John Serba is a film critic, unapologetic dad thrasher and writer of words. He's based in grand rapids, mi, but his mind occupies various pop cultural niches.

The auteurs of the ‘Mission: Impossible’ movies

The auteurs of the ‘Mission: Impossible’ movies

"Mission: Impossible - Fallout" (Photo courtesy David James/Paramount Pictures)

"Mission: Impossible - Fallout" (Photo courtesy David James/Paramount Pictures)

It’s safe to say the “Mission: Impossible” filmography boasts the most talented directorial roster of any franchise in history. Across six movies, five talented filmmakers exhibited distinctive styles while capturing Tom Cruise running, scampering, dashing, sprinting, or doing something extraordinarily stupid at absurd heights. Here’s a spotlight focusing on the directors, what they brought to the “M:I” franchise, and the other movies they made that you should have already seen by now.


Brian De Palma, ‘Mission: Impossible’ (1996)

De Palma is the most stylish of his early-’70s Hollywood Brat Pack director drinking buddies, who included Spielberg, Scorsese and Coppola. (Imagine being a fly on that wall.) His subtle creeper-fetish approach renders his overall work less commercially viable than his peers, and criminally, he’s never earned an Oscar nomination.

He films Tom Cruise running through the foggy, lamplit streets of Prague, and roots the suspense in the shadowy texture and atmosphere of his setting. That’s why the first “Mission: Impossible” stands out from the rest - it’s more of a classic De Palma thriller than a ripping action film. That doesn’t mean it’s less exciting. He directs the hell out of a frivolous, overly convoluted script, creating subtext wholly out of the fabric of style. His lurking zooms and canted angles reflect the surveillance and invasion necessary for spy work. And the Cruise-on-a-wire sequence is a masterpiece of tension, neatly tightroping comedy and suspense.

De Palma’s fingerprints are all over “M:I,” which is the franchise’s most visually distinctive. There isn’t a boring shot in the entire film.

Now watch these: Although the director enjoyed several hits, including “The Untouchables” (1987), “Carrie” (1976) and the Al Pacino scenery feast “Scarface” (1983), serious viewers should seek out the exceptional thrillers “Sisters” (1972), “Dressed to Kill” (1980) and, especially, the essential De Palma masterwork, “Blow Out” (1981), which weds style and theme like no other film in his oeuvre.


John Woo, ‘Mission: Impossible II’ (2000)

Woo is famous for choreographing extreme violence like great comic ballet. Woo began his career at Shaw Studios before directing his iconic Hong Kong “heroic bloodshed” films in the late ’80s and early ’90s, which cemented his reputation as the master of Gun Fu. Before long, he migrated to Hollywood, and helmed several middling-to-not-so-great action films, and is a somewhat typical example of how American commerce often takes precedence over idiosyncracy and substance. Speaking of which.

He films Tom Cruise running in slow motion through a fluttering flock of pigeons, amusingly ridiculous imagery that clashes with the overall angsty tone of “M:I II.” It’s by far the worst movie of the franchise. It’s tedious, shot like a romance novel, and rife with melodramatic exaggeration. It’s too heavy and somber for its own good. One of the defining characteristics of this series is making us believe absurd stunts are indeed feasible in the real world, but Woo isn’t having any of that. The climactic motorcycle chase and confrontation is phony, stylized within an inch of its life. The film features long stretches of no fun whatsoever, and there isn’t a single scene that Woo doesn’t dissuspensefully draw out into tedium.

Of course, the film opens with a signature sequence: Tom Cruise freeform scaling a cliff just for the hell of it. Woo’s dramatic, swooping helicopter shots are sights to behold. It’s all downhill from there.

Now watch these: Woo’s Jean-Claude Van Damme kickfest “Hard Target” (1993) is notable mostly historically, because it’s his first American film. His insane, audacious face-switching Nicolas Cage/John Travolta thriller “Face/Off” (1997) is probably the best of his rocky Hollywood tenure, because it’s so very, very stupid. But the true heart and soul of his filmography are his Chow Yun-Fat shoot-’em-ups “The Killer” (1989) and “Hard Boiled” (1992). They’re essential viewing for action mavens - and the perfect entry point to his Hong Kong work. (Notably, his upcoming directorial effort is an American remake of “The Killer,” starring Lupita Nyong’o. Call me intrigued.)


J.J. Abrams, ‘Mission: Impossible III’ (2006)

Abrams began his career as a screenwriter (“Regarding Henry,” “Armageddon”) and became a household name as a TV producer (he created “Lost,” “Felicity” and “Alias”) before venturing into film. “M:I III” was his first big-screen directorial effort, and his only job as a hired gun without producer credit. In the dozen years since, he became a Spielberg protege of sorts, wielding significant influence as a writer and director (“Star Trek,” “Star Wars”), and producing numerous film and TV franchises under his Bad Robot banner (“Cloverfield,” “Westworld”).  

