Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion) – Mission: Impossible III

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. In this particular installment, we look how a movie franchise based on a TV series is once again influenced by the medium of television and a titan within that industry. So, let’s open the IMF file on Mission: Impossible III!

I’ve always appreciated the fact that the Mission: Impossible franchise has never rushed its evolution. There was an interim of four years between Mission: Impossible (1996) and Mission: Impossible 2 (2000). Following that, there were six years between that sequel and the film in review, Mission: Impossible III (2006). The majority of Summer blockbuster franchises stay on a 2-3 year turnaround between installments, at most. After all, these series want to remain present in the minds of the audience, These days, the franchise mentality is much more severe, with studios announcing sequels to films before they’re released. Not to mention, building a movie universe whose entries for years to come.
It seems that now more than ever the franchise mentality has taken over the film industry. As a result, movie studios are all about putting the cart before the horse. Mission Impossible, as a franchise, has been different though. Each subsequent installment has had extended development periods based around making the right creative decisions. And, while I believe that creativity is a huge part of this franchise, I’m not a naive idealist. These pictures are also made for commerce and moreover, at the behest of leading man, Tom Cruise (The Mummy ‘17).
Previously, I spoke of Tom Cruise embarking on a new Mission, usually, when he needs to reconnect with movie-goers. Such is the case with Mission: Impossible III. By the early-mid aughts, the movie star’s personal antics had caused a significant portion of Cruise’s fan base to sour on him. I did not though as always try to separate an artist or performer’s work from their personal life. Tom Cruise has been a movie star for over three decades, and in my estimation, he always will be.

More importantly though, even if Cruise relies on the M:i franchise for career rehab, I believe he does genuinely care about these films on every level. To me, he has served as a proper sort of gatekeeper for this franchise. Such is more than I can say for Bruce Willis and the Die Hard movies. Thus, as is the custom of the Missions; Cruise sought new creative talent for this third entry. First, he approached David Fincher (Mindhunter); alas, nothing ultimately came together there. After a few script treatments, Fincher left the project to work in smaller and presumably darker fare. A departure which isn’t at all surprising considering Fincher’s involvement with movies that never were; such as Batman: Year One and his take on the RoboCop reboot.
Not deterred, Cruise was determined not only to keep M:i-III on-track but also use it to get the franchise back to its espionage roots. Thus, the actor approached writer/director Joe Carnahan (of the upcoming Boss Level). Since Cruise had previously-collaborated with Carnahan on the 2002 film, Narc, the writer/director was a logical choice. After-all Carnahan not only knows how to handle action but suspense and drama as well. Carnahan accepted the third Mission, working on pre-production of the picture for 15 months. In the end, though, the writer/director aborted Mission due to ongoing disputes with the studio.

Following this departure, all involved in M:i-III took a moment to examine the genre landscape. The spy/espionage had changed immensely since the previous Mission was released. On the silver screen, the Bourne movies were going strong. Furthermore, Daniel Craig was getting ready to take over the Bond mantle with Casino Royale (2006). The spy game was strong on TV as well with espionage series, Alias (2001-2006).

The series created by J.J. Abrams (of the upcoming Star Wars, Episode IX) was a TV juggernaut at the time; having produced a couple of successful television series. From his work on Alias, it was clear to Cruise that Abrams understood the world of espionage. So, despite Abrams’ lack of film experience, he was offered the opportunity to helm this Impossible picture. A Mission which he accepted, thereby going on to become the only first-time feature to direct a picture budgeted at $150 million. Abrams also made Alias staff writers, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) the team to come up with a new story for M:i-III:

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is still a part of The IMF. However, he’s no longer on active-duty as he now trains young, new IMF agents for fieldwork. By changing his position, Ethan now has time for a personal life. One in which he has a fiancé named Julia (Michelle Monaghan). Granted, she’s unaware of what Ethan actually does for a living. Alas, after one of Ethan’s star students is killed in action, he must go back into the field to complete her mission. A mission which finds Ethan and his new team tracking down a man named Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman). An international arms dealer, Davian’s in possession of a toxic weapon, dubbed The Rabbit’s Foot.
Yes, once again there’s a mission to stop a villain with a biological weapon. Thankfully though, that is where this film’s only real similarity to M:i-2. Unlike the previous installment, the movie in review is espionage-focused. It is also well-balanced, as opposed to just being a deluge of stylized action as the last entry was. Watching this third entry again, I find it to be a perfect mix of elements from this series first two films. In other words, this installment has suspense, action, and suspense, all divvied out in proper amounts.

In addition, this third film does one thing better than any of its predecessors. That is, M:i-III finally utilizes the team dynamic (to a certain degree) that has existed since the inception of the 1960s TV series on which these films are based. I mean, yeah, the first film relied on the team. By the same token though, the original Mission and M:i-2 could not help but feel as if they were on Cruise control.  The fact of the matter is that these franchise has always been a star vehicle for Tom Cruise. While that’s never bothered me, it does shortchange the rest of the previous installments respective cast. On this third Mission though, every cast member shines because they all have distinct personalities; as opposed to just being conversational counterparts for the Cruise.

Moreover, this film features the best villain in the series to date in Owen Davian. The late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a reserved, yet sadistic performance; one that channels severe psychopathy on a disturbingly low-key level. While Davian may not have a ton of screen time, he poses as a legitimate and believable threat whenever he’s in a scene. I think this is because all the characters are well-written. Plus, J.J. Abrams has the skill-set to get the actors to convey emotion adequately. As such, this is possibly the most dramatic and emotional mission to date. Adding feeling, of course, adds suspense. Thereby, allowing the audience to become more invested.

Now, that isn’t to say that Abrams is a perfect director and nor is this film. The one big issue I have with Abrams, particularly in this film is his visual style. It’s not the film is poorly envisioned by Abrams or photographed by cinematographer Dan Mindel (Pacific Rim: Uprising). Instead, I think it’s a case of Abrams attempting to find his cinematic style. As I result, I see M:i-III‘s cinematography to be a little too dark, washed out, and frankly, a bit ugly.

Unpleasant visuals aside, this Mission has garnered two significant complaints among audiences since its release. Firstly, many folks find that this film feels like I long episode of Alias put on the big screen. While I can see their point, I say, what did you expect? To be fair Abrams is transitioning from Alias to M:i-III; both of which are espionage-action pieces. Thus, a little narrative and thematic crossover are to be expected. Secondly, some folks are annoyed by the fact that this flick essentially features an empty mcguffin. To me, these films have never been about the mcguffins. Instead, these movies are about the missions to retrieve whatever the particular mcguffin may be.
While I don’t love the visual-style M:i-III, there is no doubt that it was a step back in the right direction for this franchise. In this third outing, it’s clear that the star, the director, and the writers had a better sense of what these franchise should be. Moreover, the movie in review makes evident that all involved have a solid sense of how the franchise should continue. Frankly, this entry got this franchise back in-line with cinematic objectives. As a result, Mission: Impossible III accomplishes the mission of being a Franchise Expansion!

Will that seemingly clear sense of this franchise’s future hold true? Find out by when I review MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL!

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