The Ethos of Mission: Impossible

~ essay on the Mission Impossible series


Mission: Impossible Fallout makes up the sixth entry in a film franchise which has endured for over 20 years. In my honest opinion, it is one of, if not the, best action film franchises ever. After the last three especially (Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation, and now Fallout), it has certainly solidified itself into the conversation. Each of the six wildly imaginative and varied installments has dispersed itself into a different era of films (1996, 2000, 2006, 2011, 2015, and now 2018). Each presents complex spy vs. spy plots full of diverse casts, with exceedingly insane stunts, twists, and stakes. And each of them was surrounded by the other ‘action movies’ of the day . The action movie: a type of film, perhaps more than any other genre, which seem to always fall in line with the currency of the trends available. These films all have their archetypes, their common components, their entertaining thrills and crucial mainlines of adrenaline-fueled action. Many of the films of this particular genre miss the mark and are forgettable, despite holding the appropriate traits. They are devoid of meaning behind the action, the action is underwhelming and senseless CGI foolishness, there’s no character worth giving a damn about, etc.

Mission: Impossible, carried by the consistently charismatic, and brazenly death-defying, performances of one Tom Cruise and the increasing inventiveness of the writer & director Christopher McQuarrie, exercises the traits of an action movie with unrestrained exactitude. It has its plan/formula/blueprint readily in hand, and composes itself for an orchestration, each time using new settings, intriguing players, and the authenticity of genuinely artistic stunt work. In the end, it always seems to come together and simply work as a thrilling and substantial action film experience. In this essay, I will try to lay out what makes up the extraordinary ethos of Ethan Hunt and his impossibly entertaining, continuous mission.
*queue the music*

High Art Action Set Pieces

I would hesitate to call Mission: Impossible a one-trick pony; but at the same time, it’s kind of in the name. That being said, when your one ‘trick’ happens to be incredibly dynamic and effective and is somehow is getting better over time — then no one can dispute your time and place to perform said trick. MI’s trick is “the set piece.”







Cinema exists for plenty of reasons, each of which is relatively different to different people. The well-choreographed, well-acted, well-timed action set piece taking place upon the big screen is perhaps one of the most championed reasons. The Infiltration, The Fight, The Chase, The Escape, The Heist, The Climb, The Jump, The Swim, etc. We know they are coming, we know who will win, and yet — we still look to these scenes with anticipation and revel in the motion on-screen. If the effects are practical, the stunts and visuals real enough, and the lead up well-designed  —  then the resulting culmination can make up some of the absolute best cinematic moments. The complex action sequence, involving all of its disparate elements and stages of progression coming together, can truly be a reflection of moviemaking prowess. It is high art.

MI, more than any action film or series, excels here.

The mastercrafted action set piece presents everything that we are capable of — as fictional super spies and as filmmakers alike — when we meld our physicality and our ingenuity with our places and our machines. They are also the intrinsic components of the MI films. Each film is a collection of such events, interspersed with maps and monologues, and wide shots of diverse international locales to explain why they need to be happening. Ethan and his rotating teams of fellow operators can assess the parameters of insertion into compounds designed exactly to prevent such things, and plan out the necessary countermeasures to give them the best chance for success, using all available technical and personnel resources. These plans are imaginatively designed around minute vulnerabilities in nearly invulnerable locales, and thus end up producing the necessarily fraught set pieces to drive the action. These are the baseline assumptions in the MI universe.

In these films, it seems integral that the ‘why’ of the mission remains simple; thus, allowing the how to become the focus of all of the interesting complexity. The impossible missions become evolving, engaging and artistically balanced around this complexity turning to simplicity — with the fundamental mechanism being whatever crazy guise or stunt Hunt is going to have to undergo to accomplish the mission.




The mission plan is often some form of: Infiltrate the place / grab the MacGuffin / fight/avoid the bad guy / exfiltrate in style.

Of course, nothing ever goes according to plan. The missions are proverbially ‘impossible’ because they have too many variables to reliably model for success. All the complex variables — i.e. everything that could go wrong — generate the chaos of in-the-moment randomness which introduces the requisite improvisational outcomes. And of course, this is where the action hero thrives. This is also where an important distinction comes into play in these films: the essence of the mission, the set piece, is not the plan — but the operator, the agent, the hero. Despite the weight of the amplifying forces of unpredictability at work during the missions — there is one constant driving against that chaos: Ethan Hunt.

