Growing up as an adolescent of the ‘90s the discussion of whether you preferred Mission: Impossible or James Bond for your spy-faring feature films was a resurrected area of pop culture discourse. In 1995 Pierce Brosnan would debut as James Bond in GoldenEye, the first Bond film in six years, the longest gap ever between films in the franchise (at least as of this writing). In 1996, Tom Cruise would star as Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible, the first film adaptation of the TV series that ran from 1966-1973. I’ve always gotten the sense that James Bond is the more beloved pop culture figure. He obviously has the wider reach, with a film series spanning fifty-three years and twenty-six films. But for my money (metaphorically speaking as well as literal money in the form of movie tickets and first VHS (!) then DVD purchases), 007 has nothing on the Impossible Missions Force.
Now, I have nothing against James Bond. I feel like I should be clear about this up front. This isn’t meant to be a persuasive essay. I just, having finally seen Mission: Impossible Fallout this weekend, want to talk spies! While I’ll be straightforward about proclaiming my love of Mission: Impossible, I certainly don’t want to begrudge anyone their love of the martini drinkin’, lady sexin’, kill-license bearin’, card playin’, flashy car drivin’, super spy archetype James Bond. I appreciate all he’s added to pop culture. I dig his legions of loyal fans. And I think it’s really cool how he’s the only character (that I can think of) we see operate in film the way characters operate in comic books.
What I mean is James Bond first appeared (cinematically, my knowledge of Ian Fleming’s novels is even more limited than my knowledge of the films) in 1962’s Dr. No. His most recent cinematic outing was 2015’s Spectre. Over that time, seven actors (Sean Connery, David Niven, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig) have played Bond. Time and technology naturally move on around him, reflecting the era in which the film is made, while he pretty much stays relatively the same age. It’s the same with comic books. Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider in 1962. He was fifteen. Now, in 2018, he’s somewhere in his late twenties (a stretch, in my opinion) or early thirties (far more plausible). Time stands relatively still for comic characters as it’s always done for Mr. Bond – and I think that’s kind of cool. Still, for whatever reason, his films just aren’t my bag.
In fact, the only Bond films I can say I’ve seen from start to finish with absolute certainty are Goldfinger, Casino Royale (1967), GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day, Casino Royale (2006), Quantum of Solace, and Skyfall. I’ve seen bits and pieces of others, when they’re on TV or something. It’s just not a series I’m drawn to or feel the need to see each installment.
But I don’t hate James Bond films. I just sort of nothing them. They are entertaining in the moment and then forgettable afterwards. Mission: Impossible on the other hand? That’s a totally different story! I really enjoy the films, the characters, and I have some fond movie memories associated with them.
I’ve always gravitated more to the tone and mood of the Mission: Impossible films. In film (or literature for that matter), tone is essentially the attitude toward the subject in the work with mood being the general feeling of the work. I like the balance of tension, twists, action, humor, and gravity in this series. And even though I know Tom Cruise and co. are going to end up saving the day in the end, I still always have the “Aaaaagggghhhhh! Oh no!” moment where, at least for a second or two, I think they might lose. I appreciate that :).
I’ve also always appreciated – while Tom Cruise is obviously the centre of the series – there’s some regularity in a recurring cast. I like the feel seeing familiar faces give these films! Alongside Ethan Hunt we always find Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and showing up with varying degrees of regularity through the series we have Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), Julia Meade (Michelle Monaghan), Isla Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), and Jeremy Renner (William Brandt). I do wish the series would have followed in the footsteps of the J.J. Abrams-led Mission: Impossible III going forward and continued with better gender balance in the IMF team. By all accounts in Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation and Mission: Impossible Fallout you’d think the IMF is all-male. Yikes. That team structure makes me sad. But I think it’s a rewarding commentary on modern filmmaking to note how weird the team scenes in those predominately male films feel. I don’t know if I would’ve noticed this as a kid in the late ‘80s. But now I do notice it and it feels/looks like something’s not quite right; it’s a little out of place or unnatural.
