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The Mission: Impossible franchise should abandon movies for TV

The time is right for Tom Cruise’s jump to television

tom cruise as ethan hunt in mission: impossible - fallout Chiabella James/Paramount Pictures
Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

After 22 years, six films and one existential breakdown of its leading man, the Mission: Impossible film franchise is having its moment. Critics have championed its latest entry, Fallout, as an action movie masterclass, and its predecessors, taken collectively, as one of the best action film franchises ever. Fallout also delivered the series’ biggest opening (not factoring in inflation), which would indicate life beyond the finale-like sixth installment. But how could the franchise get even better?

If it was a TV show. Again.

I agree with the critical consensus, particularly these two points: the Mission: Impossible films are stuffed with some of my favorite action set pieces and Fallout isn’t merely a sequel to 2015’s Rogue Nation, it’s a direct continuation. You could watch them together as a five-hour uber-heist.

Or you could approach the Mission: Impossible films the way I did, like a miniseries consumed in 45-minute chunks across a couple weeks. Beginning with Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, which establishes a more consistent tone and tempo for the series, the films play like a network-TV serial given the budget and talent of an HBO miniseries. That sounds like an insult, but it’s not meant that way; like network TV, the “show” stars characters that are immensely likable, and plots that are both laughably complex and yet trackable if you’re only partly paying attention. And like HBO’s big-budget series, the films are filled with the sort of spectacular special effects and twists that get converted into office conversation and Slack GIFs.

mission impossible fallout - tom cruise on a helicopter Photo: Paramount Pictures

That Mission: Impossible fits TV so well shouldn’t be surprising. It’s an adaptation of one of the foundational spy procedurals. The films retain much of the show’s “mission of the week” format, albeit with far higher stakes. The films operate like TV in other obvious and not-so-obvious ways: Cruise’s super-spy Ethan Hunt is joined by procedural TV archetypes, like computer wiz (Simon Pegg), office bestie (Ving Rhames), helpful suit (Jeremy Renner), unhelpful suit (Alec Baldwin), good-natured rival (Rebecca Ferguson) and on-again, off-again love interest (Michelle Monaghan). Characters don’t talk so much as they deliver jokes, exposition and a few lines that establish their place in the orbit of Ethan Hunt. They’re not deep, but that’s partly what makes them so relatable! If you’ve ever used a computer or worked in an office, you get them — no experience as a spy required.

And like television, the films naturally break into 45 to 60 minute chunks. Yes, this sounds like empty marketing, but truly, the one problem with the Mission: Impossible films is (braces for embarrassment) there’s too much action. By roughly the midpoint of Rogue Nation, Ethan Hunt has ridden the side of a cargo plane, sabotaged an assassination at the opera and participated in an elaborate foot, car and motorcycle chase. Fallout isn’t a film so much as it’s a series of humongous, almost interminable action sequences, including a final chase that somehow combines the action tropes of Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan and the collected works of Steven Seagal. The film is fantastic, and yet, I think it’d be more enjoyable in a couple sittings. It’s so stressful that it loops-the-loop, the human brain refusing to deal with so much tension.

None of this is to suggest that the creators of these films goofed. They’re wonderful; I wouldn’t change them into TV even if I could. Rather, I’m saying the franchise is already built for television, and moving forward, its structure pairs with the what’s happening with the series outside the films.

henry cavill, tom cruise, and rebecca ferguson wear nice outfits and walk in a white room in mission impossible fallout Image: Paramount Pictures

Tom Cruise is 56-years-old, and though I hope he can continue dangling himself from higher and higher points (how do you go higher than a HALO jump?) I think it’s fair to assume we’re approaching the limits of him top-lining a series that’s recently averaged a new entry every three or so years. Say we get six more years of Tom Cruise action before he decides to focus on roles that don’t risk him vaporizing his femur: that’s a modest amount of time for a film franchise that already has trouble sticking to a schedule. But in the world of TV, six years is the length of a full series run.

Plus, some of the franchise’s problems, like reworking the scripts on the fly during shooting, become features in the TV industry. Perhaps Tom Cruise can never be replaced, as some critics have suggested. But I think the troubles finding a replacement for Cruise (see: Renner) could be alleviated by television, where new actors can be given episodes to flex their take on the Cruise trifecta: charm, running and maniacal smiles.

The best argument for Mission: Impossible to stay in the world of film is the chance to see the series on big screens. I saw Fallout on a big screen. The picture was blown out. The sound was oddly soft, minus the booming bass. I prefer action movies on a big screen, but increasingly I’ll take my living room over the unpredictability of theaters.

In the past, landing Tom Cruise and funding an action series of this scale would have been impossible for TV. But hello Netflix, hello Amazon and hello $1 billion budgets. Mission: Impossible may very well be the best action-movie franchise of this generation. Now I’d like to see it become the best action-TV franchise ever.