtains in slo-mo. There might have even been some changing speed rates, going from fast to slow since I sort of recall when Cruise is wearing the shades getting his mission the camera zipping around his head. The film also looked much different than DePalma’s cool, bluer film. This one was much brighter and orangey-ier.

There was a motorcycle chase. I know there was that. There were explosions and there must of been some slo-mo during some of it. I’d be really shocked if I rewatch it and don’t see some of slo-mo. The climax is when Agent Cruise and Not-Wolverine speed towards each other and collide in the air in a crazy motorcycle jousting thing. A fight occurs on the beach with Cruise getting a knife blade coming really close to his eyeball (something I read he did for real, a small precursor to all the big stunts he’d later become known for in the series).

Somehow Cruise kills the bad guy and I guess the file or secrets are safe. Cruise is set for his next mission. Oh and they did use the mask trick again.

Mission Impossible 3 (2006)

Mission Impossible 3 Tom Cruise 2006Tom Cruise has average length hair and Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a bad guy. J.J. Abrams directs his first feature film after specifically being offered the chance by Cruise. 

The movie starts out with a cool bang as we see Hoffman kill Agent Cruise’s girlfriend in a flash forward. Keri Russell is an IMF agent who Cruise trained and is killed when a bomb in her head detonates.

I guess they realized that the character of Ethan Hunt was not too interesting a guy, so they try to make him more of a three-dimensional character by giving him a girlfriend – I forget what her character or the actress’ name is. Even though we get to see him away from his spy job, there’s still nothing special about the character that stands out and he’s still just ‘Agent Tom Cruise’.

We find out Hoffman killed Felicity and they manage to capture him. Cruise gets mad at him and hangs him out an airplane. Hoffman escapes in a helicopter on a bridge in a cool action scene and goes after Cruises girlfriend.

This is where Simon Pegg gets introduced as one of the team members. I believe there is a girl agent somewhere in this, there always is, but I can’t tell you anything about her. The television series revolved around a team of agents working together, but the movies have become ‘The Tom Cruise Show’.

It seemed around here they decided to give the supporting actors, notably Pegg, more of a participatory role in the missions. The most teamwork we saw in the earlier flicks was Rhames sitting in a van with an earpiece and sitting at a computer. Pegg still does that, but he gets to do some actual fieldwork too, along with providing some comedy relief.

Mission Impossible Tom Cruise bridge explosionSo they help Cruise….break into the…..Vatican….to capture Hoffman? I know Cruise pretends to be Hoffman because they use one of the disguise masks and it was kind of weird seeing Hoffman climbing around like he’s supposed to be Cruise. Maybe the Vatican was some other scene, but they break into this big place with a party going on.

OH, and before that Cruise breaks into a building and does a parachute escape when bad guys start shooting at him. I don’t know what he was doing there, but he must of been after something important, like a file or that ‘Rabbit’s Foot’ thingie.

I guess Hoffman escapes again and captures Cruise’s girlfriend, but Agent Cruise kills him and his gal has to electrocute him because Hoffman put a bomb in his head. Everyone is safe. Rhames shows up very briefly in this. I can’t remember if Cruise says he’s going to stay away from his girlfriend to keep her safe or just goes off and marries her.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol Tom Cruise prison escapeLet’s stop numbering these movies and just give them subtitles. I’m not sure why they didn’t call this ‘Mission: Impossible IV’, but the makers decided to drop keeping track of what number we’re at with this series of movies.

And as is the tradition with this series another director comes onboard to give their take on a big-budget spy story starring Cruise. This time it’s Brad Bird.

It seems like there’s a fallback plan happening with the casting of Jeremy Renner as an ally. Maybe he could step into the leading role as Cruise ages out of doing Mission: Impossible derring do. Cruise is now over fifty, so perhaps his days of action are behind him, best we prepare and have Renner in the wings to keep this franchise going. 

They needn’t have worried. Cruise isn’t going anywhere

Agent Cruise has a bit longer hair than last we saw him. He’s in prison to stage a breakout for a guy and manages to take out a whole cellblock of guards.

