A Series of Impossibilities
The Mission: Impossible series is one of the longest-running and highest-grossing movie franchises in Hollywood. As Tom Cruise returns for the sixth installment this year, we look back at what has made the Ethan Hunt character so appealing.
Famous movie stars, stunning action sequences, the latest technology and exotic locations... Over the past 22 years, the six Mission: Impossible films have developed the nature of blockbuster films to their fullest, while making Ethan Hunt, played by Tom Cruise for over two decades, one of the best known agents on the big screen.
The continuing success of the sequels has made the Mission: Impossible series an exception in the film industry. Although today’s Mission: Impossible barely resembles the initial television series, the film’s hero is already in his 50s, and the audience who grew up watching the film has grown older and older, whenever people see a character on the big screen about to perform a seemingly impossible feat, many will immediately think of Ethan Hunt. After all, this is a man who has stolen intelligence whilst suspended in mid-air, scaled the world’s tallest building and clambered onto a fast-moving plane.
Small Screen to Big Screen
In 1966, CBS broadcast a television series about an American “Impossible Mission Force.” As its name implies, the force was required to perform those tasks no one else thought even possible. As such, the force contained many highly-skilled agents, adept at disguising themselves so their targets would provide information without them even realising it.
Although the series came to an end after seven seasons, many people were still big fans of the Impossible Mission Force’s story. In 1993, actor Tom Cruise and film producer Paula Wagner founded Cruise/ Wagner Productions, and the former, who was obsessed with the Impossible Mission Force story, decided to turn it into a film. In 1996, Mission: Impossible, directed by Brian De Palma and starring Tom Cruise, was released. The film featured a cleverly arranged story about agents, with plenty of foreshadowing woven throughout its plot. The film utilised suspense and thrill alongside a darker retro tone and intriguing background music, attracting large numbers of fans. Shot in director De Palma’s inimitable style, Mission: Impossible turned out to be a highly distinctive commercial action film that laid the foundation for later movies in the series. The scenes where Ethan Hunt hangs suspended in mid-air to steal CIA intel, and the train and helicopter battle in the tunnel became two classic episodes of the film.
The first Mission: Impossible was a huge success both with the critics and at the box office, so a sequel seemed almost inevitable. In 2000, John Woo, who had moved to Hollywood to further his career, took over directing duties for Mission: Impossible II. His film features both his iconic violent aesthetic and significantly upgraded action scenes compared to the previous film. However, there was much less suspense in the sequel compared with the first film. Despite introducing aesthetic violent elements such as scenes with two heroes, double guns, slow motion, and an “iconic white pigeon,” John Woo failed to match the success of his Hong Kong classic
A Better Tomorrow. Even though the sequel took over US$500 million at the box office worldwide, the cooperation between Woo and Cruise wasn’t as successful as people had hoped.
Surprisingly, Mission: Impossible II didn’t mark the low-point of the series. In 2006, the franchise returned with Mission: Impossible III directed by J.J. Abrams. Shot all over the world, the action scenes were upgraded once again, with impressive scenes such as when the villain takes hostages at a reception in Vatican City and when Ethan leaps from a high-rise in Shanghai. Unfortunately, the plot of the film was still somewhat lacking, and the absurd deaths of the two villains at the end of the movie were even more confusing. In the end, Mission: Impossible III made more than US$400 million at the box office globally, but its poor ratings caused many to worry about the future of the series.
Just as people were beginning to think Ethan Hunt wouldn’t return, in 2011, Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol was released, recapturing the glamour of the series’ old days. Ghost Protocol directed by Brad Bird continued the thrilling plot and high-tech spying elements from previous films, and highimpact scenes were added to the film, such as the Kremlin being blown up, a thrilling chase through a sandstorm in Dubai and our hero climbing the world’s tallest building—the Burj Khalifa. In addition, more comedy was added with the scenes featuring the characters Brandt and Benji, played by Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg respectively. Mission: Impossible IV outclassed the
previous three films in terms of tension, excitement and grandness. For that reason, the film achieved the highest success of all those among the series, earning US$695 million worldwide, making it the 5th highest grossing film of 2011 worldwide and the best performing film in the series.
