It’s amazing how far an unforgettable theme song and a vague premise will take you. In the case of Mission: Impossible, the franchise has followed the exploits of the IMF — that’s Impossible Mission Force, by the way (yes, really) — from the 1960s television series all the way into a 1996 film adaptation that is still spawning sequels more than 20 years later. And the truly shocking part is that this film franchise is perhaps the strongest it’s ever been.
How else to explain why the forthcoming Mission: Impossible — Fallout is breaking series tradition and delivering a straight continuation of the previous entry, complete with the same director and much of the same supporting cast? For its first four entries, the series took great joy in its ability to hop from one distinctive directorial style to the next. While the visions of Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird all contributed something critical to the Mission: Impossible mythos — okay, maybe not Woo’s film, universally considered the weakest installment — Christopher McQuarrie appears to have nailed the M:I formula of espionage thrills, death-defying stunts and character-driven drama like no other filmmaker thus far. And with him back for Fallout, there’s little reason to think the sixth impossible mission will disappoint fans of 2015’s Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation.
Although Fallout has yet to even arrive in theaters, some media outlets are already speculating about the development of a seventh Mission: Impossible film. These reports are largely based on some brief, fairly nebulous comments by Simon Pegg, in which the actor — who has been a franchise regular since Mission: Impossible 3 — proclaims that the series “shows no signs of slowing down” and “never say never,” etc. Basically, Pegg downplays the question, leaving it open-ended regarding whether or not he or anyone else involved in Fallout has seriously discussed what they may or may not have planned for the future of the franchise. However, while Paramount is likely waiting to see how well Fallout performs before committing to another film, the discussion of a seventh film does raise a worthwhile question: how many of these things do we really want anyway?
The idea of interminable sequels is clearly floating in the air, seeing as Mission: Impossible is on a hot streak. The last two films, Rogue Nation and Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, are easily the best of the bunch, receiving solid box office and strong reactions from fans and critics alike. But this series isn’t Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There isn’t a deep well of material to draw from or endless characters onto whom the focus can shift. From day one, this has been Ethan Hunt’s story, and Tom Cruise has become so inextricable from the role and this franchise that it’s nearly impossible to imagine someone slipping in to take over for him, as Jeremy Renner was once rumored to do.
To date, Cruise has done an incredible job anchoring these films. Each time out, he has turned in committed performances and has proven his devotion to the series through his willingness to perform many of the stunts himself. Ethan Hunt has become an increasingly physically demanding role, and Cruise — now in his mid-50s — can only continue operating on this level for so long. Then again, stars like Liam Neeson, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger are still headlining action films in their late 60s and early 70s. So perhaps Hunt can live on with Cruise merely conceding his ability to do as many of the stunts himself in the future. Even so, the narrative may run out of energy before the star does.
Unlike the James Bond films, the Mission: Impossible movies don’t naturally lend themselves to an easy recast, and more importantly, the last few have made great strides in continuity. The first three entries are more or less standalone spy adventures, with little or no characters or story elements connecting them (aside from Ving Rhames’ Luther). Yet, the more recent films have felt like they’re building an even more complex world for Hunt to inhabit, one that becomes richer with each film. Moreover, the Mission: Impossible franchise feels like it is building to some climax, with a vibe of “it’s all been leading up to this” especially coming strong out of the Fallout marketing.
At some point, Ethan’s story needs to come to a close, and considering the amount of effort that Cruise and his directors have put into the series, it deserves to be wrapped up in epic fashion. Likely, that means retiring (for good this time) and riding off into the sunset with wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) after dismantling a corrupt IMF or passing it off to some new hotshot agent to be the de facto point man going forward. Whatever the case may be, the point is that the Mission: Impossible films now have a natural progression to them, and the filmmakers should be planning ahead to how they can best end Ethan’s story. A sixth film? Sure. A seventh? Great. An eighth, ninth, tenth? Eh, not so fast.
The Mission: Impossible franchise has evolved past the point of being a series of disconnected missions and, from M:I 3 on, has truly zeroed in on Hunt’s personal story as the ongoing narrative thread. In keeping with that, its supporting cast has largely stuck in the last few films. Monaghan, Pegg, Rhames (of course) and now Rogue Nation‘s Rebecca Ferguson are all firmly established as important figures in Ethan’s life. This makes it more difficult for subsequent films to merely shake Ethan off and follow a new hero. Of course, even when Cruise decides he’s ready to stop dangling off of mountains, planes and other high altitudes, Paramount will almost certainly dust off the property and likely just reboot it eventually. In today’s day and age, that’s probably inevitable.
Yet, Cruise and the entire M:I team have the chance now to set up the beginning of the end. By the looks of it, Fallout may very well be doing just that. Hopefully, this is the case, as no film series (well, except for the endlessly refreshed Bond) can go on forever. Ethan’s story must be finite, lest it either end without a proper resolution or continues to the point that fans have all but lost interest. Cruise clearly takes pride in the work he’s done in this series and as this character. The mission now, should Cruise and company choose to accept it? To ensure that the Mission: Impossible franchise manages to go out on top, its legacy intact. Oh, yeah, this message will self-destruct in five seconds.
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