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‘Mission: Impossible’ Retrospective: Part 1

Written by Sam Comrie

The year is 2003. Action figures and the weekly catch up of Jackie Chan Adventures are the fuel to my young imagination. However, the biggest contributor to fuelling my playground adventures and hours in the garden: Movies. Cut to the summer of ’03 and my brother suggests watching something to help deal with the sweltering heat outside.

Then it happened. As if the orange hue of the cover was radiating from the other side of the living room. The slick black shades protecting a hero engulfed in glowing flames. “Let’s watch Mission: Impossible II” my brother declares.

Cut to present day and Mission: Impossible is still one of my favourite franchises. With the impending release of Fallout looming, I thought it was time to look back at the franchise and its evolution since its 1996 debut.

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Viewed by many as alternative to the long established James Bond franchise, the thrills and splendour of Mission: Impossible offer a taste of pure blockbuster spectacle that is arguably unmatched in the current climate of popcorn cinema. That’s not even a detriment to the franchise, as these films have recognised there is nothing wrong with offering the audience a high octane popcorn experience. Where Mission: Impossible succeeds since finding its feet, is balancing those explosions with a tightly woven plot that gives you prime cuts with the trimmings cut off. However, the future wasn’t always so clear for Cruise’s beloved adventures.

Adapting a popular TV show from the 1960’s is one thing. Bringing in renown Hitchcock enthusiast and auteur Brian De Palma to helm a Cruise vehicle is another. A director applauded for his unique sense of  lust, obsession and voyeuristic looks into questionable acts maybe isn’t the first person that comes to mind when thinking of a Tom Cruise actioner. In retrospective, it was the perfect start.

Containing the first 50 minutes almost exclusively to a soirée and an apartment rigged for intrusion, De Palma focuses his lens on a team that is literally dying in the cold. Now that the blood is washed on Cruise’s hands, its time to get even.

It would be a crime if I didn’t mention THAT iconic sequence. Yes, the CIA heist is an all timer sequence that showed us the first inklings of how this franchise could offer tension mission from mainstream blockbusters. Every time Jean Reno drops his knife from that laser sealed vent, my heart will still skip a beat without fail.

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With a new franchise coming out of the rough, it’s not a surprise that a ropey journey behind the scenes was reported. Entering the production with barely anything on a page, it was up in the air whether De Palma’s foray into star vehicles would work. The original TV show cast lauded the movie for it’s treatment of their characters, especially Jim Phelps (portrayed by Jon Voight). The script was ripped apart and some of the cast reportedly walked out of their private screening.

All the chips were down leading up to release day.

Mission: Impossible was released in May of 1996, to considerably mixed reviews, aimed mostly at its convoluted plot. Nonetheless, this didn’t stop them dead in their tracks. Going on to spawn $457.7 million in it’s box office run, it was clear that there was audience interest in the clandestine panorama of espionage that was Mission: Impossible.

There was room to improve, to refine and tweak what Mission: Impossible could aspire to be as the growing ideal of what mainstream action cinema should be.

Back to the slick sunglasses. De Palma passed on the opportunity to return and Tom Cruise knew exactly where he wanted to find his next director. He found that director in heroic bloodshed legend and pioneer, John Woo (Hard Boiled, The Killer, A Better Tomorrow)

Woo had left his mark on the Hong Kong action scene and had made his move into the Hollywood market with freedom with his 1997 cult classic, Face/Off. Cruise was clearly impressed with Woo’s CV and approached Paramount to get Mission: Impossible II off the ground. Before the cameras even began rolling, there was already a spy making waves once more in cinemas. Pierce Brosnan was riding high on the success of his James Bond entries in 1995 and 1997, releasing another in 1999 (a whole year before Mission: Impossible II was released into the world).

When Goldeneye impressed Bond fans and audiences alike in 1995 before the first M:I exploded onto screens, it was clear that a new era of Bond was in motion to ward off competitors. Woo and the production combo of Cruise / Wagner were determined to show audiences that Ethan Hunt was here to stay. Production began in April of 1999 and concluded in December of the same year. It was rumoured that Woo’s initial cut was around three and a half hours; way over the studio mandate.

With this cut trimmed down to just over two hours, Mission: Impossible II was John Woo’s action sandbox, with Cruise as his player one. Doves included. This was also the instalment to light the fuse on Cruise’s desire to risk his life onscreen for our entertainment. As it has become clear over the years, Cruise is now a versatile jack of all trades when it comes stunt work.

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Originally the vertigo inducing reintroduction of Ethan was supposed to be handled by qualified professionals; but Cruise picked up the required skillsets to handle the sequence himself with minimal stunt double insert shots. This was all Paramount needed to push the marketing campaign. Ethan Hunt wasn’t just coming back; he was literally ascending back into frame.