Perhaps benefiting from the addition of new characters, from Mission: Impossible IV onwards, Ethan Hunt was no longer solely responsible for the fighting, cool technology and humour. In 2015, the fifth film in the series, Rogue Nation, directed by Christopher Mcquarrie was released. In the movie, Ethan and his team are chased by an organisation called “Rogue Nation,” the members of which have extraordinary skills. Whilst on first look the movie seems very similar to the style of Mission: Impossible IV, it actually offered audiences a different and unique take. This is because, apart from adding impossible missions such as when Ethan must hold his breath in the underwater engine room, it also introduced a female character like Ethan—ilsa Faust—played by Rebecca Ferguson, who repeatedly countered traditional expectations, for example by saving the hero.
The Evolution of an Idol
From 1996 to 2018, people’s living environment and the development of science and technology underwent huge changes. One constant however is that the difficulty of the missions in the series always increases. What amazes many people however is that Ethan Hunt played by Tom Cruise has starred in every movie since the very beginning.
Although Tom Cruise has appeared in many films, he really came to prominence in Top Gun, the Tony Scott buddy-movie about fighter pilots. In the movie, 24-year- old Tom Cruise rode a motorcycle sporting a flying suit and a pair of aviator sunglasses. Through his classic interpretation of a fighter pilot, he laid a solid foundation for his early career. The influence of the movie was not just limited to the big screen however. The roar of the jet engines, simple story of friendship, romantic love, beautiful images and exciting soundtrack all contributing to make the film an excellent “promotional film,” which brought about the highest enlistment rates for the US Navy since the end of World War II. After Top Gun, Tom Cruise became the first choice whenever a handsome film star was needed. For example, in Days of Thunder, a movie about stock car drivers growing up, Tom Cruise was director Tony Scott’s first choice and Cruise only needed to swap his flying suit for a racing suit.
Of course, Tom Cruise wanted to learn from other renowned actors, observe and learn from real life and practice acting, so he partnered with Paul Newman in The Color of Money and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, the two of which won Oscars for their performances. Afterwards, Cruise took on new challenges: he starred as a disabled veteran in Born on the 4th of July, a lawyer in A Few Good Men, a tenant farmer avenging his father in Far and Away, and even a vampire in Interview with the Vampire. Although he tried his hand at all types of films, his acting still didn’t receive recognition even after he appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.
Unexpectedly, Tom Cruise didn’t seem to want to be a real “method” actor, instead deciding to become an action star in commercial blockbusters. Beginning with his cooperation with Brian De Palma in Mission: Impossible back in 1996, Tom Cruise has starred in a whole host of action and sci-fi films, and worked with several big-name directors to make their films more commercially popular.
Tom Cruise cooperated with John Woo in Mission: Impossible II, Steven Spielberg in Minority Report and War of the Worlds, Edward Zwick in The Last Samurai, Michael Mann in Collateral, and Bryan Singer in Valkyrie. He has produced one or two films every year, showing another side of himself, constantly working on improving his commercial value and making himself an example for others as a “diligent Hollywood actor.” After cooperating with several big-name directors, Tom Cruise realised he needed to do more to become a top action star. Just like Arnold Schwarzenegger with The Terminator, Sylvester Stallone with Rambo and Bruce Willis with Die Hard, he had to have his own series of action movies—and that series was to be Mission: Impossible.
In fact, movie series based around agents and spies are not uncommon on the big screen, as the James Bond series has shown. Though the main characters have been portrayed by different actors, the movie series still endures.
Interestingly, the quality of the Mission: Impossible series has remained
surprisingly stable. Besides the second and third movies, which were less popular because of stylistic changes, audiences have remained loyal to the series from the first movie 22 years ago until the sixth movie this year. This may well be because the series has kept its main star, always stayed rooted in reality and required its actors to do their own stunts. Tom Cruise believes that the Mission: Impossible series is about loyalty and friendship, as well as saving friends at the expense of everything.
