MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT isn’t just a great action movie, but possibly one of the best action movies period. That statement might have previously applied to GHOST PROTOCOL but, against all odds, the franchise managed to top itself again. What’s even more absurd, however, is that MISSION IMPOSSIBLE pulled this off on its sixth entry, a feat practically unheard of in movie franchises. Usually, by the fifth or sixth entry, these series run out of original ideas and begin to feel like parodies of their former selves.

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MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT, Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Unlike PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, however, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE just gets better with each new release. How is this possible? On a surface level, the franchise recognizes and capitalizes on its central selling point: insane practical stunts and team dynamics. These two factors are the byproduct of an extensive tonal evolution built from the successes and failures of previous entries.

Does this template sound familiar? It should, because the FAST AND THE FURIOUS (FATF) franchise underwent a similar evolution during its midpoint as well. A series formally about underground street racing got tricked up into a heist/government ops/pseudo-superhero narrative with themes of ‘family.’ Eight movies later, and this absurd development somehow produced another primary staple of the action genre. Thus, the progression of both MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and FAST AND THE FURIOUS parallel one another to a tee.

Unremarkable Beginnings

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MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

In the beginning, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE was just another adaptation and FAST AND THE FURIOUS was “POINT BREAK with fast cars.” The former was definitely the stronger of the two, a suspense thriller that acted as an extension of the classic TV show. Thanks to Brian de Palma’s strong direction and Tom Cruise’s performance, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE holds up over twenty years later.

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Yet, if you asked anyone to remember what happened in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, odds are they’ll bring up the set pieces. The iconic wire heist scene and final fight on the train- those are what stick out the most. The “whodunit” mystery, by comparison, acts more like a framework to justify de Palma’s style than a compelling narrative. It’s good, but it doesn’t exactly stand out.

The original THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, by comparison, feels somewhat dated. Unlike the franchise’s current entries, action in the first movie is sparse and uninspired. Cars make linear runs from point A to point B and occasionally feature a dated CGI nitro speed boost. The closest it comes to evoking a FAST FIVE vibe is the third act armed truck robbery, but even that feels constrained by the film’s budget.

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Vin Diesel and Paul Walker in THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Oddly enough, it’s the character dynamics that stood out more in than the fast cars. Granted, Brian O’Connor and Dom Torretto’s relationship is a carbon copy of POINT BREAK’s bromance, but an earnest bromance nevertheless. These two characters, as well as Dom’s girlfriend Letty and sister Mia, are all established and given distinct personalities. Their interactions plant the seed of a core theme that this franchise would eventually build itself around.

The Dark Period

Following these first entries, both franchises released sequels that are often regarded as critical low points. For one, it was the John Woo-directed MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 2; for the other, it was 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS and TOKYO DRIFT. Despite their willingness to try something different, these three films strayed too far from the original product appeal. The character dynamics just seemed…. wrong.

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Tom Cruise in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 2, Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

In the case of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 2, the franchise tried way too hard to make Ethan Hunt a Bond clone. Gone was the inexperienced rookie trying to prove his worth to the IMF. In his place was a seemingly flawless womanizer whose character introduction involved climbing a mountain for no apparent reason. Despite the looming presence of Tom Cruise’s ego, Hunt’s character does very little to stand out in this movie.

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It didn’t help that the action scenes, while entertaining, felt extremely parody-like. It’s an ensemble of John Woo clichés- super slow-mo, double pistol shooting, sideways diving, and dove- with zero self-awareness. Furthermore, these scenes only occur after the one-hour mark, so it feels like the movie is making up for lost time. Ironically, these chaotically silly moments are the highlight of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 2’s plot, instead of the actual plot.

Likewise, both 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS and TOKYO DRIFT felt so different from the first film that they lacked a concise identity. Future team members like Roman, Tej, and Han felt more like character accessories than actual characters. Attempts to buck the formula, like Brian’s transfer to Miami or Sean Boswell’s introduction, failed to resonate with audiences. In another ironic twist, these two films, TOKYO DRIFT especially, were the ones that embraced the street-racing concept wholeheartedly.

