Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion) – Mission: Impossible

by Ben Martin

Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)

The mission, which I have chosen to accept is to review the Mission: Impossible franchise. A sixth installment, Mission: Impossible- Fallout opens at the end of this month. With that in mind, I’ll examine this franchise that has spanned 22 years and six Missions. To start, we’ll crack open the IMF file on Mission: Impossible!

Unlike other film franchises reviewed so far in this column, the property that is Mission: Impossible, in one incarnation or another has always been a franchise. It began as a TV series which ran from 1966-1973. Seemingly, Mission: Impossible was television’s answer to James Bond. However, unlike 007, Mission: Impossible is an ensemble piece. Created by longtime television writer, Bruce Geller, the espionage series focused on a team of American spies who are part of the Impossible Missions Force (IMF). Initially, part of the show’s appeal would be that IMF team members or whole teams would change based on the episode. However, that did not happen once audiences took to Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) and his team; which featured Martin Landau (Ed Wood) and Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek).

Not wanting to let their franchise die, Paramount Pictures began developing a Mission: Impossible movie in the late 80s. Alas, those efforts quickly ceased; mostly thanks to Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike. Thus, everyone involved decided it would best to give the property a TV revival as opposed to the big screen treatment. As a result, Geller, Graves and a few others returned to the series in their respective roles. The Mission: Impossible revival ran from 1988-1990.
Following that, development on a Mission movie resumed in the early 1990s. Screenwriting duo Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; Howard the Duck) penned the original screenplay, and the studio moved forward with getting it from page to screen. But, it took awhile to attach a star. During this time, Tom Cruise (American Made), his producing partner, Paula Wagner (Marshall), and their production company Cruise/Wagner (C/W) Productions, had an output deal with Paramount. As fate would have it, Cruise was also looking to headline a film with franchise potential. Therefore, when the leading man learned that the studio wanted to make Mission: Impossible, he was immediately interested.
However, even after Cruise became attached, the screenplay was proving problematic. The film was intended and still is a continuation of the TV show. As such, the series’ original cast members were asked to reprise their roles, only to be killed off. Not surprisingly, the show’s cast refused outright, finding such an idea insulting. I can’t say as I blame them for feeling that way either.
With such difficulties, it seemed this Mission could have proved impossible; as a result screenwriter Steven Zaillian (of the upcoming flick The Irishman) was brought in to develop a new story. Following Zallian’s work, screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park; The Shadow) was reportedly paid $1 million to a punch-up on the story and craft it into a screenplay. While draft after draft of the film’s script was written, legendary director Brian De Palma (Scarface) signed on to head up the Mission. Once De Palma was on-board, the picture soon went into production without a finished script to make it’s already announced May 22, 1996 release date. (M: i was the first film to kick-off such a trend.) Hoping to rectify the scripting issues, Tom Cruise recruited Robert Towne (Chinatown) who had previously collaborated with the actor on The Firm (1993). After agreeing to provide his services, Towne became the on-set writer; where he would re-write scenes on the fly.
Dozens of drafts from multiple writers resulted in the following story: After all these years, Jim Phelps (now played by Jon Voight) is still heading up an IMF team. Phelps’ current team includes his protege, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and Phelps’ wife, Claire (Emmanuelle Beart). This IMF team’s latest mission is to go to Prague and retrieve half of Non-Official Cover (NOC) List that’s been stolen. Procuring the NOC List is imperative as it contains all alias and corresponding true identities of every undercover IMF agent. However, when the Prague mission goes wrong, Ethan Hunt is blamed. Now, Ethan must traverse Europe and The U.S., organize another team, and get the NOC List back; all while trying to clear his name.

Knowing of all the screenplay issues that this movie had, I’m shocked that Mission: Impossible turned out as well as it did. In my opinion, what makes this work is that every choice made for the film was the correct. Firstly, there’s the story, which despite its tumultuous history, absolutely works. Is the plot a bit convoluted at times? Yes, it is, and it’s one of the few criticisms I have with this film. As long as you pay attention as a viewer; I doubt you’ll have any trouble following the narrative.
Mission: Impossible is an espionage thriller that has fantastic action in it. Not the other way around as the film’s marketing at the time or the movie’s current reputation presents it as being. Thus, this picture is by no means dull; it’s merely a slower burn. As such, I feel De Palma was the perfect director for this first Mission. To some, the director has always been an Alfred Hitchcock imitator. However, to me, De Palma has always been a master of suspense and style. My favorite example of which his 1981 thriller, Blow Out.

De Palma brings that same skill set to the picture in review. Unlike the films that will follow it, Mission: Impossible possess a certain moody tone. One which is enhanced by mainly being set in Europe. De Palma harnesses that tone and style to build a unique and multi-faceted espionage film. In doing so, Mission mixes post-Cold War spy tale with an unforgettable series of action set pieces. To this day, all the big action scenes in this flick hold up. The aquarium and wire-suspension scenes were genuinely original at the time and still are today. As this franchise proceeds, every entry will feature similar action sequences. However, all of them harken back to the set pieces in this film because of how memorable they are.

Expert craftsmanship and an engrossing narrative are no doubt part of this film’s appeal. However, it’s clear that none of it would have worked as well without Cruise in the leading role. Now, I know some folks might not like the movie star; be it as an individual or an actor. I, however, am not part of camp as I’ve always found Cruise to be a talented actor. It’s this writer’s feeling that the man has always had more range than he’s been given credit.

Moreover, Cruise is a pure movie star. He has leading man looks, more charm than a bracelet, and the proper tastes in projects that sustain a career of over 30 years. In watching Mission: Impossible, it’s clear that Cruise brought all his passion to it. For me, Cruise is the perfect lead for this picture and the franchise that would follow. However, having Cruise as the star of this movie does create one problem; particularly for fans of the Mission: Impossible TV show. That being, in all its forms, M:i is an ensemble piece. Despite that, the rest of the talented cast play supporting roles to Cruise as part of an equal ensemble. While this is not an issue for me; I can see why some audience members are put-off by it.

Audiences weren’t too put-off though, as the film went on the be one of the highest-grossing box-office hits of ‘96. Furthermore, Mission’s home video sales and rentals were massive. Thus, it’s no surprise that when Cruise finally completed his seemingly perpetual shoot on Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) that a Mission: Impossible 2 (2000) finally went into production. Therefore, Mission: Impossible is a Franchise Expansion. However, the follow-up would not see Brian De Palma’s return as it seems he and Cruise had an acrimonious working relationship.

When it comes to this Mission: Impossible there isn’t much about the film with which I can find fault. True, there are small issues I mentioned previously. There’s also the fact that the technology of the film and the bullet train sequence are severely dated. Or, as I like to call those aspects of the film, “Pure 90s gold.” But, if you stick with me and this column throughout this franchise, I think you’ll come to see how different and unique each of the Mission: Impossible films are as the series progresses.

Join me next time when I review Mission: Impossible 2!

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