How Different Directors Made Their Mark on Mission: Impossible Movies
Brian De Palma, John Woo, JJ Abrams and Brad Bird have all directed Tom Cruise in a Mission: Impossible film. But how did their styles vary?
The Mission: Impossible franchise is an odd beast. Since 1996, there have been four instalments, and all have proved to be commercially successful. Despite this success, an argument can be made that the series’s pop culture impact derives from the TV series it is based on, rather than the films themselves.
The most iconic aspect of the film series is the presence of star Tom Cruise as IMF agent Ethan Hunt. A major component of the character’s appeal is derived from Cruise’s willingness to perform his own stunts. Apart from its star power, what distinguishes the Mission: Impossible franchise from being just another action series, is the talent behind the camera. Thus far, Brian De Palma, John Woo, JJ Abrams, and Brad Bird have lifted the megaphone, and Christopher McQuarrie (the screenwriter behind The Usual Suspects and director of Jack Reacher) is currently at work on the fifth instalment.
Generally speaking, franchises and auteurs do not go hand-in-hand. Occasionally, there will be a exception such as Alfonso Cuaron with Harry Potter, but it is rare. It is usually the case that the established aesthetic and motifs dictate the style and direction of a series, rather than directorial vision. The Bond films are a prime example of this.
In contrast to this ethos, Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible provides an intriguing case study of a series where each entry is clearly delineated by the vision and preoccupations of its particular director. With a new instalment on the horizon, let’s take a look at the illustrious names behind the brand name.
Mission: Impossible (1996)
Brian De Palma has gained a reputation as either the inheritor of Hitchcock’s style and themes, or a ripoff artist. Either way, one cannot deny that he knows how to use them. In contrast to most blockbusters, or the films which succeeded, the focus of De Palma’s entry is on suspense rather than action.
It is a testament to De Palma’s technique that Mission: Impossible’s most memorable sequence involves Tom Cruise hanging from a wire, and is not dependant on more traditional set pieces. The midnarrative set piece would become a tradition in the sequels, with De Palma’s successors putting their own spin on an IMF mission. The most important aspect of Hitchcock’s style that De Palma has made his own is his use of an omniscient point-of-view. De Palma’s camera may appear to approximate the subjective view of the characters, but his directorial control dictates what the viewer can see.
An early example of this is the early sequence where Ethan Hunt witnesses his boss’s death by an unseen assailant via a camera in his glasses. All that Hunt (and by extension, the viewer) can see is a hand firing a gun directly at the camera. Later, when this scene is revealed to be staged, De Palma shows the action from a long shot to reveal what is really going on.
De Palma’s focus on suspense allows for other homages to Hitchcock, which are more decorative. Following his showdown with the villains, Ethan Hunt watches helplessly as a helicopter’s rotor blade spins toward him. This bit of action is reminiscent of a key moment from the climax of Strangers On A Train, where a technician sneaks under an out-of-control ferris wheel to switch off the mechanism, while the ride spins at high speed only a few inches above his head.
The introduction of the villain in the third act resembles the extended shot which identifies the twitching eyes of the killer in Hitchcock’s Young And Innocent. Starting from a long shot of a train, the camera pulls into a close-up of the killer’s hands through a window. This sequence also shows the influence of the Italian giallo, in De Palma’s use of mise-en-scene to conceal the villain’s identity. De Palma frames the character through a train compartment window, with his identity concealed by a half-closed blind. By framing the shot in this way, De Palma emphasises the character’s black gloves (a motif familiar from both the giallo genre and De Palma’s own Dressed To Kill) as he assembles a gun from the parts of a boombox.
De Palma is famous for his use of split screen to convey and build tension, and he integrates this technique into the opening action with a rather ingenious and subtle variation of the trope. As Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) directs his team, he watches their progress via cameras on their glasses. The respective point of views of these characters appear as a series of windows on his computer screen. In this way, De Palma renders his use of split screen as part of the mise-en-scene.
Sequences like this exemplify the degree to which De Palma is able to blend his style with the conventions of the genre he is working in.
Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)
When you think of John Woo, a few things come to mind. Doves. Men leaping through the air firing two guns. In slo-mo. The brotherly rivalry between hero and villain. More doves. Unlike De Palma, you can make the case that the blend of Cruise’s franchise-building with Woo’s style is only partially successful.
