The Invisible Auteur: Authorship, style, star power, and the Mission Impossible franchise.
Before I begin, I want to take a moment to recognize what an odd, odd, series this is. What began as a modern-day repackaging of a 1960s TV series has turned into one of the most consistently successful (both financially and critically) action franchises in film history. Five directors, six films, one mega-star lead, over the course of 22 years - oh, and over 3 billion dollars (and counting) in box office. As a transmedia object - part adaptation, part reboot, and arguably part sequel, it's fascinating enough. What I find more interesting, however, is the questions it raises about film authorship, style, star power, and the somewhat elusive (for me) question of just who and what an auteur is in film. Along with an overview of the series, I hope to provide both the generally-accepted definitions for those terms, as well as my own argument for how this franchise challenges some of those definitions.
"Your mission, should you choose to accept it..."
The first Mission Impossible film, released in 1996, was both a sequel to, and reboot of, the TV series that ran from 1966-1973, and again from 1988-1990. The film began with an ensemble consisting of Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt, Emilio Estevez as Jack Harmon, Kristen Scott Thomas as Sarah Davies, Emmanuelle Beart as Claire Phelps, and Jon Voigt as team leader Jim Phelps (the only character carried over from the TV series). From virtually the start of the film, the filmmaker's signaled a break from the original series, killing off most of the team in order to focus squarely on Cruise's Ethan Hunt, on the run from the IMF (Impossible Missions Force). The later reveal of the villain behind everything would seemingly cement the reinvention of the franchise as a solo star vehicle, rather than the ensemble the TV series was conceived as. As simple a question as "Who decided on the change in direction?" gets at the larger questions I brought up earlier. Who is the author of the film(s)? Additionally, and relatedly, can these films be thought of as auteur filmmaking? Exercises in individual director's styles? Star-led vanity projects? Or are they something else? Let's start with the first question.
Theory One - the writer(s) as author
Sorry. Wrong franchise.
The first Mission Impossible film has a "Story By" credit for David Koepp and Steve Zaillian, and a screenplay credit for Koepp and Robert Towne. MI: II replaces Koepp with Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga with Towne returning for the screenplay. The third film swaps everyone out for Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and director J.J. Abrams. Ghost Protocol began with a mostly-unused script by Josh Applebaum and André Nemec, instead filming a series of action set-pieces and then bringing Christopher McQuarrie in to build a story around those. Interestingly, when McQuarrie took over the direction of the series for the next two films, he would take the same approach, working out the big set-pieces, then building the script after filming those. I think you can see why I would lean toward being opposed to this theory. The writers are there, at best, to somewhat plausibly create reasons to get characters from each bit of action to the next. That most of the time they manage to do so in ways that are entertaining, feel distinct, and even inform character is an impressive feat. That the bulk of the franchise has been done this way is even more so. Particularly as there's little to no continuity from one writer to the next. Which leads nicely into the next possibility.
Theory Two - the director as author/auteur
Let's jump back a little and first look at what an "auteur" is. The term itself comes from French film criticism in the 1940s. In the literal sense, it translates as simply "author," however there is a qualitative aspect to its usage. Directors as wide-ranging as Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Hayao Miyazaki have been labeled as such. The somewhat tautological definition is generally a filmmaker whose influence and vision over a film or films is so great that they become the author of the film. In a larger sense, film critics often look for common themes, stylistic techniques, and even collaborations between director and actor to distinguish auteurs from more mainstream or conventional directors. With its list of talented directors at the helm of the films, the MI franchise lent itself to such a theory - helped by the fact that the first two directors, Brian De Palma and John Woo, are commonly accepted as auteurs by those who subscribe to the theory. With the third film in the series, however, we see a shift away from established, veteran stylists helming the movies, replaced instead by relative newcomers - J.J. Abrams' first feature was MI: III, Ghost Protocol (MI: IV) was the first live-action feature from animated director Brad Bird, and Rogue Nation (MI: V) was directed by Chris McQuarrie, following two smaller films. The first two films definitely work as auteur vehicles, each displaying the themes and quirks of their directors - a paranoid/conspiracy tone for De Palma's initial outing, a binary "Good vs. Evil" battle with a woman at the center and the hero and villain as mirror images of each other for John Woo's sequel.
And birds. Lots of birds.
