On May 22, 1996, the first “Mission: Impossible” movie was released. Yes, this month marks the silver anniversary of the franchise based on the ‘60s CBS series. Five more films have followed. According to IMDb, a seventh is set for release on May 27, 2022, and an eighth on July 7, 2023. Order your tickets now.
Like the first six, they will star Tom Cruise as Impossible Missions Force leader Ethan Hunt. The hardest-working man in show business (post-James Brown) plays the hardest-working man in the espionage business. Like the last two, the new ones will be written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie. There was a four-year gap between the fourth “M: I” (”Ghost Protocol,” 2011) and the fifth (”Rogue Nation,” 2015). Something changed in the interim: The series now felt fresher and looser. It wasn’t just the passage of time. There had been a six-year gap between “Mission: Impossible 2″ (2000) and “Mission: Impossible III.” Credit McQuarrie.
But let’s not look ahead. Let’s look back.
In the beginning was . . . the theme
Even by the standards of ‘60s espionage TV series — “I Spy,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” — the premise is ridiculous. Impossible Missions Force? If you say so. Self-destructing tape? Uh-huh. “The secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.” Secretary of what, exactly? What set apart “M: I” was its theme music. There have been movies made of both “I Spy” (2002) and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” (2015), but no sequels. What’s helped keep “M: I” going — made it special — is Lalo Schifrin’s theme.
In that respect, it’s a little like Monty Norman’s (very different) James Bond theme. Where Norman is all brassy swagger — MI6 goes Vegas — Schifrin is modern-jazz cool (those counter-rhythms!), you know, like the CIA takes five, daddy-o.
In the beginning (II) was . . . the TV series
It ran from 1966-73. Which character had the better name: sultry femme fatale Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain) or master of disguise Rollin Hand (Martin Landau)? In a nice twist, Bain and Landau were husband and wife in real life. Landau would later win a best supporting actor Oscar, playing Bela Lugosi in “Ed Wood” (1994). Before “M: I” he had major roles in “North by Northwest” (1959) and “Cleopatra” (1963). Now that’s a career.
In 1988, the series was revived and lasted for 35 episodes. Peter Graves returned as IMF leader Jim Phelps. In an even better life-imitating-art twist than Bain and Landau being married, Phil Morris played the force’s electronics wiz. Similar duties on the original series had been held down by a character played by Morris’s father, Greg.
The franchise begins (1996)
Cruise was one of the producers and he hired some serious talent. Brian De Palma directed. Robert Towne, Steve Zaillian, and David Koepp all worked on the screenplay. Vanessa Redgrave plays an arms dealer. Jon Voight plays Jim Phelps, thus setting up an IMF-leadership handoff to Cruise’s Hunt. Not that things are that simple, of course. There are double crosses, betrayals, and the whole foolish face-mask business begins. (Let’s hope it ends with the Wolf Blitzer reveal, in “Fallout,” but probably not.) On a happier note, Ving Rhames’s Luther gets introduced as an IMF mainstay.
Woo hoo: The franchise continues (2000)
This time John Woo directed, and Australia is the main area of operations. The franchise’s travelogue aspect is worth noting, by the way. The novelty of “M: I” on the big screen had worn off, but audiences didn’t mind. This was the year’s biggest-grossing film.
Mr. Cruise? Meet Mr. Abrams (2006)
“Mission Impossible: 2″ is succeeded by “Mission Impossible: III.” Note the switch to Roman numerals. What does it signify? Graduating from “Alias” and “Lost,” on TV, J.J. Abrams directed, making his feature-filmmaking debut. The original choice had been David Fincher. Maybe a Fincher residue can be felt in this being the darkest “M: I” installment. Or it could the presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman, as an arms dealer, who’s easily the most nuanced villain in the series — and the most disturbing. On a happier note, Simon Pegg joins the team, as tech wiz Benji Dunn. So long as Luther and Benji are around, things will be OK.
Climbing to new heights (2011)
The franchise abandons numerals for subtitles. This isn’t “M: I 4″ or “M: I IV.” It’s “Ghost Protocol.” What’s a “ghost protocol”? Who cares, it sounds cool. That’s all that matters. Brad Bird directed. Bird’s background was in animation (”The Incredibles,” 2004″; “Ratatouille,” 2007), which makes sense. “Ghost Protocol” has the single most famous stunt in the franchise. Ethan Hunt climbs the exterior of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Oh, and there’s a dust storm fast approaching while he’s doing it. Some missions are more impossible than others.
Meeting his match (2015)
With “Rogue Nation,” McQuarrie takes over as writer and director. Coincidence or no, the franchise’s batteries seem recharged. The arrival of Rebecca Ferguson surely plays a role, too. The series has provided Cruise with several notable female costars — Emmanuelle Béart, Thandie Newton, Keri Russell — but Ferguson’s English agent, Ilsa Faust (that name!), seems like the first true foil (and natural love interest) for Ethan. If all that weren’t enough, “Rogue Nation” has Alec Baldwin, as the head of the CIA, describing Hunt (and to the British prime minister, no less) as “the living manifestation of destiny.” It’s hard to top that, even Burj Khalifa-wise.
Happy reunion (2018)
With “Fallout,” McQuarrie is the first director to return. Ilsa Faust is back. Vanessa Kirby now joins the fun, as Alanna Mitsopolis (try saying that five times fast), better known as The White Widow. She proves such a hit that both she and Ferguson will return for “M: I 7″ and “8.” (Wait, have subtitles been replaced and the franchise is going back to numerals?)
A set-piece heist is pulled off by the banks of the Seine. A rooftop chase takes place in London (Cruise famously broke his ankle filming it). A nuclear detonation is avoided in Kashmir — at the very last second, of course. In other words, same old same old.
Speaking of old, Cruise turns 60 next year. Don’t expect “M: I” to hit double figures. Some missions are really more impossible than others. Though if anyone can pull it off it’s Ethan Hunt.
“Mission: Impossible” (TV series), Amazon Prime, iTunes, Vudu
“Mission: Impossible” (1996), Amazon Prime, Google Play, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube
“Mission: Impossible 2” (2000), Amazon Prime, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, Paramount+, Vudu, YouTube
“Mission: Impossible III” (2006), Amazon Prime, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, Paramount+, Vudu, YouTube
“Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” (2011), Amazon Prime, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
“Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” (2015), Amazon Prime, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
“Mission: Impossible — Fallout” (2018), Amazon Prime, Google Play, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.