In the summer of 1996, Tom Cruise and director Brian De Palma achieved something that Hollywood would spend much of the next decade trying to replicate: a genuinely great movie adaptation of a popular television show that blew up at the box office. The first Mission: Impossible movie was somehow both an ode to the face-swapping, hi-tech hijinks of the original 1960s series while also serving as the perfect star vehicle for Cruise. Even De Palma was at the peak of his powers as an auteur, having just made his most underrated movie in Carlito’s Way.
In the years that followed, other big screen updates of small screen favorites would try to repeat the formula with often disastrous results. Film versions of shows like Wild Wild West, Lost in Space, The Avengers (not that one), and The Mod Squad all amounted to miserable trips to the multiplex. Meanwhile Mission: Impossible’s runaway success at the box office seemed to assure a sequel was likely. But from the moment Cruise and long-time producing partner Paula Wagner lit the fuse on plans for a follow-up, one thing was clear: De Palma was out. Speaking in a 2020 interview with The Associated Press, De Palma cited the period in which he made Carlito’s Way and Mission: Impossible as the peak of his storied career.
“It doesn’t get much better than that,” he said. “You have all the power and tools at your disposal. When you have the Hollywood system working for you, you can do some remarkable things. But as your movies become less successful, it gets harder to hold on to the power, and you have to start making compromises.” It wasn’t simply that De Palma was happy to bow out of Mission: Impossible, though. He was also opposed to the idea of making sequels in general. In that same AP interview, the director recalled Cruise approaching him to start work on a sequel. De Palma’s response was typically blunt.
“I said: ‘Are you kidding?’ One of these is enough. Why would anybody want to make another one? Of course the reason they make another one is to make money. I was never a movie director to make money, which is the big problem of Hollywood.” But while De Palma balked at the chance of returning, it didn’t take long for Cruise to find another famously prickly auteur willing to take the reins.
Prior to the late 1990s, Cruise had previously worked with Oliver Stone on the Vietnam drama Born on the Fourth of July (1989), with his performance as a disabled Marine Corps sergeant turned anti-war activist, Ron Kovic, earning Cruise the first of four Oscar nominations and the Golden Globe for Best Actor. It was a bold choice. Though Stone had earned critical praise for loosely historical-led efforts like JFK (1991) and Nixon (1995) in the years prior, the latter had performed poorly at the box office. And the reaction to his most recent movie, the 1997 neo noir thriller U Turn, starring Sean Penn, had been decidedly mixed.
Even so, Stone appeared to be approaching the project with plenty of gusto. In September 1997, he laid out his plans for the movie in an interview with The New York Times Magazine, describing it as ”a vehicle to say something about the state of corporate culture and technology and global politics in the 21st century.” He added, “It’s a big commercial picture, and Tom Cruise is a movie star, and in a sense, that gives me some camouflage. I can’t always be out there leading with my chin.” Stone has never been one to shy away from controversy, so his tease on the plot was interesting to say the least.
Cruise, for his part, appeared happy to take the second film in a different direction, having hit upon the notion that each film could serve as a largely self-contained adventure rather than something that directly follows the threads of the previous entry. “You don’t have to do that with Mission: Impossible, because every time it’s a different adventure, you know,” he told Vanity Fair in 2000. “The director dictates the style.”
Stone enlisted screenwriter David Marconi, who would go on to pen Enemy of the State (1998), to work on the script based on a treatment the filmmaker put together for Mission: Impossible II, which he described to The Harvard Crimson as a “combination of action, suspense, and philosophy for the 21st century.” But just as things were beginning to get going, work on the sequel ground to a halt. While Cruise was still being held up with work on Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), leading to delays on the project, it’s clear something was rotten in the state of Denmark.
Stone left the project soon after. Though the specifics remain unknown, given the ideas he pitched and the final film, there’s a good chance the familiar specter of “creative differences” played a part. For, while evidence is scarce, it’s pretty clear Stone had a very different vision for M:I2 than the movie we got.