Mission-Impossible-Ghost-Protocol-2011-Tom-Cruise-Paula-PattonWe start to see a bit more of the ‘Bourne Influence’ on Ethan Hunt. In the past Agent Cruise would do a lot of firing of guns, performing vehicle stunts and climbing. He might have thrown a few punches at some baddies, but it’s clear he’s been doing some serious fight training since his beach fight in MI2. Here’s he’s taking out dozens of guys with his fists and moves like lightning – an ability all modern day action heroes must be able to have.

Lea Seydoux plays a bad blonde agent who kills Sawyer from Lost and steals nuclear codes. Tom Wilkinson tells Cruise there’s some bad people in the government and before they shoot up his limo. Cruise and Jeremy Renner manage to escape. They have to break into the Kremlin with some cameras on balloons and a giant mirror.

Cruise wears a disguise but it’s not one of the series’ famous rubber masks, it’s just a little fake mustache. Actually there aren’t any of those disguise masks in the movie. I think the one that shows up gets goofed up when Pegg is making it. Anyway, a nuclear bomb goes off under the Kremlin and Agent Cruise does a nifty ‘running from a nuclear explosion’ stunt and survives. He’s taken prisoner in a hospital and slides down some telephone lines and escapes.

He rejoins his team who now have to goto the tallest building in the world to pretend to be buying the nuke codes and have to make copies of it with contact lense cameras. Cruise has to climb the outside of the building with some nifty Spider-Man gloves. We again get a bit more humor that runs throughout.

Tom-Cruise-Mission-Impossible-Ghost-Protocol-2011-stunt-climbing-buildingA sandstorm lets the bad guy escape with the codes so Cruise, Renner, Pegg and the newest IMF gal (no idea who she is) have to go somewhere else to break into a ritzy party and stop the bad guys….from uploading the codes to some cable access TV station….that sounds so wrong, but it would be cool if that was true.

The agent gal seduces some bigwig, Pegg helps Renner crawl through some airducts and avoid being cut by giant fans and Cruise has a fight in a revolving parking deck with cars falling all over the place.

They retrieve the codes, Rhames makes a cameo and the world is safe again. At least until the next mission. Let’s cue the theme song!

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

Mission-Impossible-Rogue-Nation-2015-Tom-Cruise-Rebecca-FergusonThe series has been doing massive box office numbers and the films are becoming a consistent presence on movie screens. Cruise doing his own stunts in the films are starting to become a recurring theme and a selling point. Cruise would do his most death-defying stunts with director Christopher McQuarrie who joins the series.

A lot of familiar faces are back to help Cruise – Pegg, Rhames, and Renner. Alec Baldwin and Rebecca Ferguson join the series and Sean Harris arrives on the scene to be a big bad guy. All of them will become recurring characters in future M:I films.

This time out there’s this evil organization known as the ‘Syndicate’ and Crusie has been disavowed (poor guy is always getting disavowed) and becomes hunted by his own agency. So he has to prove the Syndicate exists, find them, bring them in and clear his name. 

He does this through action scenes in a fancy opera house, get into car chases, motorcycle chases and Cruise doing some underwater swimming where he has to hold his breath an awful long time! Did I mention Cruise opens the movie by holding onto the outside of a flying plane.

Tom-Cruise-Mission-Impossible-Rogue-Nation-2015-plane-stuntMore humor has crept into the series. It appears it has evolved away from that original ’96 film where only a few jokes was cracked. The recent films have also become much more similar looking to one another. They’re big, glossy, spectacles with Cruise doing some crazy stunt work in one set piece after another. A format seems to have taken a foothold and the series is now following it. 

The Mission: Impossible series is drawing more comparisons to the James Bond series, as Rogue Nation gets released the same year as Spectre. An online debate heats up as fans weigh in on which film they like more and which film series is doing the big-budget spy action adventure thing better.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

Mission-Impossible-2018-Tom-Cruise-helicopter-stuntI’ve lost count of how many M:I films we’re up to now. It’s starting to rival the never-ending Fast and Furious franchise, but at least M:I is more entertaining. Cruise decides to stick with director McQuarrie and they continues to outdo themselves designing and executing stunts that Cruise will pull off.

Harris is back as the evil Solomon and manages to escape to wreck some havoc on the world. Now it’s up to Cruise and Henry Cavill to find and stop him. Oh, and of course all the regulars are back to lend a hand. Cruise’s ex-wife Michelle Monaghan turns up in the unlikeliest of places and there’s something of a reunion between them. Also Angela Bassett turns up, keeping the pattern of getting some heavyweight actors to be the bosses (Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Fishburne, Tom Wilkinson, Alec Baldwin).