The emphasis on a romantic relationship in Mission: Impossible 2 is a sharp deviation from Woo’s previous work. Woo’s films are typically based around the strong bond between men, a theme derived from the work of his mentor, Chang Cheh (One-Armed Swordsman). Even Broken Arrow and Face Off maintain this theme. The emphasis on bullets and explosions, without the character dynamic of his previous work, makes Mission: Impossible 2 feel like Woo-Lite.
Ultimately, Woo’s entry is probably the least “Mission: Impossible” of the franchise, with the emphasis on transforming Cruise’s Ethan Hunt into an action hero, his IMF teammates reduced to sidekick status. The film becomes the story of a singe hero facing off against multiple adversaries, more in line with Hollywood films that aped Woo’s style, without the thematic subtext that Woo was able to bring to his previous American work.
In this respect, Mission: Impossible 2 feels more like a star vehicle for Cruise. The aspects of the franchise which derive from his presence (his physical prowess in performing his own stunts) are emphasised in a manner which feels extraneous to the plot and characters. His introduction, in which Ethan Hunt is shown free climbing up a cliff face, is a case where narrative momentum is sacrificed for pure spectacle. In the showdown with the villains, Woo introduces his hero with a slow motion shot of Cruise framed in a flaming doorway with one of Woo’s signature doves heralding his arrival.
When Woo is not turning Cruise into a super hero, he uses Catholic imagery to turn Ethan Hunt into a martyr for the actions of his superiors. This is most obvious in the sequence where Hunt is ordered to force his new lover to help him with his mission. In Woo’s cinema, there is little room for female characters. Women are either reduced to figures of comedic incompetence, as in A Better Tomorrow, or idealised victims, as in The Killer. The only role they serve, if any, is to act as a contrast to the collected, capable masculinity of their male counterparts. The creation of a female love interest for Hunt is an interesting evolution for Woo, but it also detracts from the contest between Hunt and rogue agent Sean Ambrose. The focus on the relationship between Hunt and Nyah (Thandie Newton) reduces Ambrose to a rather colourless generic action movie villain.
Indeed, aside from Newton’s role, everything in Woo’s film appears to be a pale re-hash of its predecessor, with the focus on action lacking the melodramatic heft of Woo’s best work. Mission: Impossible’s most memorable set piece – Hunt being lowered by a wire – is re-worked as the prelude to an extended shoot-out. This sequence, intentionally or otherwise, exemplifies the divergence between De Palma and Woo when it comes to the material and their respective styles.
Mission: Impossible III (2006)
For a while in the early 2000s, Mission: Impossible III became a poisoned chalice. After David Fincher and Joe Carnahan dropped out, Cruise turned to JJ Abrams, a screenwriter previously known for his work on TV, namely, Felicity, Alias, and mega hit Lost. Mission: Impossible III would be his feature directing debut (and Cruise was willing to wait until Abrams had fulfilled his Lost commitments). Across his TV work, Abrams had become known for his narrative techniques and themes rather than his visuals. His arrival would mark a shift in the franchise away from visual stylists to filmmakers with a background in screen writing.
Abrams’ presence as director of the third film (and producer of the fourth) also signalled a new focus on series continuity, with a returning supporting cast and motifs (Abrams’ development of the mask technology carries over into Ghost Protocol). With his entry, Abrams brought the focus back to a team. This made it closer to the original concept, and the ensemble in Abrams’s Alias. This is the first film to give a real sense of the structure of the organisation. IMF is given a home base and a boss (played by Laurence Fishbourne). This world-building would seem oddly timed, considering this is the third film in the franchise, yet it falls in line with the series’ tradition of remaking the series to suit the vision of the director.
The focus on Ethan Hunt’s life outside work is very reminiscent of Alias’ protagonist Sidney Bristow. Like Bristow, Hunt is presented as a conflicted figure who attempts to balance a private life with his job, with dire consequences. The use of an unexplained MacGuffin (the Rabbit’s foot) is another tool from Abrams’s Alias and Lost. To this is added a more ruthless approach to the supporting players. To his credit, Abrams’ focus on character rather than visual pyrotechnics does pay dividends that differentiate the film from its predecessors.