Back on Track

In hindsight, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 3 and FAST AND FURIOUS were a return to form and an improvement for both franchises going forward. If you could strip these films down to a definitive improvement, it would be the stronger focus on the team dynamic. This made sense for FAST AND THE FURIOUS since Dom’s bond with his loved ones was a high point of the first film. Leaning into that bond would give the protagonist a stronger motivation for his criminal actions.

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Tom Cruise and Michelle Monaghan in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 3, Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

With MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, however, that dynamic proved more essential than anyone realized. Even with the third appearance by Ving Rhame, previous films tried too hard to make Ethan feel like a solo act. Here, he has a fiancé in Michelle Monoghan’s Julia and a future team member in Simon Pegg’s Benj. The character becomes more than a daredevil action hero and starts to develop a relationship with other characters.

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Not only do these strengthened bonds drive character motivations, but they also offer an extra dimension to the action. No longer is Ethan Hunt just trying to stop Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character because it’s his job. He’s doing it because his fiancé’s life is on the line. Similarly, Dom’s high-octane actions in FAST AND FURIOUS are part of a revenge scheme against those who murdered his partner. The fights, car chases and endless running now have enough pathos to make the protagonist’s choices empathetic.

High Octane High Point

It’s around MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL and FAST FIVE, however, that these franchises achieved overwhelming mainstream success. As sequels, standalone films and summer popcorn films, they are fantastic. But, more importantly, they established a definitive tonal template for each franchise to follow. This newfound reception, in turn, was the result of the films capitalizing on previously established themes and stunt work.

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FAST FIVE Cast, Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Interestingly enough, FAST AND THE FURIOUS finalized their team roster before MISSION IMPOSSIBLE. Previous side characters like Roman, Tej, Han, and Giselle (a pre-DC Gal Gadot) were reintroduced to pull off this heist. The introduction of Dwayne Johnson’s Luke Hobbs brought a charismatic foil (and later ally) to the team’s absurdist objectives. Yet the theme of “family” permeates each jacked up adrenaline-fueled fight and character decision, effectively grounding the silliness.

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It would be wrong to say teamwork was lacking in GHOST PROTOCOL. On the contrary, Hunt’s new team felt more definitive, with both Rhames and Pegg’s characters feeling more essential than before. Even the new additions, played by Jeremy Renner and Paula Patton, had something to do. With the film’s trademark gadgets constantly failing, the team had to rely on one another for their mission to succeed. In other words, Tom Cruise couldn’t stop the threat alone.

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MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL, Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

But what stood out to audiences was just how bold and insane the action scenes were, even by action movie standards. Not only were these stunts completely practical, but they also emphasized the adrenaline-fueled insanity that viewers desired. That WAS Tom Cruise climbing up the actual Burj Khalifa. Those cars ARE dragging a four-ton vault across the road. And it’s all filmed in a comprehensible manner without blinding quick cuts or shaky cam.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE’s Non-Stop Future

Since those two films released in 2011, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and FATF’s templates have remained mostly unchanged. Watching Tom Cruise push himself throughout ROGUE NATION and FALLOUT remains breathtaking because you just know he’ll find a way to top his last stunt.

This includes holding onto a plane while it’s taking off and jumping out of another plane from the stratosphere. Similarly, FATF takes its car stunts to the point of ridiculousness, parachuting vehicles midair and making them outrace a submarine on literal thin ice.

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THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS, Courtesy of Universal Pictures

That being said, the franchises are hardly copycats of one another. MISSION IMPOSSIBLE only uses sci-fi gadgetry, most notably the facemask machine, when absolutely necessary. It’s characters feel human for the most part, with the exception of Tom Cruise’s insane daredevil decisions. FATF, by comparison, currently resembles a campy hyper-masculine 80’s cartoon with a heart. The recent movies alone include Kurt Russell as a mysterious government benefactor, Charlize Theron as a super-hacker, and Jason Statham fighting the Rock. None of these characters possess the complexity of MI’s Ilsa Faust, but they work on their own absurdist level.

Because when you examine the legacies of these two franchises, they really feel cut from the same cloth. Each started with a mixed reception, then had a rough patch, only to improve their style to a point of unshaken self-confidence. And now this emphasis on teamwork, family and insane practical stunts has crafted two of the best modern action franchises. Both of which can boast this title on their sixth and eighth entry.

Now if only these franchises would consider crossing over with each other.

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