What truly qualifies a franchise to be deemed the best in the world of action movies? Quite simply, it would be a series where there isn’t a bad one in the bunch. Bond is great, and certainly the longest, but there are too many barkers in its canon. (“Die Another Day”, anyone?) And the “X-Men” have brought a lot of joy to audiences since 2000 but if the franchise erases half its slate of stories by what went on in “Days of Future Past”, isn’t that an immediate disqualification? No, for consistent quality and entertainment, the best action franchise is the one whose latest sequel “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” continues its amazing run through five films. This latest one is once again getting great reviews. And it brought in a whopping four million dollars in previews alone during its sneak Thursday night. The “M:I” series has remained relevant and expert since it first launched on the big screen in 1996, and it should be lauded as the best and most consistent action franchise going.
So why has this franchise succeeded so spectacularly where so many others haven’t? Here are the five reasons:
“Mission Impossible” knows its brand
Who doesn’t love the Bond films? Yet, for all of the great films and 50 years, the franchise has struggled with its identity. Sean Connery’s Bond was a tough guy of few words, while Roger Moore’s take on the role was lighter and even overly comedic. Daniel Craig has brought the films back-to-basics Bond, but while “Casino Royale” and “Skyfall” were stellar, “Quantum of Solace” was anything but. It was a frenetic, soulless and unintelligible mess, actually. But the movies about the Impossible Missions Force have remained consistent in energy, tone and sense of self over five films. The cast may change, as have the directors, but each film is consistently smart, sexy, and they deliver the action with cinematic flair, eye-popping stunt work, and escalating set pieces. It never takes itself too seriously, but it never throws away a certain sense of gravitas either. The films may deal with terrorism, but the deaths are largely kept off screen, or they happen in PG-13 sorts of ways that make the franchise go down easy. You know the stories will be fun, the characters will be clever and cheeky, and the set pieces will deliver “How in the hell did they do that?” stunts that are almost completely done in camera. They’ve done a nice job of repeating gags like the elaborate masks over the years, as well as the famous Lalo Shifrin theme music, but they’ve never overdone them to the point where they’ve become tired tropes.
The franchise has never worn out their welcome
I love Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, but he’s played him in every one of the seven X-Men films so far. And that franchise will have done eight movies by the time “X-Men: Apocalypse” opens in 2016. More wisely, the IMF team has only shown up for movies five times in almost 20 years. They’ve never over-saturated the market and therefore are always welcome. (Be careful, Marvel. You’re on a roll, but how many costumed superhero movies and TV shows from one studio do we really need in any given year?) Making a film every 3-5 years, rather than every two years, also allowed the filmmakers to spend more time on crafting the “Mission Impossible” scripts as well. And it shows because each one was well-thought through, built properly on the previous outing, and was shot with time and care to become superb Hollywood entertainment.
The action is state-of-the-art, yet old school
There has been a lot of criticism of late regarding movies relying too heavily on CGI. Just because you can use CGI doesn’t mean you should. There are CGI effects in almost every movie that contains elaborate stunts or special effects, but the “Mission Impossible” movies not only make it look more convincing than things like “Terminator Genisys”, but so much of the stunt work is actually being done in camera and by the actual stars. “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” has gotten a ton of ink for its opening set piece where Tom Cruise clings to the door on an airplane during take-off. He really was hanging onto that jet as it rose into the sky. Granted, the wires holding him were removed in post-production, but still, the A-lister is actually bracing himself against the ridiculous speed and high winds. And he’s in a business suit! Cruise also does most of the rest of his stunts, and the seven motorcycle set-piece is rendered all the more riveting by him actually weaving in and out of traffic in a number of shots. “Mission: Impossible” creates so many of the scenes in camera, and not all in post, and that gives the films an immediacy and realism that cannot be duplicated as well on a computer.
The movies have adapted to the stages of Tom Cruise’s age and life
When Cruise brought the franchise to the big screen 18 years ago, he was only 34. A number of his films from that period placed him with an older mentor, like Paul Newman in “The Color of Money” (1986) or Bryan Brown in “Cocktail” (1988), and that continued well into 1996 as Cruise’s Ethan Hunt character was tutored by Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) in the first film. But as Tom Cruise has aged and gone through different life stages, the “Mission: Impossible” films have adapted to him. In “Mission: Impossible 3” (2006), Hunt was the mentor to novice agent Keri Russell. That third outing also reflected Cruise’s matrimonial leanings as Hunt took a bride (Michelle Monaghan). In 2011’s “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”, Cruise’s propensity for still doing his stunts at his age became a theme concerning Hunt’s abilities. The set piece where the IMF agent hangs off that Mumbai skyscraper in Dubai made hay of Cruise’s years, as well as those of Hunt. And now in “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”, Cruise has almost become the sage, despite him looking years, even decades, younger than he is. He’s treated as a senior agent and is now bossing around younger players like Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg full time.
The adventure matters because of the characters in them
One of the greatest advantages that the “Mission: Impossible” series has over franchises like “Transformers” or “Pirates of the Caribbean” is that all the supporting players are vivid and integral parts of each movie. While the change in ingénues made little difference in the “Transfomers” franchise, and Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom become more supporting players to Johnny Depp’s star turns, the “Mission: Impossible” movies have always relied on a team effort. After all, Hunt works with an IMF team, so the likes of Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Jean Reno, Paula Patton, and newbie Rebecca Ferguson have all registered spectacularly in the run. She’s particularly incredible in “Rogue Nation.” And watch how much more interesting Jeremy Renner has been in the past two “M: I” films than he has been in the two “Avengers” films so far. Here he’s a smart, yet cautious spy wonk. He’s brave in the field, yet still harried by the politics of the espionage world and more than a little in over his head. What does he do in the “Avengers” films? He shoots arrows and…? Heck, even the villains in “M: I” have shown Bond films how they should be done these days. Even the secondary ‘villains’ in the franchise like Henry Czerny, Laurence Fishburne and Alec Baldwin are better than most Bond baddies have played in the last two decades.
The reviews of the new “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” have been spectacular, with it pulling down a 92% fresh rating at RottonTomatoes.com. Paramount is so psyched they’re already planning on the sixth adventure. And with the run of five terrific films, there’s no reason to think this franchise from 60’s television couldn’t continue to flourish on the big screen for years to come. It’s done the impossible by making each outing into one that audiences worldwide simply cannot resist.