Mission: Impossible at 50 (ish)

"Hunt is the living manifestation of destiny, and he has made you his mission!"

-- Alec Baldwin as the CIA director in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

Tom Cruise owes Lucille Ball a great debt of gratitude. For that matter, so do we all. The legendary I Love Lucy star was also a pioneering female producer who, in early 1966, overruled most other Desilu Productions executives in order to go forward with the production of two risky, expensive new TV series with no established stars that had been picked up for the fall network line-ups. Their names? Star Trek and Mission: Impossible. Which of course turned out to be two of the media classics of the 1960s.

After winning two straight Emmy Awards as Best Dramatic Series, Mission: Impossible went on for another five seasons, then made a two-year network TV return in the late '80s before Cruise decided to revive it as a feature film franchise in 1996. It's proved the veteran movie superstar's most reliable hit material.

The trailer for Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation. Early tracking was unpromising, then the film exploded after a raft of terrific reviews (93% on Rottentomatoes.com) and high-impact old school ads.

This past weekend, lifted aloft in part by near unanimous outstanding reviews, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation launched as the fifth straight box office hit in the series. In some ways, MI 5 -- not to be confused with the great British spy series Spooks, known in the more politically correct US as MI-5 after the name of the British security service -- and Cruise are better than ever.

At 53, a rather perilous age for an action star, Cruise shows no sign of slowing down. If anything, he's doubled down on the spectacular and daring-looking personal stunts.

Of course, it helps that he is surrounded by a crackerjack ensemble cast.

Ace comic actor Simon Pegg, a Star Trek franchise player as Scottie -- and we're certainly counting on his screenplay for next year's 50th anniversary Trek movie -- is back as the tech whiz on the IMF team. This time the Brit is also an amusing field partner for Cruise's ace agent, team leader Ethan Hunt. And Oscar nominee Ving Rhames is back, providing a grounding presence as the only other fixture of all the films besides Cruise himself. He always has Hunt's back.

Oscar nominee and Avenger Jeremy Renner, who sparkled as an analyst with mysterious martial talents in the 2011 Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol smash, is back, too, this time often watching Hunt's back bureaucratically as the agent and the entire IMF program comes under fire from Alec Baldwin's bombastic CIA director.

Baldwin, the Oscar nominee and multi Emmy-winner, is a delight, too, simultaneously dramatic and comedic, as you might expect from his signature 30 Rock executive performances.

Sean Harris makes for a brilliant villain, someone who's also not quite who he appears, and is always a few steps ahead.

But I'm saving the best for last, for little-known Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson proves to be nothing less than a revelation as the enigmatic operative Ilsa Faust. Smart, mysterious, very adept at action, with palpable chemistry with Cruise, whose bacon she saves on more than one occasion even as her loyalties remain unclear, Ferguson proves just the right kind of mysterious Scandinavian beauty named Ilsa to come to Casablanca.

The original 1966 opening titles with the classic Lalo Schifrin theme.

Casablanca, wait, hold on ... Yes, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of, heh, The Usual Suspects, is having a little fun with the audience. It's that kind of movie, one in which Cruise and the other players let on subtly that it is a movie even as they work furiously to sell the verisimilitude of the moment, a moment that is not infrequently one of the most spectacular things you'll see in a summer movie.

You may have caught glimpses of Cruise's Ethan Hunt dangling from the side of an airplane taking off (a spectacular that, Bond-style, is dispensed with in the opening sequence), and maybe of Hunt in a daring no-helmet motorcycle chase scene, or a high-dive into a lengthy underwater sequence. But I'm most taken with a complex action sequence at, well, a Puccini opera in Vienna. There the film moves strongly from Bogart-Bergman allusion to Bond homage, reminding of a brilliant sequence at another Puccini opera staged in Austria during 2008's relatively unsung Quantum of Solace. (Both franchises owe a debt to Hitchcock and The Man Who Knew Too Much.)

Which only makes sense, since MI, in both its original television and revived film iterations, has always been intended as something of an American answer to Bond.

Like Star Trek's Gene Roddenberry, whose show lost out to MI for the Best Drama Emmy going on 50 years ago, MI creator Bruce Geller was a headstrong sort who'd worked on Have Gun - Will Travel and other Westerns. Geller, a Yalie, had been producing a little show called Rawhide, which launched the career of Clint Eastwood, when he had the idea for a spy series in the wake of '60s Bondmania.

Unlike such other shows as I Spy, The Man from UNCLE, and The Wild Wild West, Mission: Impossible would present a very contemporary, hyper-realistic prospect.

Geller declared Mission: Impossible to be an "homage to team work and good old Yankee ingenuity."

In contrast to Bond's lone wolf agent, which is actually something of a tradition in the history of British intelligence, MI, through its shadowy "Impossible Missions Force," threw a lavishly supplied team using advanced technology and D-Day level planning at its mostly Cold War-flavored "impossible missions."

The characters themselves remained mostly cipher-like while the tech, the elaborate planning, and the heist-like mind-frak sleight-of-hand and derring-do were foregrounded.

