Regional Screen Scotland’s Partnerships Coordinator Harriet Warman loves and questions the Mission films with equal measure.
Do you like the Mission Impossible Films? I do. I don’t like them equally (more on that later), but I really like them. I get excited when a new film is in production, when it starts to get promoted and when I’m standing in line waiting to buy my ticket at the earliest possible screening at my local cinema.
My fandom goes back 12 years to Mission: Impossible 3 in 2006 – before that I had seen Mission Impossible, and its most iconic scene had been parodied everywhere, but M:I 2 had passed me by completely. M:I 3 changed things.
Here was an action film with a team of agents working together, using incredible gadgets, taking on despicable villains (the dead-eyed and terrifying Philip Seymour Hoffman as Owen Davian), and doing it all with a sense of not only real threat, but fun as well. Plus, the film was silly, too, intended to make you delight at the inventive ways the team pulled off their missions – see Ethan Hunt scale down the inside wall of the Vatican wearing overalls, land safely, and quickly transform his work wear into a Cassock, as he strolls serenely passed the clergy.
It should be known however that it is possible to like a film and find it problematic and thus are the M:I films, with their arguably related issues of representation of women and quality overall. So, on the occasion of the release of Mission Impossible: Fallout, the sixth film in the series, I decided to watch all five previous films to track their gender balance and the 22-year character arc of Ethan Hunt.
Mission Impossible (1996)
Brian de Palma’s original reboot of the TV-show, where Hunt is part of a team, the young ‘point man’ – out front getting it done, a little cheeky, cocky, even. He reluctantly takes on the role of leader in a new team (enter Ving Rhames’ Luther for the first time) when it all seems to go wrong during a mission. It’s all about the NOC list and breaking into the CIA. Ethan is established as a risk-taker who takes no chances with the people he’s supposed to trust. The female characters include Emmanuelle Béart’s Claire, Vanessa Redgrave’s Max, Kristin Scott Thomas’ Sarah and Ingeborga Dapkunaite’s Hannah. All the women are either baddies or end up dead. Yes, amazing set pieces but also blatant misogyny.
Mission Impossible: 2 (2000)
Now, I know from watching all the special features for each M:I film that the action scenes for this John Woo piece were created before they wrote the script, and it shows. Yes, it audacious and has that memorable opening scene – Ethan hangs from a cliff, just casually doing some untethered climbing, thousands of feet from the ground – but there’s only one female character. Poor Thandie Newton as Nyah, is essentially manipulated into getting involved using stalker-chase-jeopardy methods, then put in danger with her ex for really, almost no reason and, according to Woo, this was to introduce a ‘romantic’ element into the series. No thanks. Ethan though, he’s gone from cocky team leader to ultimate thrill-seeker, the film tries to give him something to lose so that it ends with him grounded, rather than hanging in the air.
Mission Impossible: 3 (2006)
This was when they brought J.J. Abrams in to reboot the franchise again. It was his first film! He had done Alias and some Lost episodes, but Producer Tom Cruise was excited to try new talent, hooray for us. We saw Hunt about to get married to Julia (Michelle Monaghan) but then (!) have his identity and the people he loves put in danger. Hunt had changed again from adrenaline junkie to loving partner. In Davian, he had a merciless enemy, but the team around him – that started to really establish. Simon Pegg joined the cast as tech expert Benji and after the woeful representation in M:I 2; there were three women characters, including the simply awesome Maggie Q as Zhen. M:I 3 ended with a cheesy, optimistic spy squad cheering for their hero Ethan, and I loved it.
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)
Well, I mean this one has one of the best set-pieces ever – a masking-screen that relays video from an empty corridor to fool a security guard that Ethan and Benji haven’t actually infiltrated the Kremlin to steal some files – it’s a piece of reflexive invention straight from Wile E. Coyote. And it makes sense, coming from Incredibles director Brad Bird. Women character count is OK too, Léa Seydoux’s assassin Sabine and Paula Patton’s agent Jane are pretty much it, but they have agency and their own motivations and complexity. Benji being out in the field also introduces one of the most interesting aspects of the series in his simultaneous enthusiasm and vulnerability – more on that later. As for Ethan – he’s on his own again as Julia is nowhere to be found; he’s wounded but defiant and expressing some jovial frustration at being the one relied upon to scale the world’s tallest building (the Burj Khalifa in Dubai).
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)
This one loses points for only having one female character with more than a couple of lines of dialogue, but deserves praise for that character being Rebecca Fergusson’s Ilsa Faust, an MI6 agent playing double/triple agent to baddie Soloman Lane (Sean Harris). Ilsa has her own plot line; her own corrupt government agency to deal with and her action scenes are breathlessly cool. Ghost Protocol also brings in Alec Baldwin’s CIA boss Hunly, a guy who seems to hate the IMF a little too much, so much so you think he might actually think it’s really cool.
All this brings us to this year’s Mission Impossible: Fallout, perhaps the most rewarding film in the series so far. Fallout is the first film to have plot continuity from a previous instalment in the series, as it again follows the Syndicate (Soloman Lane’s old terrorist network) now known as the Apostles, led by mysterious leader John Lark and their plan to use plutonium to attack the Vatican, Jerusalem and Mecca. CIA Agent August Walker (Henry Cavill) joins Ethan, Benji and Luther to stop the attacks, but August seems to have his own agenda, and very different methods.
Ilsa Faust returns to once and for all release herself from MI6 by completing her last mission and as before, demonstrates herself to be a complex ally for Ethan and the team. There’s also other women characters in the form of Angela Basset’s cool-headed CIA boss Erika Sloane, Vanessa Kirby as the well-connected White Widow AND the return of Julia (Michelle Monaghan). We see action set pieces that include skydiving, an intricate escape plan, on foot chases, helicopter chases, plenty of masks (of course) and a multiple bomb detonation climax, it’s all utterly breathless.
Fallout also brings us back to the issue of Benji’s vulnerability – he is frequently put in the position of needing to be saved, whether by Ethan or other characters. This is emphasised at the outset of the film when – at a covert meeting with an arms dealer – he attempts to hide his fears about the danger they’re in. Ethan reassures him that’ll he’ll always look after him, giving a slight big brother edge to their relationship. Later, he’s put in serious peril, just as he was in Rogue Nation; Nyah was in M:I 2 and Julia was in Mission Impossible 3. Part of Benji’s role as needing-to-be-saved can be attributed to the fact that he wasn’t always in the field – in M:I 3 he’s a desk-worker, offering intel from inside IMF – he liked the safety of that. Just because he’s now in the field, and proves himself extremely competent, doesn’t mean he’s suddenly invincible. In fact, he takes the role previously occupied by any woman character in Missions 1-3. What we see is a franchise making up for past misogyny by representing a range of male and female characters, and importantly disavowing the macho nature of toxic masculinity.
A relief then, to be able to maintain my faith in a problematic franchise! Fallout is satisfying because it addresses past flaws in the series, it amps up the jeopardy, and unlike recent superhero films where every ‘super’ is totally badass all the time, it presents regular humans doing extraordinary things. See? I told you the Mission films were easy to get excited about.
You can still catch Mission Impossible: Fallout in Brodick, Millport, Lochgilphead, Bunessan, Tobermory and Fort William. Get your tickets here.