There’s also a growing motif that the females in the Mission: Impossible movies are all brunettes, at least the good gals. If she’s a blonde that’s a strong indicator she’s a bad gal.

Cavill turns out to not be so friendly and will go toe to toe with Cruise dueling in helicopters and having a fist fight on a mountain top. Before the climatic ending there’s a a fun filled fist to cuffs fight in a bathroom where another meme is born when Cavill reloads his arms during a fight. Cruise runs and leaps over some buildings with Pegg giving him directions in his ear. This is the scene he famously broke his ankle and got a lot of press about it. Cruise also leaps out of a plane filmed in a nifty unbroken single take that is quite impressive. 

Cruise clocked in a lot of hours learning how to learn to fly Hueys and his work seems to have paid off with many fans ranking Fallout as a highlight in the series. Cavill is a fun and threatening as a bad guy. Every time I think of this movie I can only think about how Cavill had grown a mustache for his part in Fallout and in the middle of filming reshoots for Justice League were needed of him as a clean shaven Superman. Cavill was contracted for Fallout to not lose his ‘stache. So Justice League did a really wonky CGI cover up of his mouth.

Mission-Impossible-Fallout-2018-Tom-Cruise-Henry-Cavill-Rebecca-FergusonCavill was better off. His performance in Fallout was much better than anything he was given to do in Justice League.

Mission Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One (2023)

Tom-Cruise-Mission-Impossible-Dead-Reckoning-motorcycle-stuntCruise and McQuarrie reteam for not just another installment of the series, but a two-parter!

Part One will see the return of a lot of the old M:I regulars. For the first time since the ’96 original, Henry Czerny returns as Kittridge to most likely trade some more dramatic dialogue with Cruise. Hayley Atwell joins the M:I family as Cruise’s newest ally (the newest brunette!). They have to team up and defeat the latest villain played by Esai Morales – which it seems will take two movies to accomplish.

We can’t forget about the Cruise stunts in Dead Reckoning! Promotion has been heavy for over a year teasing fans of Cruise riding a motorcycle off a cliff! It’s become the stunt that’s the main piece of the marketing for Dead Reckoning. But that won’t be all. I’m sure we’ll get some shoot-outs and fight scenes, but also Cruise gets into a car chase in the middle of Rome and some major action taking place inside, outside and on top of a moving train before it comes to a crashing halt.

The series has come a very long way from exploding chewing gum.

Mission-Impossible-Dead-Reckoning-2023-Hayley-Atwell-Tom-CruiseAlready fans and critics have been raving about Dead Reckoning. With Cruise riding the wave of massive  success of Top Gun: Maverick, the Mission: Impossible series is as popular as ever and Dead Reckoning promising to be just the first half of an epic action adventure, it may become the most popular M:I entry yet.

I will see it at some point. While I consider myself a very casual viewer of the Mission: Impossible films, they have been awfully fun to watch. It’s become a pretty impressive series with its stunts, the longevity it’s had and Cruise’s passion of each time out trying to top the previous film and make it a bigger and more exciting mission. Audiences have certainly been happy with the series. 

Cue the Mission: Impossible theme! 


3 thoughts on “The Mission: Impossible Franchise – Hazy Reflections

  1. Two questions.

    Did you ever see the movie that inspired the Mission Impossible series: Topkapi?

    The other question is, how would you compare Ethan Hunt to James Bond? Some would say that he is the answer to James Bond. They do have the same elements. International globetrotter, A Bit of a ladies man, And an adventurer. How would you compare that Apple to that Orange?

  2. There is no answer to James Bond. Many have tried, none have lasted the course.

    The big difference is that you can always revisit Bond and find something new or nuanced in each one. There's a visual and storytelling style with Bond that elevates it above other action-spy movies. As was mentioned in the blog, Mission Impossible movies are fine to watch once when they come out but as lasting works they fall short. Like a soft drink vs champagne.

  3. Yes, do yourselves a favor and watch TOPKAPI instead of the latest Tom Cruise preen-fest. And then watch the first three seasons of the original series and forget these movies exist, which shouldn't be too difficult.

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