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The Greatest Action Franchise of the Last 20 Years Doesn’t Contain Comic Book Heroes, Killer Robots or Tricked-Out Honda Civics

By Brian Byrd | Think Pieces | July 30, 2015 | Comments ()

By Brian Byrd | Think Pieces | July 30, 2015 |


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Entertainment culture isn’t kind to film franchises. Many consumers reflexively view them as sad attempts to recapture faded glory by creatively bankrupt studios more interested in setting up ancillary revenue streams than delivering products audiences actually want to consume. This isn’t an entirely unfair characterization. If something worked once, Hollywood logic dictates, why won’t it work six more times in nine years with three different actors in the lead role? For franchises, quality is too often a bonus, the toaster given away by your local bank after you’ve promised to let them hold your money for the next 30 years. Will this create recurring revenue for the next 10 years? airholed Is this any good? in a dark alley decades ago. Moviegoers will flock to Mockingjay: Part 2 even though Part 1 felt like two-hour webisode. Deride the upcoming Transformers Cinematic Universe all you want. It’ll gobble up all the yuan in China — and probably be hungry again in an hour — regardless of Metacritic scores.

Hollywood has never been a meritocracy. But there was at least logic to the franchise process 30 years ago. If a film proved critically and commercially successful and the story lent itself to continuation, studios might commission a follow-up. Repeat until audiences tire or actors move on. Few franchises still follow linear pathways. A straightforward sequel to a breakout hit is practically quaint today. Studios don’t announce sequels anymore. They unveil worlds. Franchises have become amorphous blobs of interconnected spinoffs and phases and shared universes spreading in all directions like spilled merlot. Try creating a flow chart for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Or don’t, because you’ll become a disheveled mess in three-day-old underwear with nothing to show for your efforts but a filthy beard and empty McNugget boxes.
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In an era where excellence is measured in global grosses and a treatment won’t make Variety unless Chris Pratt is being considered for the reboot and all nine sequels, the Mission: Impossible franchise is a goddamn legitimate cinematic miracle. The Tom Cruise vehicle consistently delivers fantastic entertainment and spectacular box office returns (the first four films earned $2.6 billion worldwide in 2014 dollars) the classic way — through smart storytelling, inhuman stuntwork, top-notch directorial choices, and an ageless star who treats each entry like it’s the break he needs to finally become a true A-lister. It’s the best action franchise of the last 20 years, bar none. And yes, that includes the Furious films. Check your hate for MI: II at the door. Bitch had fire doves. Granted, not pausing the ballyhooed motorcycle scene in midair for Cruise to look at the camera and say “This mission just got a hell of a lot more…impossible,” is a missed opportunity, but director John Woo famously refused to make the change.

Rogue Nation, the fifth installment in a franchise spanning three decades, opens Friday, and advance reviews indicate Ethan Hunt’s newest adventure is every bit as well-crafted and enjoyable as the previous four entries (here’s TK’s glowing review). This is both astonishing and perfectly in line with expectations.

In a vacuum, Rogue Nation should be the death rattle for a franchise operating well past its sell-by date. Its star is 53 years old. Spandex-adorned heroes from our childhood don’t show up to throw alien warlords through skyscrapers. Mattel isn’t scrambling to make enough Luther Stickell toys to meet demand. There’s no post-credit scene introducing a Simon Pegg-led spinoff. Mission: Impossible borrows little from the modern franchise survival guide; it hedges no bets by including scenes designed solely for foreign audiences. Yet Rogue Nation is still tracking toward a $65 million domestic debut and $700 million final worldwide tally…which is right about in line with each film’s $650 million average gross when adjusted for inflation.

