Spy movies have been a fixture in Hollywood since the early days of James Bond movies. There’s something about a suave yet secretive lead hero saving the world one villain at a time that keeps bringing audiences back, and that’s continued on even today. In all, seven separate actors have taken on the role of 007, in the midst of the inception of other moneymaking spy franchises. But none embody the modern take on the genre quite so well as Mission Impossible, ever since it first hit theaters back in 1996.
If back in ’96 Paramount had decided to stop there and never make another Mission Impossible movie, it would still stand alone as an iconic installment in the history of spy thrillers. Even today, no one can forget the image of Tom Cruise dangling from the ceiling in a harness, set to the bombastic theme song written by Lalo Schifrin. But the studio did indeed soldier on with four more movies, the latest set to release this July. It’s pretty par for the course for most franchises to feel tired and forced by the time they’re extended out past the third installment, but for Mission Impossible the quality has only improved with age.
One needs to look no further than Rotten Tomatoes to see the progression. Of the four movies that have been released, in order of chronology the scores go as follows: 61%, 57%, 70%, and 93%. Despite a slight dip from Mission Impossible II, we can see that things are trending decidedly upwards for the franchise. It’s no wonder, too, given the unique approach for each individual movie.
The strategy employed by Paramount is one not often used when it comes to major Hollywood franchises. First, the shortest amount of time between movies so far has been right around four years. Nearly six years separated Mission Impossible II and III, showing a clear commitment to getting everything right rather than pumping out a new film every year to capitalize on the hype-train. Following a big box office take, it’s par for the course to have the sequel in the can for an immediate release, typically within at most a year or two. More often than not, this produces a rushed product that does more to kill the franchise than help it.
But the release schedule isn’t the only thing that sets Mission Impossible apart. A quick pass through IMDb will show you something that completely breaks the Hollywood mold: Each of the five movies (including this summer’s release) features a different director. Usually something like this occurs when creative differences drive a divide between the director and the studio, but what we have here is a clear case of purposefully mixing things up for each installment. In order, the series has had Brian De Palma (Scarface), John Woo (Face/Off), J.J. Abrams (Star Trek), Brad Bird (The Incredibles), and now Chris McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) all step in to direct. It’s a diverse group that’s brought in a fresh creative mind on each project, keeping things from stagnating under one vision for more than one movie.
With Mission Impossible 5: Rogue Nation releasing six months ahead of schedule this summer to avoid competing with December’s Star Wars, Episode VII, we’re about to see the next step in a series that’s managed to stay fresh stretched out over almost two decades. And if history is to serve as any indicator, we’ll see more of the same from one the healthiest franchises Hollywood has to offer.
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