Similar to the famous Bond girls, many of the female characters in the Mission: Impossible series have also become highlights. However, those in the Mission: Impossible series are more complicated in terms of their identities, roles, and functions and sometimes even just as popular as Ethan Hunt in attracting audiences.
The earliest female character from Mission: Impossible to really impress was Claire, a miserable detective who was a mixture of both good and evil in a role said to have been inspired by Vesper Lynd, the heroine in Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale. Claire was one of the film’s villains who in the end was shot dead because she couldn’t bear to hurt Ethan. Fans were upset at the loss of her character, but Emmanuelle Béart— sometimes dubbed the most beautiful “Mission: Impossible Girl” —who played Claire went on to star in several big films. In fact, Brian De Palma originally wanted Juliette Binoche to play the role, but Emmanuelle Béart completed the "impossible mission" pretty well.
British actress Thandie Newton graduated from Oxford University. She starred alongside Nicole Kidman in the 1991 movie Flirting, a love story about a Ugandan schoolgirl, after which she appeared in Interview with the Vampire with Tom Cruise. In 1998, she featured alongside actors such as Jonathan Demme, Bruce Willis and Denzel Washington in the films Beloved and Besieged, becoming one of Hollywood’s most popular actresses. Such a resume led to Tom Cruise strongly recommending her as the heroine of Mission: Impossible II, playing the role of Nyah Nordoff-hall, a character tailor-made for her. Under the lens of director John Woo, Ethan and Nyah’s somewhat tortuous love story met audiences’ expectations for a female character in the series. Nyah was brave to pursue love and hatred, and cherished friendship and loyalty, thus building a brand-new image for what women in Mission: Impossible films should be like.
In Mission: Impossible III, Ethan Hunt’s fiancée, Julia Meade again rose people’s expectations for the female role. However, the film didn’t focus too much on her charms. Instead, agent Zhen Lei, played by Chinese actress Maggie Q, brought her skills as an action star leaving a deep impression on fans. It’s worth mentioning that Maggie Q was not only the first female Asian character in the Mission: Impossible series, but also one of the few female villains who didn’t have any love interests with Ethan. After the film, Maggie Q went on to star in the American TV drama Nikita, which was similar to the Mission: Impossible series and took her career to new heights.
The most outstanding feature in Mission: Impossible IV was the double "Mission: Impossible Girls": one good and one evil. The “good girl,” Jane Carter played by Paula Patton somehow changed the style of the series as she “freed” Ethan from fighting alone and moved the emphasis to teamwork. Paula Patton demonstrated her fighting and dancing abilities by seducing the telecom tycoon at a dance and fighting with professional killers in Dubai. However, the other “Mission: Impossible Girl,” Léa Seydoux, who starring as a killer in the film, was an even bigger surprise to audiences. Although this delicate-looking killer died not long after the beginning of the movie, Léa Seydoux’s acting potential as an agent impressed many and even led to her being cast as the Bond Girl in the 2015 film, Spectre.
Although Tom Cruise has remained the hero of the Mission: Impossible series, he has sometimes been outshone by the female characters. This first occurred with the appearance of Ilsa, a female MI6 agent in Mission: Impossible V - Rogue Nation. Ilsa, played by Rebecca Ferguson was a confident, cold-blooded agent who was good at fighting, car racing, diving and shooting. She was as attractive and agile as Ethan and sometimes even outclassed him. Rebecca Ferguson, who has gone on to become a popular actress in her own right, was the biggest surprise of the film. Perhaps that’s why audiences are looking forward to her appearance in the upcoming Mission: Impossible VI despite Vanessa Kirby starring as a rival to Tom Cruise’s character. After all, seeing a female agent who can stand toe-to-toe with Tom Cruise is not something you see every day.
A scene from Mission: Impossible
A scene from Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation
A scene from Mission: Impossible: Fallout