Off-and-on gender issues aside for now, I love how these are team films. It’s one of the reasons I’m draw to them more than to the Bond films. While 007 is always a solo act, Ethan Hunt can’t do what he does without those he’s working with. I like the sense of familiarity, the sense of family and the idea that, to do this work, you damn sure can’t do it alone. It feels more realistic too (or, you know, as realistic as these sorts of movies could ever feel). Over the course of twenty-two years and six films, we’ve gotten to know some of these people pretty well. On the team note, another regret of mine with this series (although this is personal preference, not the important idea of gender balance and inclusivity discussed above) is we didn’t get more of Lindsey Ferris (Keri Russell), Declan Gormley (Johnathan Rhys Meyers), and Zhen Lei (Maggie Q) after Mission: Impossible III. Of all the films, that was my favorite IMF team.
On the character relationship note, I was always impressed with how Ethan Hunt’s love life’s been handled across the Mission: Impossible series. Bond is a notorious lothario, sexing up whomever he happens to be with whether for personal pleasure, information, or both. I grant the spy life can’t be one that’s conducive to a long term, committed relationship. But I still prefer how this is addressed in Mission: Impossible. Ethan Hunt falls for Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton) in Mission: Impossible II. They asked her to reprise her role in Mission: Impossible III and, when she turned it down, we met Michelle Monaghan’s Julia Meade. Ethan’s life makes it impossible (heh heh…I so didn’t intend that pun) to hold down a real relationship, ultimately forcing him to do what he can to put her into hiding to keep her safe. Yet he doesn’t fill that void with casual sexual encounters. He’s a monogamous relationship sort of guy, despite the inability to realize one due to his job. Ethan loves Julia, even if he can’t be with her, and he realizes the risks of bringing anyone else into this life. We see real character growth here.
We also get to see Ethan Hunt grow as a spy across the series. While Bond’s always been the best there is at what he does (sorry Wolverine, I know that’s your tagline but it fits here so I’m using it), that’s not the case for Ethan. In Mission: Impossible he was a part of Jim Phelps’s (Jon Voight) IMF team. By Mission: Impossible II he’s established himself as a great IMF agent on his own and, come Mission: Impossible III, he’s decided to retire and train new agents so he can have a chance at a “normal” life. Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol shows him as an elite leader within the IMF. By Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation he’s talking to the record store girl in London (Hermione Corfield) at the beginning of the film to get his mission and she says, “It really is you. I’ve heard stories…they can’t all be true.” Over the course of the series we’ve seen Ethan Hunt go from talented team member to living legend. This sort of growth and development in the character is more interesting to me than the more static nature of James Bond.
Now, I grant there’s not a lot of real depth and/or growth a character in an action/thriller series will go through. I’m not arguing the Mission: Impossible films are thoughtful and provocative character studies. Nor will I deny the dimensions they’ve sought to add to James Bond in the Daniel Craig era. It’s just I like the development we do see with Ethan Hunt more. I find it more interesting, in part probably because I’ve always been more invested in him as a character and in these movies.
I also like how we’ve seen Ethan Hunt age. Now, don’t get me wrong. In each and every Mission: Impossible movie what Tom Cruise does is beyond superhuman. It’s nuts! But it’s also par for the course in these sorts of movies. Still, he gets winded, struggles, and fumbles in Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation (at least as far as those words apply in an action/thriller) and he hesitates before jumping in Mission: Impossible Fallout in ways he’d never have done in Mission: Impossible II. To balance the insane action and even-more-insane stunts with the idea of a spy who is aging, at least in his own cinematic way, is interesting to watch.
On the action note, it’s worth mentioning here I hate heights. I’ve had an on again/off again thing with them over the years. Once, I even roofed houses! But now I can’t even consider getting on the li’l rollercoaster at our local amusement park and Kalie can attest to the fact that I once started crying in line for the Ferris Wheel. So I’m not a heights guy. But I still love watching all the crazy things Tom Cruise does in these movies!! Even if I have trouble handling it :). When he scales the tallest building in the world – Dubai’s Burj Khalifa (2,722 ft above ground) – in Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol I can’t watch the scene without tensing and screaming, “FUCK!” No matter how many times I see it, it freaks me out every time.