It’s a vision that’s largely come to light thanks to the efforts of Charles Hood and Drew Taylor, the hosts of the Mission: Impossible fan podcast Light The Fuse. In 2021, they produced a podcast deep dive into an unproduced version of Marconi’s script which included revisions from fellow writer Michael Tolkin.
They were only able to access the script by making a personal appointment to view the Ron Moore Collection, a collection of production files, scripts, and recordings associated with science fiction television writer and producer Ronald D. Moore, housed at the University of Southern California’s Cinematic Arts Library. Moore would later work on a different version but had this version of the script for revisions, and most likely because producers were keen to retain some of its ideas.
Though the script served as more of an outline than anything close to a finished draft, it paints a vivid picture of a decidedly different Mission: Impossible film. One with arguably as much in common with sci-fi movies like The Matrix as it did the world of espionage. At the same time though, elements of this draft have since been echoed in subsequent Mission: Impossible outings, right up to the most recent.
Oliver Stone’s Sci-Fi Vision for Mission: Impossible II
The script opened on an unspecified South American dictator who, after a dalliance with a glamorous undercover IMF agent winds up experiencing the symptoms of a heart attack. Paramedics arrive, including an undercover Ethan Hunt, and the dictator is whisked away to a nearby plane to be transported to hospital. However, it’s soon revealed that it’s not a plane at all, but rather an elaborate set designed to elicit a confession from the dictator as it “crashes.” It’s a nifty trick that finally appeared onscreen in Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) with no less than Wolf Blitzer being in on it (or at least his mask). The plan succeeds in Stone’s version too, and the cold open concludes.
The next thing we find is Hunt sailing on vacation. He’s handed a pair of sunglasses—one of the few ideas that remained in the John Woo-directed sequel—containing a brief for his next mission, should he choose to accept it. The brief comes from a new IMF boss referred to only as “Mann.”
Ethan and a team of Chinese IMF agents are tasked with rescuing a theoretical mathematician called Ling from a “hellhole” prison in China. In a slightly different riff on the tech featured in M:I2 and M:I3, the team infiltrates the prison by crashing into the warden’s car and then recording his voice in order to imitate him. While Ethan is disguised as the warden and enters the prison, another agent works to seduce and eventually knock out the real one.
In another move that reappears in Woo’s film, there would be a further mask-swapping twist, with the real warden being placed back in the prison while wearing an Ethan Hunt mask. He is immediately shot and, presumably, the audience is likewise fooled into thinking they saw Cruise killed off for a moment.
Those aren’t the only elements that seemingly make a reappearance later in the franchise. The idea of a prison break would resurface in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011). This version of the script also featured a sequence involving a mirrored mylar much like the one Ethan and Benji use to infiltrate the Kremlin in Ghost Protocol.
The team eventually escapes with Ling and delivers him to a supposed IMF agent called Coburn in Vietnam. However, once Ling is alone with Coburn, he catches sight of a mysterious dentist’s chair torture device and, shouting out of a window at the departing Ethan, accuses him of betrayal before committing suicide. It’s only later when Ethan covertly meets with Mann to discuss what happened he learns that this sequence wasn’t a real IMF mission; Ethan was unknowingly co-opted by the bad guy to do his dirty work. It’s another idea that would rear its head again in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015).
A little while later, Mann and Ethan come under attack from a drone and Mann is killed, sending Ethan on the run once again. From there Ethan reconnects with Ving Rhames’ Luther. He has returned to a life of crime and is in the process of robbing a Brink’s truck when Ethan recruits him. Soon after, Ethan discovers that the IMF team from the prison breakout mission have been killed. Running out of options, he and Luther approach the only person they think can help them: Max, Vanessa Redgrave’s character from the first movie, whose return was teased in subsequent sequels.
It’s at this point that the script takes its most surprising turn as Max begins telling them about a theoretical supercomputer capable of tracing everything an individual has ever done through financial transactions and potentially controlling the world. It’s a concept that certainly chimes with the increasingly libertarian stance Stone has adopted in more recent years.
But while the script’s fear of technology may have had its roots in the hysteria surrounding the millennium bug, it takes on a different dimension in a modern context with the advent of AI proving a cornerstone of this month’s Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One.