These set piece sequences — of navigating chaos, improvising solutions to problems the original plan underestimated, taking life-or-death chances — are how the hero navigates the environment of the film and speaks the essence of their character to the audience. There is communication in the mechanisms of infiltration and exfiltration, and meaning within the explosions trailing that motorcycling hero or heroine. There are also quips, wisecracks, and one-liners to fill in the necessary gaps. Exposition is necessarily damned in an MI film, and rightfully so. The narrative takes place in the visuals and within the inexorable movement of the many chases into and out of danger for Ethan and crew.

~ “I won’t let you down.”
“I’m working on it.”
“No, no, no! Not when I’m this close!”
*Ethan putting the world at risk to save his friends* ~

MI makes this its core mission —to make the best possible set pieces, specifically for the hero— Ethan — to engage with. These films understand that the set piece is a cultivated interplay between action and actor. And each of the films are a collection of such scenes. For the creators, they can be extremely difficult and satisfying to design and film / For the viewer, they are incredibly easy to enjoy.

Ethan Hunt, “Gambler”

Ethan Hunt, point man, in more than one sense bears a striking resemblance to Tom Cruise. They are both oddly charismatic, agelessly energetic, and hyper-committed to their mission, willing to do anything to execute it — even if it means sacrificing much more of their time and their body than would reasonably be expected. Ethan’s persona of relentless fearlessness and moral charms drives the narrative of the collective MI plot. Every one of these missions matters deeply to Hunt. They are always dangerously personal and replete with no-win situations. And yet, through the events of each film, the audience sees there is no mission he cannot complete.

All of it coalesces in Fallout, when Ethan’s “flaw in his core being” —that of never leaving his friends behind— puts the world at risk. Hunt, in a reversal of what we come to expect from our cogently sociopathic super agents and the clandestine organizations which disavow them, goes out of his way to preserve a single life in the face of much grander consequences. Ethan seems to value friendship as much as he does his all-important job of protecting the free world. This tenacious moral sense informs Ethan’s decision making, and generally complicates the job more than would be necessary if he just committed to the aberrant behavior expected of the black ops agent.


At the same time, Tom Cruise, controversial mega-star, is the primary force behind the continued success of the Mission: Impossible franchise. It’s his creative direction, and his willingness to raise the stakes of what he is willing to put himself through, which drives the respect and attention of worldwide audiences to these films 20 years on. Cruise, in all of his work — but especially MI — aims to utterly electrify audiences to no foreseeable end. He purposefully pushes the limits on what we can and should be expecting from our performers for the sake of popcorn entertainment. The narrative and real-world stakes of each film continue to rise, as does box office performance and Cruise’s apparent agelessness. Similar to how Hunt knows impossible missions, Cruise knows big cinema.




At this point, it appears as though the entire Mission: Impossible franchise is simply a vehicle to send Ethan Hunt/Tom Cruise flying into the chaos of viscerally affecting, impractically practical stunt work. The production comes together each time as a well-oiled machine to present him with impeccably designed heist-chase maneuvering to pilot to thrilling ends. Each big caper is laden with weighty lead-ins chock full of overtly cynical descriptors on the sheer “impossibility” of the upcoming endeavor, and the death-defying feats it will involve (whether in the fiction, or out of it). Each film’s events disproves the title and the filmmakers move on to the escalation of the next film, which must top the previous one. And in a recursive sense, it works all the better because of this single-minded commitment. The formulaic telos of MI is to thrill; and the impossible mission exists in order to be Hunted down and destroyed.


{Question: If there’s an impossible mission, in a big-time international locale, and Ethan Hunt isn’t there, breaking it down and making it possible with <1 sec on the clock, then does it exist?}


Ethan Hunt is a “gambler.” This is what the Rogue Nation villain Solomon Lane, the mastermind behind the anti-IMF Syndicate, speaks into existence. “One day his luck will run out.” The first sentiment is true, Hunt is unquestionably a gambler. The second point is yet to be proven.

As we see throughout each of the films, the Impossible Mission Force’s operations are wildly imaginative and require much more than calculated risks. From the drop, scene one of the original film — Ethan Hunt has insane confidence. It is innate and integral to his character. He needs to have it because attempting the things he does requires a level of unrealism concerning courage.