The third film is where this theory begins to fall apart. Not coincidentally, this is also where the franchise begins to reinvent itself, surrounding Ethan with a team of IMF agents on a mission and feeling more like the original TV series for the first time since the opening ten minutes of the first film. It's almost a reboot within the franchise, presenting an Ethan Hunt that's a bit more human, more vulnerable, and with some recognizable human emotions motivating the action. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is the film directed by J.J. Abrams, fresh off of Lost and Alias and coming from the world of television. It's effectively a pilot episode for the rest of the series. While Abrams' influence can still be felt in the series today, at this point in his career it would be a stretch to call him an auteur.
Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) made the leap to live-action with the fourth film, Ghost Protocol. This film largely solidifies what MI: III established, again setting up an ensemble, including Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, and Jeremy Renner, to take down the bad guys. Bird does a great job with the newly-established formula, including filming one of the most iconic sequences in the entire series, as Tom Cruise (and, yes, I mean Tom Cruise) clings to the outside of the Burj Khalifa - the tallest building in the world.
This isn't a shot from the film. Tom Cruise climbed up here and posed for this FOR FUN.
Ultimately, though, Bird is executing the formula without bringing much in the way of a particular style or exploring themes beyond "We're a team." The same, I would argue, is true of Christopher McQuarrie's two turns at directing the series - Rogue Nation and Fallout. They're hugely entertaining action films, with some fun character moments in both, but at this point the films have largely left the individualized style or voice of filmmaker's like DePalma and Woo (which formed a lot of the basis for the argument of this series as auteur-driven) long behind.
Cruise Control (c'mon, I had to)
And this is where things get a bit fuzzy. There is definitely a solid argument to be made that what these really are is a star-vehicle for Tom Cruise, the only actor outside of Ving Rhames to appear in every film, and unquestionably Ethan Hunt is the lead in the same way that James Bond or Jason Bourne are the respective leads of their series. And I think if we were just considering the first three films I'd completely agree with that viewpoint. Where I think we see a shift, both in the films and behind the scenes (and an important one) is Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Let's start with a look at some of the behind the scenes stuff.
During the filming of MI:GP the screenplay wasn't quite working, and McQuarrie was brought in at the urging of Tom Cruise (who also produces the films) after the two worked together on Bryan Singer's Valkyrie. McQuarrie, in an interview with the Minnesota Star-Tribune from 2012 states:
"On “Ghost Protocol” I came in on the middle of the shoot to do a rewrite of the screenplay, though they had already started the movie. I had to communicate with the entire staff to determine what I could and couldn’t change, what sets had been built or struck, what scenes I could or couldn’t reshoot. I learned so much about production being right there. When "Reacher” came along it was a walk in the park.
Q: What was your brief on the “Mission: Impossible” rewrite?
A: The script had these fantastic sequences in it but there was a mystery in it that was very complicated. What I did was about clarity. The mystery had to be made simpler. It’s like reaching into a sock and pulling it inside out. It’s still a sock, still all the same pieces, but all put together in a different order."
The working relationship between Cruise and McQuarrie would continue with Jack Reacher (2012), Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and The Mummy (2017). I would argue that this is similar to the director/actor relationship in auteur theory, with the roles reversed due to the combination of Cruise's star power AND role as a hands-on producer. At the same time, we begin to see the Ethan Hunt character becoming more clearly defined in seemingly contradictory ways. He's both more superhuman and more humanized simultaneously. In a way he becomes this sort of peak human figure, hyper-capable but without ever losing sight of the importance of the people around him. And, in fact, helping them to become the best versions of themselves, as well (see Hunt regularly convincing Rhames' Luther to set aside his luxurious lifestyle in order to save others, or dragging Simon Pegg's Benji out from behind his computer screen and into the field, and giving him the opportunity he's always dreamed of - to finally wear a mask and get in on the action).
By the end of a Mission Impossible film, regardless of where you started, you're either dead, or you've been swayed to believing in the inherent rightness of Ethan Hunt. And all you needed to do was believe in yourself and in him. It's like some kind of Church of Ethan-tology. Add in the signature death-defying stunts by Cruise as part of his signature style, and there you have it - Tom Cruise as the titular and title "Invisible Auteur" of the Mission Impossible franchise. Or, at least, my case for it.
"This article will self-destruct in five seconds..."
So, where do you come down on this argument? How many ways am I wrong? What WAS the Rabbit's Foot? Share your thoughts in the comments. Oh, and by way of a mini-mini review, go see Mission Impossible: Fallout. It's unbelievably fun, and gave rise to possibly my favorite gif of 2018, in which Henry Cavill cocks his fists, grows some stubble, AND instantly adds a pocket to his shirt - ALL IN ONE CONTINUOUS SHOT. It's amazing.
Worth every penny this cost Justice League.