As a fourth M:I film hits theaters, we take a look at how the spy franchise has evolved since 1996
Tom Cruise, Mission: Impossible, ... | FIRST MISSION Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible

Fifteen Years ago, Tom Cruise accepted his first mission as Ethan Hunt. Since then, he’s dangled from a harness at CIA headquarters, scaled vertiginous rock faces, and busted into the Vatican. But the biggest accomplishment Cruise can claim has nothing to do with gee-whiz gadgets or high-wire stunts. It’s how he’s managed to spin a money-minting juggernaut out of such a kitschy TV show. The fourth installment, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, is set to hit IMAX theaters Dec. 16 and the rest of the civilized world on Dec. 21. With a new box set of the first three chapters now out on Blu-ray, it’s worth looking back at how Hunt and his crack team of techno-nerds reinvented Hollywood espionage.

I’d argue that one of the smartest moves Paramount made when it decided to roll the dice on a mothballed, Nixon-era TV series — remember, it could have bombed like Mod Squad later would — was to hand the reins of each film to an auteur with a unique style. Unlike the 007 films, each M:I flick reflects the man behind the camera. In Mission: Impossible (1996, PG-13, 1 hr., 51 mins.), Brian De Palma, director of Carrie and Blow Out, uncorks his signature Hitchcockian suspense, packing a restaurant rendezvous with the same white-knuckle tension as a weightless Langley break-in.

When John Woo was tapped to helm Mission: Impossible 2 (2000, PG-13, 2 hrs., 4 mins.), the studio hoped to replicate the operatic, double-fisted fizz of his Hong Kong action imports like The Killer. And even though the plot has too much going on — the Eurovillain (Dougray Scott) is pure Dr. Evil hooey, and a jewel-thief love interest (Thandie Newton) doesn’t help — Woo raises goose bumps by having cars and motorcycles spin like ballerinas. Too bad the sequel’s excess of style trumps its substance.

Maybe that’s why the studio turned to J.J. Abrams for Mission: Impossible III (2006, PG-13, 2 hrs., 6 mins.). On ABC’s Alias, Abrams showed a knack for characters and clever, puzzle-box plot twists. Here, he reveals another side of Hunt, who could’ve gone stale by now. Opening with Hunt’s wife (Michelle Monaghan) being tortured by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s baddie, Abrams gives M:I-3 a this-time-it’s-personal edge that brings out Cruise’s best performance. A lot has changed in the action genre in the last 15 years — namely, the arrival of Jason Bourne — but the trilogy has proved that every mission needs to feel fresh if we’re going to choose to accept it.

Mission: Impossible B+

Mission: Impossible 2 B

Mission: Impossible III B+

Mission: Impossible III
  • Movie
  • 126 minutes