The summer of Barbie and Oppenheimer suggests that theater audiences are starving for original content, not the umpteenth iteration of franchises that have overstayed their welcome. One franchise, however, has not—Mission: Impossible. Its latest film is Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning, Part One, the seventh in the series, and it’s earning strong box-office returns in addition to achieving a critical average of 96% fresh on RottenTomatoes.com, along with an audience score of 94%. That’s almost unheard of for sequels, and it’s actually a better accumulative RT score than either Barbie or Oppenheimer as this article is being written. If you think about it, such accomplishments are all the more impressive considering that the film franchise debuted in 1996 and the TV show it’s based upon premiered way back in 1966.
But make no mistake, the Mission: Impossible franchise has not run its course. In fact, one could say it’s sprinting along at top speed, just like its leading man, Tom Cruise, racing through a breathless set-piece.
So, why have all the films in the M: I franchise been so well-received, both critically and commercially—something that no other franchise of a similar length of time can claim?
Not Star Wars, not Bond, not Bourne.
And why do the M: I films keep getting better? Mission: Impossible—Fallout and Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning, Part One, the two most recent sequels, have been acclaimed as the best in the bunch.
Indeed, it is a series that seems to be doing everything right. So, what is it about this franchise that makes it so consistently amazing?
There are seven factors that make it so, and let me warn you now, my explanations contain spoilers.
The TV Show was a Great Template
The television program “Mission Impossible,” created by Bruce Geller in 1966, laid down a batch of tropes that the films have followed, and they still work like gangbusters almost 60 years later. Geller invented the Impossible Mission Force (IMF), a small cluster of spies engaged to handle the trickier assignments deemed too dangerous for the CIA to be associated with during the Cold War. That meant that the IMF could go wildly off the books in a number of ways without having to answer to certain government protocols. They were even given enough rope to brush up against what some would deem illegal.
The IMF agents often created elaborate ruses, long cons if you will, to coerce an international baddie to stop whatever vicious acts he or she was perpetrating. The films have taken those very same ideas and run with them, turning every movie into an intricately developed caper film.
Thus, each mission involves complex ruses and intricately planned shenanigans, all in the name of keeping the delicate world balance in check. And of course, not only are their marks in each film fooled, but in many respects, so are the audiences in the cineplex.
It’s akin to being bamboozled by a slick magician. We laugh, scratch our heads, and wonder, “How in the hell did they do that?”
The Stakes are Always Relatable
Countries being blackmailed by terrorists? Dictators taking control to upend geopolitical landscapes? Missing bombs, stolen plutonium or, like in the latest film, an A.I. program that’s gone rogue and can shut down any nation’s digital landscape or power grid?
These are not just the McGuffins that drive the M: I plots, they are stories pulled from worldwide headlines. The narratives may be wildly dramatic, but they’re never implausible. And because of it, the M: I franchise feels realistic in more ways than most action/adventure films.
Sure, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt character may jump onto a plane coursing down the jetway, rather than into one, all to intercept a shipment of nerve gas, like he did in M: I—Rogue Nation, but such excesses still seem more real than the Fast & Furious cars driving from one skyscraper into another. The M: I stunts play as more reasonable and relatable, too, because that really is Cruise performing the stunt on the outside of a plane as it takes off at 70 mph.
The Characters are Fallible
Every mission in the franchise also comes stocked with recognizably human characters. These are not indestructible iron men and women but fallible, vulnerable human souls. There’s almost an everyman quality to the likes of Simon Pegg’s agent Benji Dunn, or Ving Rhames' Luther Stickell, doing what they do to save the planet.
And in the M: I films, unlike most other franchises, continuing characters do die. Quite often, actually.
Just look at what happened to Alec Baldwin’s character in Mission: Impossible—Fallout, or the exit of Rebecca Ferguson’s character at the end of the second act in Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning, Part One. Granted, the Ethan Hunt character will likely remain a constant, but there are times, like when he was drowning in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, that you really questioned if he would make it.
The IMF lead may be assured of making it to the next film—he is Tom Cruise, after all—but everyone else is on the bubble. That makes our investment in such characters all the more involving, thrilling, and even a little scary as their fates truly hang in the balance.
The Films Don't Take Themselves Too Seriously
Yes, the stakes are believable and relatable, as are the human heroes running about trying to preserve world order, but the films are never so heavy that they can’t yield a lot of rich humor. Most of Pegg’s dialogue is hilariously quippy. The characters also readily recognize the craziness of their adventures and comment on them generously. Newcomer Grace (Hayley Atwell) had a field day hemming and hawing about having to drive a car through Rome while handcuffed to Hunt.
And you want to talk about levity, just look at how the films constantly chide Hunt about getting long in the tooth. The 61-year-old Cruise can still do more derring-do than any action star half his age, but the fact that the films make fun of his character’s AARP eligibility is a hoot.
The Action is Unforgettable
A lot of adventure franchises talk a good game when it comes to action, but how memorable is it, really? Quick, name a standout action scene in the recent Jungle Cruise film? Difficult to do, isn’t it? How about The Expendables? The Hunger Games? The fact is a lot of action films feel by rote, with little, real imagination evident in the action set-pieces.
Now, consider all of the action in the M: I franchise. Hunt scaling the skyscraper in Ghost Protocol, threatening to drop Philip Seymour Hoffman’s villain from the plane in the third picture, Henry Cavill’s fisticuffs in the bathroom in Fallout—classic action scenes, all of them. Who doesn’t fondly recall that brilliant CIA theft of the NOC list in the first film?
Brian De Palma brilliantly directed that bit with Hunt hanging by wires, hovering inches above the heat-sensitive floor, trying not to sweat as to trigger the alarm. That scene, like everyone in the franchise, is utterly imaginative, witty as hell, and endlessly suspenseful.
Talk about suspenseful—have you seen the climax of the newest film with the Orient Express train cars crashing off the bridge? It’s brilliant. Eye-popping. And unforgettable.
The CGI is Kept to a Minimum
Since helming the last three M: I movies, Christopher McQuarrie has displayed his award-winning way with words in one witty, painstakingly conceived script after another. Perhaps even more impressively, McQuarrie directed those films with similar painstaking perfectionism.
And all of the incredible stunts he’s written for each story are done mostly in camera. McQuarrie relies on expert stunt coordination, working in tandem with the cinematographer, to achieve his vision and that the action looks wholly believable, because it’s actually happening.
It’s not CGI. We buy it because seeing is believing.
Tom Effing Cruise
The star gives it his all. He endures and endears. Heck, Cruise is the best special effect in the whole franchise. Mission: Impossible has a ton going for it, but he’s the main reason it’s impossible not to love.