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MIssion: Impossible - Rogue Nation Paramount Pictures

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The key to Mission: Impossible’s explosive, endless possibilities

How a 23-year-old franchise figured it out

Mikey Neumann and Patrick Willems are video creators. The following is adapted from their latest collaboration, the two-part series The Story of Mission: Impossible. Watch the full videos in this story.

Patrick Willems: I spent a lot of last year obsessing over the Mission: Impossible movies. It’s one of my favorite movie series, particularly for how it transformed with each movie into whatever each new director wanted it to be. I made a couple of videos about the films, obsessing over them to the point where my friends started to worry about me. I thought I was finally done...until earlier this year when the news hit that Mission: Impossible - Fallout writer-director Christopher McQuarrie would return to shoot the seventh and eighth films back to back. Now I’m back in a spiral again of studying these movies and their place in film history, and thinking about how soon we’ll have a single filmmaker responsible for half of the series.

Mikey Neumann: I spent a lot of last year obsessing over your videos. We’d joked on Twitter a few times about how we should team up and share our love for these movies. Early in 2019, we committed to doing this and our schedules lined up to try this toward the end of April. I’ve had a smile on my face all week!

Willems: Mission: Impossible is a series that’s been going since 1996, but it seems like just in the past few years people have been sitting up and going, “Hey, these are capital-G GREAT.” Mikey, what’s your relationship with these movies?

Neumann: I remember I saw the original film in the theater, and the train sequence in the climax blew my flavor-blasted mind. It’s some of the best blue screen work I’d ever seen in a movie because they tried so hard to replicate that reality. Like, this felt like actually riding on top of a train. Tom Cruise was doing bananas stunts all the way back in that movie. I became quite obsessed with this “Brian De Palma” dude … which is a heck of a rabbit hole to fall down when you’re 14. I think my fervor began to wane with Mission: Impossible 2. M:I-3 brought me back into the fold. Brad Bird (who directed M:I - Ghost Protocol) permanently cemented that love. Where in the timeline was it for you?

Willems: As much as M:I-2 was a defining middle school movie for me (mostly for the soundtrack, which is a sad fact), the lead-up to Ghost Protocol was when I started to realize the franchise was something special. In college I came to fully embrace the mindset of “Tom Cruise is Our Greatest Living Movie Star,” and now here was this thing where he got one of the world’s best animation directors to make a movie where he literally — like, truly, for real — climbs the world’s tallest building. Just watching the trailer made clear that this was unique in the landscape of modern blockbuster cinema.

Neumann: For as much of a soft spot as I have for M:I-3, the junkets for it directly lined up with some of the more troubling Tom Cruise shenanigans. There’s such a meta-narrative to these films that line up with where his mind is at the time. I remember a critical throughline to 3 when it came out that was like: “this is the best one yet, how did it make so little money?” I think Tom knew something massive was required to make up for, well, his mouth, so he climbed on the outside of the tallest building in the world, almost immediately redefining what a movie star even was. Jackie Chan is the only person I think who fits that mold readily. Jackie always put it on screen, regardless of the danger. Do you think that comparison is apt?

Willems: I totally agree, and I find the meta-narrative fascinating, with Ethan Hunt representing who Cruise is, or maybe who he wants to be. After all those PR disasters in 2005, audiences generally stopped buying Cruise as a “regular” guy (M:I-3, the one about Ethan Hunt being a regular guy with a normal marriage, is the lowest grossing of the series), so Cruise shifted his career into almost exclusively action and sci-fi movies where he’s playing characters who tend to be intense weirdos, like Jack Reacher, or Knight and Day’s Roy Miller. And Ethan Hunt has become his most popular role in part because it’s such a natural fit for him: a guy so focused, intense, and obsessive that he’ll cling to the side of a plane if it means getting the job done. Considering how the first 20 years of his career were defined mostly by dramas, it’s wild that now in his 50s, he’s become a sort of American Jackie Chan.

Neumann: We get to Jack Reacher, and it becomes impossible not to segue into asking you about Christopher McQuarrie. He was another high school favorite for me. He wrote The Usual Suspects (which he wrote for a pair of alarmingly problematic men who will remain nameless), and followed it up by writing and directing a movie that never got its due: The Way of the Gun, which I still watch when I have a rough day. We used to study that movie in the game industry because the squibs in the gunfight at the end were so far beyond how that kind of stuff was presented on screen. The Way of the Gun really didn’t receive its proper audience. It made six million but cost around eight million.

Willems: Yeah, McQuarrie is such an interesting guy. He won an Oscar for Usual Suspects before he turned 30! And then you look at his filmography and there’s nothing for years after Way of the Gun. That just tanked it (despite, like you said, it being a cool movie). And then suddenly he meets Cruise while making Valkyrie (directed by one of the aforementioned problematic men), they hit it off, and 10 years later they’ve made close to 10 movies together, and McQuarrie has developed into one of the best action filmmakers alive today. It’s a genuinely incredible creative partnership.

Neumann: Edge of Tomorrow is my father’s favorite Tom Cruise movie by a mile because he got to watch him die so many times in a row. McQuarrie managed to craft a wildly imaginative vehicle that is sort of the filmic equivalent to someone playing Bloodborne. It’s impossibly hard but repetition leads to system mastery. I love the underlying game design elements in Edge. That McQuarrie dude is going places!

