‘Mission: Impossible’ is still the geekiest spy franchise

For almost three decades in the Mission: Impossible franchise, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has gone head to head in high-speed motorcycle battles, climbed Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, and hung from the side of a plane during takeoff. Oh, and he also died at one point (following an extended free dive into an underwater data bank). But in the latest film, Dead Reckoning Part 1, Ethan Hunt faces his toughest opponent yet: an omnipotent AI that could reshape geopolitics as we know it. After defying the laws of physics, it only makes sense that he has to defeat a god.

As ludicrous as that may sound, it also fits perfectly within the Mission: Impossible series, a universe where Ethan Hunt has been described as the “living manifestation of destiny,” and everyone is well aware that the “Impossible Mission Force” sounds like something pulled out of a comic book. At this point, it’s a franchise that exists for Tom Cruise and his collaborators — most recently, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie — to go wild with spy gadgets and death-defying stunt sequences. It’s made by spy movie geeks, for spy movie geeks.

That’s been true of the series from the start. The original TV show centered on grounded spy craft, albeit in a world where people could easily impersonate others with realistic face masks. Brian de Palma’s 1996 film was a throwback to paranoid ’70s spy thrillers, but it also made room for gadgets like glasses that wirelessly transmitted crystal clear video. And, of course, there’s the nail-bitingly tense infiltration of a CIA server room, a scene that infiltrated pop culture for years.

John Woo’s Mission: Impossible 2 is far less cerebral, but it also leans heavily into his operatic Hong Kong action style. It’s not a great movie, I’ll admit, but as a fan of Woo’s action films, I can’t help but be thrilled by the car chase meet cute, and the balletic finale which morphs from a motorcycle chase into a hand-to-hand fight on a beach.

Paramount Pictures and Skydance

After a slight hiatus, JJ Abrams rebooted the franchise in 2006 with Mission: Impossible 3, a film that built upon the spy shenanigans from his TV series, Alias. Since then, the franchise has been on a constant quest to one-up itself. 2011’s Ghost Protocol goes full on Buster Keaton with every set piece (director Brad Bird essentially turns Ethan Hunt into a character from The Incredibles), culminating in the scene where Cruise himself actually scaled the Burj Khalifa.

Arriving amid Daniel Craig’s James Bond run (which is filled with movies I either love or absolutely hate), and the end of the original Jason Bourne trilogy, Ghost Protocol felt like a throwback to everything that made the Mission: ImpossibleTV show so addictive. There’s a loyal and highly-skilled team, a nefarious villain and tons of gadgets on display. But crucially, things don’t always work out as Hunt and crew expect, which makes the franchise more relatable to all of us with failing gadgets. (Every time my iPhone crashes, I can’t help but be grateful I’m not climbing the Burj Khalifa with only a single high-tech gecko glove.)

With the arrival of Christopher McQuarrie, who directed 2015’s Rogue Nation and its sequels, Mission: Impossible found a groove that differentiated it from most other modern franchises. Almost like action film jazz, McQuarrie and Cruise frequently came up with ideas for set pieces and built movies around them. Scripts were reworked on the fly. Normally this would spell disaster, but McQuarrie ended up thriving in the chaos. Together with stunt coordinator Scott Eastwood, he also managed to push the series into astounding new practical set pieces (see: Ethan Hunt hanging out of a plane in Rogue Nation, or the extended skydiving sequence in Fallout).

Tom Cruise and Hayley Atwell in Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part 1

Paramount Pictures and Skydance

Dead Reckoning Part 1 builds on McQuarrie’s previous entries. This time, Hunt and a new companion (Hayley Atwell’s Grace) are chased through Rome’s narrow streets while driving a souped-up, tiny Fiat. He base-jumps off of a mountain using a motorcycle. He fights on a real train speeding along at 60MPH. All the while, he’s trying to stop the villainous AI, known only as The Entity.

On the face of it, Dead Reckoning , the latest show co-created by Damon Lindelof which also features a tough protagonist against an all-powerful AI. The film also dabbles in similar themes: Surely an omnipotent artificial intelligence would also inspire near-religious devotion. In Dead Reckoning, that’s embodied by Gabriel, the angelically named sociopath played by Esai Morales.

While the film rarely slows down to explore the true impact of AI, Hunt and his team — Simon Pegg’s Benji, Ving Rhames’ Luther — instantly grasp the larger implications. Whoever can control the AI could basically control the world — not merely through physical force, but by defining truth and reality itself. An AI could erase a person from surveillance footage, or turn them into someone else entirely. Nothing can be trusted. As we grapple with the impact of ChatGPT and generative AI in real life, it’s hard not to feel like we’re on a similar path. (It’s also funny to see in the midst of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, which are directly tied to complaints about studios taking advantage of creatives with AI.)

As much as I love other action film franchises – like John Wick’s increasingly elaborate choreography, or the sheer ridiculousness of the Fast and the Furious – Mission: Impossible remains uniquely enjoyable. It’s committed to delivering astonishing practical stunt work. It’s self-aware just enough to poke fun at itself. And a part of me hopes that somehow, a team of geeks can also fight back against the excesses of AI.

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