How the hell is this possible? Aging action franchises aren’t exactly box office crack at the moment. The latest offerings in the iconic Die Hard and Terminator series flopped with audiences and accountants, meaning it will be at least a whole year before a studio presses the reset button. But those films failed because they uninventively rehashed their pasts. The Mission: Impossible movies flourish by inserting intellect and modern conventions — as in James Bond films, cutting-edge gadgetry is practically a supporting character — into old-school world-spanning espionage tales: find a MacGuffin, capture an arms dealer, pull the IMF out of a frame.

Infiltration, deception, intelligence win in this world. Brute force is a last resort. Hunt would rather access a room by scaling the world’s tallest building during a sandstorm than shoot his way through armed mercenaries. He and his team can throw down if needed, but they prefer to outfox their opponents. Sure, there are action-heavy setpieces. By god, there are beautiful, boner-inducing setpieces. But they serve the story rather than overshadow it. Descending from the ceiling is the only way to access a vault. Sliding down a skyscraper is the only way into a hotel. Hanging off a plane is…well, Benji really shit the bed on that one, to be honest. Action with a purpose other than action seems like an abstract, inconsequential differentiator. But compare any Mission: Impossible film to any Terminator movie released after George Bush — George Herbert Walker Bush — left 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and you’ll see the separation. Taking pride in details pays big dividends.
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It’s, um, impossible difficult to overstate Cruise’s importance to the franchise. He chose Mission: Impossible for his production company’s first project and almost singlehandedly convinced Paramount to authorize a $70 million budget. The showpiece fish tank scene from the original? Cruise’s brainchild. When director Brian de Palma couldn’t find a railroad official on two continents willing to let him shoot the film’s climactic showdown on their trains, Cruise took a group of rail owners out for dinner. De Palma had his permissions — and his trains — the next morning. Cruise’s stuntwork and improvisation — de Palma began pre-production without a script — were instrumental in Mission: Impossible becoming the third highest-grossing movie of 1996 (it earned $682 million in today’s dollars).

With a sequel assured, most stars would simply negotiate for a higher rate and post up by the craft services table until called. Cruise behaved like a rookie fighting for his place on the 53-man roster. When Paramount voiced concern about the world’s most famous actor performing a rectum-puckering free climb in Utah to open Mission: Impossible II, Cruise refused to consider an alternative because he couldn’t justify a better way to reintroduce Hunt. You don’t have to stretch the imagination much to envision Cruise, pacing a boardroom filled with men in $15,000 suits, passionately insisting that the only possible activity this top IMF agent would realistically be doing when we check in on him is scaling cliffs without safety equipment. “We HAVE to get him on these rocks, guys! The ENTIRE FILM depends on this moment.” The scene stayed.
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After David Fincher and then Joe Carnahan dropped out of helming Mission: Impossible III, Cruise personally offered the gig to a relatively unknown director with no feature-film experience, then took a hefty eight-figure pay cut to ensure Paramount’s bean counters greenlit the production. Once again his instincts proved prescient. MI: III earned $397 million worldwide on a $150 million budget. And that rookie director Cruise handpicked to take over? He ended up carving out a successful career directing indie films like Star Trek and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Beyond all the background work, the man commits fully to his role. He is Ethan Hunt — charming, resourceful, calculating, loyal. His genuine intensity and unrelenting enthusiasm is evident in every scene. Cruise isn’t exactly Atlas — heavyweights like de Palma, Woo, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird and Christopher McQuarrie all had their ass in director’s chair — but replace him with any other actor on the planet, breathing or buried, and these films are half as entertaining and a third less profitable.

We take exceptional franchises like Mission: Impossible for granted, underestimate the skill required to maintain such a high bar in perpetuity. Even the Fast & Furious franchise, which brilliantly reinvigorated itself by shifting its focus away from a fading street racing culture to pure 80s-style action, actually released an installment where Lucas Black raced drift cars through Godzilla’s hometown. Most films, especially tentpoles, aren’t allowed to be both compelling and profitable. Not consistently. Not for 20 years. To achieve both over such a long period of time seems, if not impossible, about as difficult a mission to accomplish as exists in modern cinema.


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