Ethan and Luther end up going up against the computer during a dramatic action set piece based in an airport in Denver where the electronics have gone haywire. Planes are crashing and there is chaos everywhere. In the midst of this, Ethan deduces that the only way to escape the computer’s clutches is to fake his own death, so takes off in a plane only to then crash it, but safely bail out before impact.
From there, viewers are introduced to William Thayer, the film’s villain who is described as a deranged combination of Bill Gates and Ted Kaczynski. It emerges that Thayer and Ling had been developing this supercomputer seemingly capable of world domination before they had a falling out. Thayer was the one that orchestrated the IMF mission with a view to extracting the information from his old partner prior to his suicide. What he has since learned however, is that Ling scrawled the key information on the wall of his prison cell. Information Ethan read.
So when Ethan eventually tracks down Thayer and identifies him as the one behind the mission and the death of Mann, it emerges that this has been part of the plan all along—Thayer wanted Ethan to catch him so he could extract the key information from his brain. In any case, Ethan ends up being strapped into the chair. According to Light the Fuse, it was given multiple names, including “the linear consciousness accelerator” the “mind body transfer station” and “the evolution room.”
Essentially, Thayer uses the device to try and make Ethan relive the prison break so he can read the message on the wall. But Ethan fights it. It’s around this point that things take a turn for The Matrix. While being held captive, Ethan receives a note and gun from Luther telling him they are planning to break him out. The breakout goes as expected, but as they are flying away in a helicopter, Luther begins to ask Ethan about the information Thayer wants. Realizing all may not be as it seems, Ethan sticks his hand out of the helicopter and notices that the bullets appear to bend around him, Neo-style. It then dawns on him: he’s still in the chair.
The draft gets even stranger from there. Another breakout is staged, this time they escape after Ethan is left badly injured. Left wheelchair bound with doctors fearing he may never walk again, Ethan then gets a visit from his mom and his Uncle Donald (who were mentioned only once in the original movie). They tell him he can come and work on their farm. As the conversation continues, however, Ethan begins to realize they are trying to extract the information Thayer needs.
Then things get even wilder. Using the power of his mind, Ethan is able to escape this construct and transport himself to…the Garden of Eden. His peace and tranquility does not last long, however, after a monster appears—a virtual representation of the computer—culminating in a bizarre battle that Ethan eventually emerges triumphant from. The monster? It turns out to be the virtual embodiment of the deceased Ling. Confused? You should be.
It’s important to stress that all of this information comes second hand from Hood and Taylor—you would need to access the Ronald D. Moore collection in person to judge the script in full—and they note that the script descends into largely outline form the further you read.
Thayer’s fate, for example, is bizarre to say the least with Ethan and Luther enlisting the help of a CGI expert from an actual film set to create a video that appears to show Thayer telling Cruise he is planning to decommission the super computer. They even describe a sequence where a bearded director yells at staff in what may or may not be a dig at De Palma. The video is played to the computer, and it proceeds to kill Thayer.
The script ends with Cruise finally waking from the linear consciousness accelerator and teaming up with Luther to destroy the computer once and for all. It’s very much a rough sketch at this point, much like the film’s tacked on love story involving Ethan and one of his Chinese IMF teammates. Woo’s Mission: Impossible II, by contrast, leaned into the idea of it being a love story.
But while Marconi’s script may offer some clues as to why Stone exited the project, it also provides insight into the Mission: Impossible writing process. This version may have been far removed from the finished film, but it seems to have sowed the seeds of some of what followed across multiple films. Why Stone left the project remains a mystery, but given his stance on modern action movies, it’s probably for the best.
In a recent interview Stone bemoaned the lack of realism in films like John Wick: Chapter 4. “”It’s lost touch with reality. The audience perhaps likes the video game. But I get bored by it,” he said. “How many cars can crash? How many stunts can you do? What’s the difference between Fast & Furious and some other film? It’s just one thing after another. Whether it’s a superhuman Marvel character or just a human being like John Wick, it doesn’t make any difference. It’s not believable.” Just wait until you see Cruise driving off a cliff on a motorbike and then parachuting onto a moving train, Oliver.