Willems: What you’re saying brings me back to what I think is the core appeal of Mission: Impossible, especially for filmmakers (and why McQuarrie seems so addicted to making them): It’s a pure story engine. Unlike every other big franchise, it’s not about the mythology. The movies barely have to connect to other installments. Each movie basically goes: “here’s the mission, here are the stakes, go!” It’s a simple setup for the filmmakers to drape the most exciting story they can concoct.

Neumann: Somewhere a producer says “Hey, what bananas stunts are you thinking about? Oh, you’re going to hang off an actual airplane? Dope. Let’s write a script!” It’s camp to the nines. Then there’s these characters, arguably just serviceable archetypes, that you find yourself rooting for. I, to this day, still think about how Emilio Estevez created a relatable character in the first Mission: Impossible only to just to get spear-beaned in the face in the third major scene. These films have always been way more than the sum of their parts. Like you said, it’s a story engine. Throw it at the wall, then have a party.

Willems: Going back through all the films, it makes sense that the major recurring influence is Alfred Hitchcock. They’re basically North by Northwest with more motorcycle chases. They often use the same “wrong man” plot setup, but instead of microfilm they might be chasing nuclear launch codes or a NOC list or “The Rabbit’s Foot.” It doesn’t really matter. It’s just a device to give the characters goals, move the story forward, and set up spectacular set pieces. And it works!

Neumann: As we’ve been making this, there is one consistent theme through all of these films: Mission: Impossible wants to make you smile. It’s goofy, end-of-the-world spy stuff that never takes itself too seriously. Hitchcock made practically every decision from the mindset of: what is best for the audience? I think about his bomb-under-the-table talk all the time. There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise,’ and yet many pictures continually confuse the two.” Oh, Alfred. You’re always there with a quote to pick us up. Mission: Impossible is about suspense, not surprise. We care about these people, so suspense is how they ratchet up the tension like a rocket every time.

Willems: I’ve been going back through the hours and hours of in-depth podcast interviews McQuarrie did last summer when Fallout opened (which are like a great mini-film school). When asked why he let the audience know early on that Henry Cavill’s character was actually a villain, he explains that saving it for a big reveal would at best only elicit a mild surprise, and would probably be predictable anyway. But revealing the truth to the audience before the rest of the characters know creates a lingering suspense that builds over time, and in the end is way more powerful.

Neumann: It lets you in on how dumb he’s playing it with Ethan, too. We see in the bathroom how much arm-gun Superman can take care of himself. I really appreciate McQuarrie’s mind there. It takes a strong director to say: this will be a mild reaction; it’s not that important of a surprise. I love that J.J. Abrams is seeing lessons like that up close as a producer: not all surprises are the perfect thing. It’s always so interesting to me that these people are still collaborating. J.J. has been around since Mission: Impossible 3, but his role has evolved. It’s great to see how much it all comes back to suspense.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout - Ethan Hunt hanging on to a cliff face Paramount Pictures

Willems: In one of the McQuarrie interviews he says, “I’m not a mystery box kind of guy. I don’t believe in that kind of storytelling … I believe a mystery is only as good as its reveal.” Which is pretty wild stuff to hear from the director of a J.J. Abrams production.

Neumann: Specific to suspense and Mission: Impossible, that holds water here. J.J. made a Mission Impossible movie where we never knew what the McGuffin was because it didn’t matter. The “Rabbit’s Foot,” would have been an ad campaign aimed at “What is the Rabbit’s Foot? Find out in May!”

I appreciate that it was never explained and didn’t matter. It was simply, theoretically, “the anti-god.” Good enough. Let’s go have a thrilling adventure!

Willems: It makes me wonder if something like Mission: Impossible is a better fit for Abrams than other franchises because there’s way less of a mythology, thus less of an expectation that there’s going to be a big reveal.

Neumann: I know you’re a fan of Alias (the first two seasons) as much as I am. When it wasn’t bogged down in its own mythology. J.J. speaks spy very well. I think you’re right. Where are you at on Lost, by the way?

Willems: I’m a big fan even if I’m not crazy about the last season. But after the first few episodes it pretty much stops being a J.J. joint. That gets into his whole fear of endings. This is only slightly related, but just thinking of the climax of M:I-3, we all tend to forget that Ethan Hunt dies, then comes back to life. And then that happens again two movies later. You can read into it as much as you want, but Abrams was the guy who first introduced the notion of Ethan Hunt’s immortality, which is this fascinating recurring thing through the rest of the movies.

Neumann: I think you were right on the money a minute ago: Mission: Impossible is perfect for J.J. Abrams. It’s value is wild creativity and it doesn’t have to have a satisfying ending. He’s been bumpin’ with immortality and spy shit since Alias.

Willems: Looping it back to where we started, McQuarrie was the guy who recognized the immortality thing that was more of an accident before, and made it more overt in his films. Think of the climax of Rogue Nation, where Ethan wins by putting Solomon Lane in a position where he can’t kill him without losing everything he worked for.

Neumann: That’s really the whole theme of my piece. This idea of people making decisions and others coming along and evolving those aspects. This whole series should make a lot less sense than it does, but everyone took what came before and leaned in to the all the bananas stuff. What we’re left with is a beautiful, iconic, campy thing. I love Mission: Impossible.

Willems: Same. And this is why I’m so excited for McQuarrie to come back and (presumably) end it. He took all the random shit the previous filmmakers threw in and figured out what it all meant, and what it had been saying all that time. Ethan Hunt went from a cipher to an actual guy with an ethos that still fits with what had been done in prior films. This has all been a long way of saying: I love these movies. There’s no other franchise doing what it’s doing, and after this conversation I want to watch them all over again.

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