I was sure the Mission: Impossible series died in 2000, killed off after only two movies by John Woo’s terrible Mission: Impossible 2. A movie ostensibly about a team of super spies somehow became a one-man show, with Tom Cruise dominating the screen in a way he didn’t quite do in Brian De Palma’s twisty original, despite most of that team getting killed off in the first twenty minutes. Mission: Impossible 2 jettisoned the entire concept of the series, saddled itself with a charisma-less void of a villain (played by would-be Wolverine Dougray Scott), and ended with an extended bird-filled set piece that felt like a parody of a John Woo action movie. I walked out of that theater in 2000 assuming the movie would collapse at the box office after word of mouth got out. Instead it became the highest grossing movie of the year, raking in over half a billion dollars worldwide at a time when movies rarely did that.
Mission: Impossible 2 didn’t kill the series, but it did kill my interest in it. Despite liking the directors behind them, and despite the increasingly positive reviews, I skipped the next three sequels as they came out over the next 15 years. The hole dug by M:I 2 (as the marketing campaign obnoxiously nicknamed the movie) was too deep for J.J. Abrams or Brad Bird or Christopher McQuarrie to pull the series out of. You’d have to be an impossibly talented alpha human like Ethan Hunt to pull that stunt off, I thought.
And then this happened. I somehow became hooked on watching movies at home on a fancy 4K Ultra HD set-up. It’s a nightly compulsion that I have to keep feeding, which means finding new movies to watch all the time. And with the current library of 4K Blu-rays being fairly skimpy, that means loading up some movies I thought I’d never watch—movies I was pointedly avoiding, even.
All five Mission: Impossible movies were released on 4K UHD at the end of June, timed to hit shelves just a few weeks before the release of the sixth movie in the series (reviewed here, and out in theaters today). As a legitimate fan of De Palma’s first movie, and with an insatiable thirst for new stuff to slap into that 4K player, I got my hands on the full run and watched them all in a single week. They’re all crisp, gorgeous transfers that leave previous Blu-ray releases in the dust. At different points during this little marathon I was surprised and impressed and energized by the action blazing out of that TV every night in high-dynamic range color. During one excruciatingly long point, though, I was fully reminded of how horrible that second movie is; somehow John Woo, perhaps the most acclaimed action director of his era, made what is by far the worst Mission: Impossible, just a total leaden bore that might’ve killed this entire project early on if I didn’t already have the other three movies ready and waiting to go. Mission: Impossible 2 is still terrible, and that’s the last time you’re going to see its name on this page.
Beyond a certain almost fatal trainwreck early in its lineage, the Mission: Impossible movies could legitimately be the best action blockbuster series that Hollywood has ever cranked out (outside of the Spielberg-Lucas nexus). De Palma’s film has little in common with the three most recent installments, but all four are ideal popcorn entertainments, with great action pieces, amazing stunt work, stakes that feel appropriately high, and just enough intelligence to make them feel smarter than the typical Hollywood blockbuster.
J.J. Abrams immediately revives the franchise with the crackling in media res opening of the third film, with a menacing Philip Seymour Hoffman having a tense, deadly stand-off with Cruise. Abrams restores the group dynamic by bringing back Ving Rhames (the only actor to appear in every installment other than Cruise) and introducing new agents played by Keri Russell, Maggie Q, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Simon Pegg. He also peels back the impenetrable front of Cruise’s Ethan Hunt just enough to add some human depth to the character. There’s a regrettable recurring motif of Hunt’s fiancé, played by Michelle Monaghan, being a constant victim and pawn that the villains use to manipulate Hunt, but fortunately the movie ultimately avoids the old Death Wish clichés. Mission: Impossible III doesn’t quite set the template for its two follow-ups—every director so far has brought something new and unique to the series—but it does point the franchise in the right direction, one focused more on teamwork and with the kind of twists that De Palma injected into the first movie.
Brad Bird elevates all that to new heights with Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. The animation legend made his live-action directorial debut with the fourth film in the franchise, and pulled it off better than pretty much anybody could have predicted. It’s a slick, non-stop thrill ride punctuated with an exhilaratingly tense action set-piece astride the towering Burj Khalifa building in Dubai. Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner join Cruise and a returning Pegg in another well-balanced team, with personalities that sometimes clash and sometimes complement each other while remaining consistent throughout the plot’s machinations. Renner had a spell as the understudy du jour for aging action franchises—the year after Ghost Protocol he tagged in for Matt Damon in The Bourne Legacy—but his role as an IMF agent who becomes an analyst after a traumatic mission works better in tandem with Cruise’s Hunt than as a replacement. Renner’s notes of grief and penitence are a crucial contrast to Cruise’s preternatural confidence; between that, Pegg’s jittery comic relief, and Patton’s own revenge-fueled form of grief, Ghost Protocol is the first Mission: Impossible to feel like a genuine ensemble piece and not just Cruise sharing the screen with his character’s backups.
Christopher McQuarrie somehow improves on that team dynamic in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation. The key is newcomer Rebecca Ferguson, whose MI6 agent Ilsa Faust can do pretty much everything Hunt can do, but with more aplomb. Ferguson, despite being nowhere near as famous as Cruise, somehow matches him in star power the second she appears on screen. If Renner’s character, William Brandt (who returns in Rogue Nation), was a failed attempt at introducing a new lead for the series once Cruise finally got too old to hang off a speeding train, or whatever, there’s every reason to think Ferguson could pull it off, at least after watching Rogue Nation. She’s an even better addition to the lineup than Pegg was, and hopefully she’ll be sticking around after Fallout, which she’s confirmed to be in. (Renner, meanwhile, won’t be back for a third go-round with Fallout.)
Rogue Nation also develops something that every self-respecting super spy agency needs: a true nemesis in the form of The Syndicate, a secret criminal organization founded by former M16 agent Solomon Lane. (Okay, as you can probably tell by the names “The Syndicate” and “Solomon Lane,” these Mission: Impossible movies absolutely acknowledge and embrace the pulpy goofball ridiculousness of the spy genre, unlike, say, the self-serious Bourne movies.) The SPECTRE to Ethan Hunt’s James Bond, The Syndicate succeeds in getting the IMF shut down—before Hunt, Faust and the rest get it un-shut down, of course.
Rogue Nation will be the first Mission: Impossible with a straight sequel (in the form of Fallout), and really, it’s the first one that needs one. McQuarrie’s film is full of world-building that expands the franchise’s horizons, and not everything is tied up by the end of it. It might sound weird for a film franchise to finally break out of the hermetically sealed nature of each installment after 20 years and five movies, but if the first four films hadn’t been self-contained up to that point the series probably couldn’t have carried the narrative weight of introducing what is effectively an anti-IMF in Rogue Nation. It took all of those free-standing films, even that huge misstep in 2000, to build a foundation upon which somebody like McQuarrie could erect a more elaborate story, one that can’t help but look back and comment on the four movies that came before it. Rogue Nation was a great start, and this week we’ll see if Fallout can finish the drill.
Release Notes: All movies are available separately in multi-format editions that include 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital HD and UltraViolet versions. They support Dolby Vision and HDR10, as well as Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit) audio.
All movies viewed on a Samsung Q7F QLED 4K TV and a Samsung 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections and also writes about theme parks. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.