Looking back on Mission: Impossible II all these years later, it really does appear to me as the estranged entry. Trading a paranoid undercover operative for a suave playboy spy is an almost startling concept transitioning into the second film. Cruise discards most shreds of humanity for a persona of wit, brawn and machoism. It’s evident that the success of a new Bond was looming over the production and its influence was bleeding into the celluloid.

I would go as far to say that Mission: Impossible II is much more of an embodiment of a “standalone” entry, that a continuation of the themes or ideas presented prior. Even with Bond’s shadow over the production, that isn’t to say that Woo didn’t present audiences with a blockbuster devoid of any identity. Mission: Impossible II is first and foremost a JOHN WOO production. Every Woo-ism you’ve come to expect is on show, with an extra dose of slow motion to drink it all down with.

The second half is where Woo really gets to shine. Gorgeous wide shots decorate grin inducing action sequences, while Hans Zimmer’s score soars over the bullets. Crash zooms make an appearance, most notably in the excellent compound sabotage sequence in the third act, as flames reflect terror in Dougray Scott’s iris.

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Unfortunately, Woo’s stylistic prowess wasn’t enough to overcome Paramount’s trimming to make a more commercially viable summer package. Upon its release in July of 2000, again amongst varied responses, audiences made it clear that Cruise’s espionage escapades were making an impression on them.

Bringing back $565,400,000 and claiming the “highest grossing film of 2000” top spot, the doors were open for Ethan Hunt’s next mission.

Fast forward six years and an absence of Ethan Hunt. Cruise would go to star in Michael Mann’s thriller Collateral, two Spielberg productions and another Cameron Crowe experiment in the time before another Mission film was on the table. Various directors would come on board to helm the third entry, including David Fincher and cast members Scarlett Johansson, Carrie-Anne Moss and Kenneth Branagh in the mix. After Joe Carnahan left in July of 2004, the directors seat was up in the air once more. Johansson, Moss and Branagh would leave due to the continuing production delays. Cruise would happen to come across a saving grace in his spare time.

With his experience primarily in the TV circuit from Alias and the beginnings of Lost making an impression, J.J Abrams was recruited personally by Cruise to make feature film debut with Mission: Impossible III. June 8th of 2005 saw Paramount Pictures green light the production with a fresh cast on board. It was time to light the fuse once more. Just a month later and cameras would start rolling on July 12th.

Mission: Impossible III would be the first instalment to add a globetrotting element to the franchise, with locations such as Shanghai, Berlin and Rome displaying a renewed sense of exploration in Ethan Hunt’s race against the clock. Gone were the affectations of Bond and a new adrenaline filled formula was injected directly into the heart of the action. Sharper cuts and spiralling Steadicam shots made sure we were packed tightly into the frame, avoiding the aftermath of spies doing what they do best. Dan Mindel makes the frame pop with vibrancy and texture.

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With the advent of Jason Bourne in the market and a new dawn of how action was been perceived, it’s clear that the team on M:I III were already retrofitting new trends for their own gain. Out of all the instalments, M:I III is a whirlwind when its come to set pieces. From the head daze of the Berlin extraction or the militant precision of the bridge battle, these set pieces were paving the way for this franchise to realize its true potential. It wasn’t just the spectacle that was getting a makeover either.

What happens when a spy goes home? Do they even have a home to go back to? Abrams decided to explore just that, as we finally get to know what makes Ethan tick behind all the rubber masks. While the stakes maybe aren’t as potent as the film has aged, the risk of taking time to slow it down to mundane aspects of normal life are commendable for a franchise that was still assuming an identity.

Thankfully, an identity is exactly what was gained. Mission: Impossible finally knew what it could be = succinct espionage beats and awe inspiring set pieces. No facades of Bond or any other IP in the mix. What is a hero’s journey without a villain though?

While Jon Voight was serviceable and Dougray Scott was somewhat more impressionable (probably down to his method of nail clipping), the M:I films were still waiting for a villain to leave a mark. Enter the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Leaving someone else’s mouth, the dialog for Owen Davian would have fell flat without a doubt. When that cold open introduces us to an unfamiliar scenario of Ethan in peril and Hoffman’s cold gaze dominating the frame, you know it’s time to buckle in.

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The pieces were in place to solidify a turning point where Ethan Hunt was ready to be a household name in the spy business.

Mission: Impossible III dropped into cinemas in May of 2006, becoming another commercial success. Despite making less than its predecessor ($397.8 million), the new era of M: I was a critical success that garnered much more favourable reviews than what had come before. Cruise and co. weren’t out of matches yet.

‘Mission: Impossible’ Retrospective: Part 2

Coming Soon! 

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