Mission: Impossible III has the most interesting antagonist of the franchise thus far in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sociopathic arms dealer. Rather than the turncoats and traitors of the preceding films, Abrams creates a certifiable super villain, with gadgets and schemes of his own. By constructing such an antagonist, Abrams provides a suitably overblown raison d’etre for the hyperbolic set pieces to occur. Especially in comparison to its immediate predecessor, the strength of Abrams’ third film is the emphasis it places on characterisation. Whereas John Woo had barely sketched out the members of his IMF team, Abrams takes pains to make each character count.
Dramatically, Mission: Impossible III is far more substantial and enjoyable experience than its predecessor. However, there is no disguising a certain cynicism to the focus on character development. Some of these arcs work, but help make Mission: Impossible 3 feel like the season of a TV show collapsed into two-and-a-bit hours. Abrams has exhibited a ‘take no prisoners’ approach in his TV projects, killing off major characters with aplomb. He attempts a similar approach in Mission: Impossible III by killing off Hunt’s prodigy in an early twist (Abrams alum Keri Russell) and turning another one of his allies into a secondary antagonist.
However, because we spend so little time with Ethan Hunt’s colleagues at IMF, these twists come across as well executed narrative turns, but without the emotional punch that Abrams wants to deliver. In the case of Keri Russell’s character, Abrams takes the ultimately ineffective tack of introducing her, killing her off in the first few minutes and then bringing her back via flashbacks to convey Ethan Hunt’s guilt in not saving her.
While Abrams is able to juggle the dynamics of the team during the mission sequences, his focus on developing Tom Cruise’s character means that the group focus (which was the basis of the show and De Palma’s film) remains unexplored. Less melodramatic and cartoonish than Woo’s effort, in Abrams’ hands Mission: Impossible strikes an odd balance between the fantasy excesses of James Bond-style gadgetry and the more character-driven approach of the Bourne series.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
With the arrival of director Brad Bird, comes another shift in tone. The opening scene, a short, brutal assassination, feels like a scene out of the third film, even down to the casting of Lost star Josh Holloway as the victim. Bird then uses the re-introduction of Ethan Hunt and his team to trigger the shift from the pulpy spy thriller of Abrams’ entry to the comic caper Bird delivers. Hunt’s argument via security camera with the team trying to break him out of prison becomes a sublime exercise in physical comedy. Bird lends the series’ focus on suspenseful missions a more ironic punch, a focus on escalation of stakes comparable to his work at Pixar.
Bird is the first director in the series to recognise the potential in utilising Cruise’s recognised physicality as a punchline, putting his star through a gamut of increasingly insane scenarios as the film sprints around the globe. Like the other films, Ghost Protocol features a mid-way action sequence which acts as a showcase for the talents of its director.
As the CIA break-in in the original film exemplified De Palma, and the corporate raid in the first sequel exemplified Woo’s love of two-handed gunplay, the Dubai sequence in Ghost Protocol is a prime example of Bird’s talents. Ethan Hunt has to climb up the side of the world’s tallest building. By itself, this task appears to be insurmountable. Instead of relying on the strength of this basic premise, Bird throws more curveballs at him – desert storms, faulty gadgets, and the ticking clock in the form of dual meetings to trick two different sets of villains.
It also maintains the team structure of the previous entry while developing the characters to create a group dynamic more reminiscent of the mini-conflicts and sibling rivalry in Bird’s The Incredibles. The team focus of Mission: Impossible, which Woo ignored, liberates Bird to engage in increasingly complex levels of parallel action as the various team members have to overcome their own sets of obstacles at the same time. In this way, Cruise’s acrobatics become only a piece of a larger puzzle. Each member brings their own skills and weaknesses to the group, and by the climax, all members have to work together in order to overcome the odds.
By the end of Ghost Protocol, Brad Bird has delivered the first instalment since Brian De Palma’s original that manages to include all of the elements of the original concept while playing to the strengths of the filmmaker orchestrating the action.
The next Mission: Impossible film, Mission: Impossible 5, is due to hit cinemas in December. What will the director of Jack Reacher bring to the M:I franchise? It’ll be fascinating to find out.