He films Tom Cruise running faster than he’s likely ever run in a movie before or since. Abrams sort of rebooted the “M:I” franchise after Woo sucked the life out of it, adding an emotional component to the script via Ethan Hunt’s wife, played by Michelle Monahan. Her life was threatened by a wondrously menacing Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Hunt surely blasted through a dozen pair of Keds in the mad scamper to save her The director’s style is hyperkinetic, the film hacked up into a thousand pieces for a shredded pork sandwich action barbeque. It’s actually a thoroughly engrossing movie, frenetic and intense, the rare instance of effective shaky-cam use. It holds up well: the Keri Russell rescue sequence and the frenetic climax are strong, high-velocity sequences. Abrams’ style and influence made the series the pure-action enterprise it is today.

Now watch these: As if you haven’t seen it already, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015) is terrific, a true crowd pleaser, endlessly re-watchable (and he helped set the tone for the franchise’s more diverse cast of characters). “Star Trek” (2009) is a solid, crackling sci-fi extravaganza, as is the sequel, “Star Trek: Into Darkness” (2013), which ruffled purists’ feathers but is thoroughly entertaining for those of us outside that bubble. And don’t ever overlook “Super 8” (2011), a clever and nostalgic Spielberg homage to monsters and moviemaking that’s obviously close to his heart - and was the aesthetic predecessor for throwback stuff like “It” (2017) and Netflix hit series “Stranger Things.”


Brad Bird, ‘Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol’ (2011)

Bird is one of the most talented directors in Hollywood today. He blends heart, art and populism like few filmmakers, able to pen poignant scripts and choreograph technically brilliant action with apparent ease. He’s a veteran of the glory days of “The Simpsons” who graduated to another sacrosanct animation institution, Pixar, before excelling in the live-action arena with this very franchise.

He films Tom Cruise running away from a sandstorm, but unlike Jake Gyllenhaal running away from encroaching frost in “The Day After Tomorrow” or Mark Wahlberg running away from the wind in “The Happening,” the natural phenomenon catches up to him. Bird famously oversaw the most audacious “M:I” stunt, which tethered Cruise to the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, and made us all queasy and exhilarated. The cold-open prison break is clever and funny, and the climactic parking-garage sequence is crazy inventive. Ostensibly a comedy, “Ghost Protocol” is the most light and playful film in the series, and likely the best of the bunch.

Now watch these: Everything else Bird has directed. Yes, even “Tomorrowland” (2014), his lone artistic failure, albeit an ambitious one. Otherwise, “The Incredibles” (2004), “Incredibles 2” (2018) and “Ratatouille” (2007) are essential Pixar, but surely, you already know that. And “The Iron Giant” (1999) is a delightful ode to classic ’50s sci-fi, a box office disappointment that became a cult classic; to watch it is to love it.


Christopher McQuarrie, ‘Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation’ (2014) and ‘Mission: Impossible - Fallout’ (2018)

McQuarrie won a well-deserved Oscar as a screenwriter, for 1995’s brilliantly twisty “The Usual Suspects.” His career was subsequently bumpy: 2000 directorial debut “The Way of the Gun” was poorly received, and the director himself said it “lectured instead of entertained.” Eight years passed before a McQuarrie script saw the screen (“Valkyrie”), and four after that before he directed again (“Jack Reacher”). Both films were part of a creatively lucrative relationship with Tom Cruise that led him to the “M:I” franchise - and his 2018 triumph, “Fallout.”

He films Tom Cruise running to catch a plane in “Rogue Nation,” and then running up the wing and hanging on for dear life as it takes flight. It’s one of the heavily hyped crazy Cruise stunts, and it’s both funny and well-executed. Enjoyable as the film is, there’s a sense that it’s drafting a bit on the goodwill of its predecessor - the airplane bit feels like Burj Khalifa lite. McQuarrie’s best work is in the extraordinary Vienna opera-house sequence, where he sets up a trio of snipers for Ethan Hunt to thwart as Puccini’s “Turandot” is performed, and exhibits a Hitchcockian level of control. It’s riveting.

He then films Tom Cruise running and running and running across London rooftops in “Fallout,” surely the lengthiest Tom Cruise running sequence among many in the Tom Cruise filmography. He runs and runs and runs (and breaks his ankle) and runs some more. It’s a remarkable acknowledgment of the truth that Tom Cruise Running is a brilliant and lovable meme. Anyway, McQuarrie. Much has been made of Cruise’s injurious sprint and leap, and his scary 25,000-foot HALO jump. But the director orchestrates a Paris car-and-motorcycle chase sequence and a climactic helicopter pursuit - crosscut with other jaw-grindingly suspenseful developments - that stack up suspenseful elements like poker champs piling chips. It’s a rare thing to lose yourself so completely in on-screen action like this, so suspensefully conceived, coordinated and executed.

Now watch this: I already mentioned “Jack Reacher” (2012) - it’s terribly underrated, and criticized by wonks who don’t like that Cruise doesn’t fit the book character’s stature requirements. Get over it. McQuarrie’s script is a smart, clever neo-mythical potboiler making the most of his supporting cast (Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, David Oyelowo, WERNER HERZOG AS A VILLAIN WHO GNAWED HIS OWN FINGERTIPS OFF IN A SIBERIAN GULAG). He also flexes his action-director muscles with a chase putting Cruise at the wheel of a growling muscle car, and invokes Hitchcock (again) with the gripping and scary opening sequence, which assumes the point-of-view of a sniper targeting random passersby. Stop overlooking this, please.

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