There’s so much I’ve enjoyed in these movies over the years but I also have a lot of really good memories associated with them too. I think, in a lot of ways, that ends up being one of the major factors in how we see films in the long run. If we have great memories associated with a film, no matter what the critics at large say, it will always mean something important to us.
When I first saw Mission: Impossible in the early summer of 1996, I was thirteen-years-old. It provided me with my very first ….wait…holy shit!…what the fuck?!? film experience :). The plot twists were so enigmatic it took me many viewings to be sure I’d pulled it all together correctly. I remember driving home from the theatre with David, ten-years-old at the time, and our cousin’s girlfriend (who took us to the movie) and NONE OF US had any idea exactly what had happened. We talked about it the whole way home and for many, many weeks after. I loved that! A truly mind-bending mystery/thriller is all too rare. And Mission: Impossible was the first film to show me the potential power and entertainment of that sort of movie.
Also, let’s just say this – the scene where he’s hanging down in the computer vault in the CIA headquarters in Langley, VA is probably the most iconic scene in Tom Cruise’s entire career! Even more than the Risky Business underwear slide/lip sync routine, I’m saying this takes the cake. Just the other day I was talking generally about the Mission: Impossible series with Mom and, as soon as I mentioned it, she mimed hanging over the floor and catching the sweat off of her glasses :). I love it!
With so many viewings, multiple great lines from that film – random ones too – worked their way into David’s and my vocabulary over the years. Randomly we’ll just look at each other and say, “Red light! Green light!” or “Negative! Golitsyn is on the move!” I still say, to no one in particular, “I’m not the only one who’s seen you alive” when I put my glasses on too. Kalie often says I speak two languages – English and movie/TV quotes. (Kalie, it’s worth nothing, speaks English and a decent bit of Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and is playing around with French and Arabic too (so, no matter how much I love these movies, she would be a FAR better spy then I ever could).) I’ve always felt a film – whether something iconic like Star Wars or something smaller and goofier like Eurotrip – that works its way into your heart and mind enough to be regularly quoted in your life is a special bond.
Moving from middle school to high school to college, David and I watched and rewatched Mission: Impossible, Mission: Impossible II, and Mission: Impossible III often. By the time Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol came out in December of 2011, I was in the middle of my very first year teaching at Mercyhurst. As you grow up and life gets busier, you don’t have the time to dedicate to reviewing films you love in the way you did when you were younger. So my experience of the later films in the series is different. It doesn’t mean I don’t love them too. I do! I just can’t obsessively watch them as I did during my youth with the first three. Given this busy nature of life, I actually missed Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation in theatres. I’m not kidding or exaggerating when I say this legitimately bothered me. Like I felt physically and emotionally uncomfortable with it. It sat weirdly in my stomach, the idea of missing the latest chapter of this series I grew up loving in the theatre. But I eventually saw it (and loved it!) and I rectified this oversight with Mission: Impossible Fallout, having seen (and loved!) it yesterday.
There’s just something fun about the spy genre. The globe-hopping! The disguises! The gadgets! The plot twists! The double crosses! It doesn’t surprise me it’s survived as long as it has as a genre, always changing with the times from the Cold War era stories we once told to the modern ones reflecting our current post-9/11 world. These sorts of stories are faux-snapshots of our real world while being larger-then-life in every way. For me, I’m always going to be a Mission: Impossible kind of guy. When it comes to my spy thrillers, Ethan Hunt’s my hero-of-choice and as long as Tom Cruise wants to keep making these movies and jumping from insane heights and performing crazy stunts, I’ll be along for the ride.
Now, dear read, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to let me know what your thoughts are on the matter. Are you more of a Mission: Impossible person like I am? Or do you prefer a Mr. Bond, James Bond for your spying entertainment? This blog post will hopefully not self-destruct in five seconds because I spent a lot of time writing it and I would be sad if it did.