MI had a steady formula. The mission was laid out, its deniability by "the Secretary" (of what?) deemed explicit, the tape self-destructing, the team being selected and assembled, the plan being outlined ...

There was a formula for the team as well. There was team leader Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) on hand after Steven Hill left the show early on. The trickster, also a master of disguise, played by Emmy nominee Martin Landau and, after Landau left and Star Trek ended, Leonard Nimoy. The femme fatale, played by Emmy winner Barbara Bain and later, Emmy nominees Lesley Ann Warren and Lynda Day George. The tech whiz, played by Greg Morris. And the strong man, played by Peter Lupus.

The Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, and Michael Giacchino versions of Lalo Schifrin's fabulous Mission: Impossible theme for the Tom Cruise film franchise.

Geller lost control of his show and was out after three seasons. Some years later, only 47, he crashed his private plane near Santa Barbara and died in the '70s. But MI kept running for a total of seven seasons in its first incarnation, then was revived for two seasons in the late '80s with only Graves's Jim Phelps back.

The late '80s and the next two decades saw another search for an American answer to Bond.

Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan was brought to the big screen in the excellent The Hunt for Red October. Ironically, the young Alec Baldwin played tyro CIA analyst Ryan who gets caught up in a spectacular adventure at sea. Baldwin was letter perfect in the part, but gave it up, as I recall, to do a Broadway play. Harrison Ford stepped in for two excellent outings. He was terrific, but a little old for the part. The franchise drifted after he left and recently petered out.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Cameron teamed up for the high-octane True Lies, a big hit which begins with a direct homage to the classic opening of Goldfinger. Featuring the previously sparsely-dialogued Schwarzenegger as a suavely multi-lingual, tangoing, wise-cracking super-spy whose secret is that he is a devoted family man, the movie had sequel written all over it. But Cameron was committed to a movie about a boat that sank and Schwarzenegger had other projects.

By the time their schedules were in alignment for True Lies 2 -- Schwarzenegger has described the script to me, and it is spectacular -- 9/11 had happened and entertainment extravaganzas about Islamic terrorists were decidedly problematic. Then of course, Schwarzenegger was elected Governor of California, Cameron was -- and still is -- off on the Avatar films, and that was that.

On television, Kiefer Sutherland etched a grittily thrilling anti-hero as Jack Bauer on 24. Sutherland's Bauer was probably the best of the American cinematic spies and operatives, especially after 9/11. But the show's over-reliance on successful torture for information as a plot device in its hairpin, switchback, split-screen "real time" storytelling was a problem. Worse for a hoped-for film franchise was that 24 just became too popular and ultimately familiar in its long network run.

Ethan Hunt does a latter-day version of the venerable self-destruct tape scene in Moscow during 2011's Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

Matt Damon found a sweet spot with his revisionist Jason Bourne character, based on the ever breathless Robert Ludlum novels ("It was ... insane!") of decades past, in a triumphant trilogy: The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum.

The problem is there is a beginning and ending in this tale of the broken and denied amnesiac American assassin. A spin-off with the ubiquitous Jeremy Renner was less successful. Now Damon as another JB will be back next year.

It will probably work. Damon is terrific in the part. And anyone who doesn't think there is a mass audience for a film which is intrinsically about the excesses of the US intelligence and national security apparats must not pay much attention to the news.

But that's next year, a hit that hasn't happened yet. Right now, we have the fifth MI, and Tom Cruise as the winner on this particular Survivor island.

When Cruise and company relaunched MI as a film franchise 20 years ago, they updated it in very savvy ways. Ethan Hunt is not a political character, certainly not in the way that Jason Bourne is, but he carries some hard-won lessons with him.

Cruise, Oscar-winning writer Robert Towne (Chinatown), and director Brian De Palma delinked the MI concept from its previous fetishization of the notion of the invincible American plan. While plans not infrequently went askew in the TV series, they were borne out in the end after some clever adjustments.

In Ethan Hunt's world, plans shatter and are defeated, sometimes obliterated. Superiors often can't be relied on. They're inconstant, incompetent, or corrupt. New plans have to be devised and improvised on the run.

In 1996's Mission: Impossible, the Hunt team's painstakingly ingenious plan is lethally defeated at every turn, the appealing team members coldly murdered one by one. Hunt himself is marked as the chief suspect. The old formula is further imploded by making good old Jim Phelps (ironically played by lefty-turned-right-winger Jon Voight) the villain, driven by post-Cold War bitterness and greed.

These savvy moves created in essence a back pocket franchise for Cruise. He had become a superstar a decade earlier with Top Gun ('86), a great recruiting film for the Navy, innovative in its use of aerial footage. Once established at the top of the pyramid, he pursued a variety of films, generating three Oscar nominations as an actor in gritty drama (Born on the Fourth of July and Magnolia) and telling comedy (Jerry Maguire). But a franchise is a very good thing to have.

This one especially, and especially with it hitting on all its globe-trotting -- Belarus, Cuba, Virginia, Paris, Vienna, Casablanca, and London in the new film -- cylinders two decades after it began. Cruise brings his impressive mobility, daring, confidence, alertness, and desire to work with a strong ensemble to an enduring yet protean piece of Americana. MI 6 has already been announced.

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