Hunt is gambler by trade; despite his skill set and his masterminded plans well-equipping him and his team to win — he knows without a shadow of a doubt that the nature of his work always leaves the door wide open for a consummate devastation. Given the tasks at hand, no amount of carefully calculated planning can prevent such an outcome from being likely. He simply employs a force of will to win at all costs, and perhaps in spite of the odds, never even consider the possibility of defeat.


He knows, and we know, that the plans will inevitably be shot as the clock approaches zero. All that stands between victory and oblivion will be the improvised machinations of the hyper-determined gambler operating in the space between calculated and impetuous risk-taking. The mid-game outcome of the impossible mission calls for pure guile; it demands a hero equal to the nigh-impossible task of staring down the chaotic maw of life-death uncertainty with a wry smile, a one-liner, and an adrenaline-fueled stride right into it — every single time. Eventually, after seeing this guy in action, both the audience and the characters around him in the fiction, begin to understand the truth — Ethan Hunt is capable of doing just about anything.

In the end, it isn’t clear whether Ethan Hunt enjoys what he is doing; it seems to be more a matter of necessity. He’s gotta make this jump because he’s gotta make this jump. There is a sense of duty to it all, that of being an IMF point man and being put into positions where he must save the world, else no one else will. Regardless, his tendency to gamble, and to give everything he has to the mission, informs his entire character.


The Ethos of Exactitude

Outside of the high art set pieces, the grand production of the stunts, the strange pathos and parallels between Hunt and Cruise, there is something else within MI. I realized it while watching Fallout, ruminating on the series’ flagship moments: the close call. All the innumerable near-death, near-capture experiences of one Ethan Hunt construct a unique, narrative character for these films and the striking moments they have imbued into cinema. The MI series is all about the art of constructing satisfying close calls, expertly exhibiting what I would callthe ethos of exactitude.’


There is a certain unnameable yet undeniable feeling evoked in The Iconic Mission: Impossible Scene in the first film, and in its many cousins in all of the subsequent films. It is that satisfactory sight of seeing everything come together in perfect exactness for the unavailingly challenging task at hand. Such reactions and feelings are often evoked in heist films, in which the details of the plan are not known to the audience until you see them transpiring on screen. But MI’s brand of reveal includes these white-knuckled escapes in which there is always an imperative physicality imbued within them. There are somatic stakes for the audience to behold when Ethan has to run, jump, balance, catch himself and otherwise not die — as the cornerstone of the entire operation. This sense of exactitude is enhanced when everything is simultaneously on the razor’s edge of this particular kind of utterly mortal failure.



To a fault, every impossible mission in every film rests on an exquisitely thin margin of error — literal centimeters or milliseconds — dividing the line between Ethan and his team winning and losing, and Ethan living or dying. It raises the peril of every one of these sequences to a nearly unconscionable degree. As the audience comes up against them, there are genuine anxious thrills awaiting.




Now I do understand that every single action movie, every thriller, every horror film has these close calls. MI is different because there is clearly a painstaking level of attention paid to it; the close call(s) within the set piece is one of the most important components making up MI’s core DNA. The director and cinematographer are gratuitous in the meticulous crafting of the clock, the blade, the oncoming vehicle, the catch of the ledge. The filmmaker, and Ethan/Benji/Luther are self-aware — they damn well know how ridiculous it is that they keep getting by like this. There is fear in them because they know each mission can and probably should be the last.


Most importantly, six films in, the audience knows it is coming. And yet, it works. It is in part because of the timing. The ticking clocks are spread out and the big jump moments are built up, occurring within the flow of the action. It gets the adrenaline flowing because we know what’s at stake. Ethan, and the Impossible Mission Force, only has one shot, a one-off chance to ensure everything and everyone rises to the challenge of designing, executing, and ultimately improvising the mission parameters no matter the complication. They either figure it out on the fly or it all goes up in flames. Every mission is a showdown, every set piece a potential finale with everything on the line —because Ethan’s life is always on the line.


This exactitude, of character, story, and mission all coming together, is what makes each of the MI films so memorable.


Ultimately, I think the satisfyingly close “close call” and Mission: Impossible’s ethos of exactitude, becomes a visceral scrutiny of our own mortality. Or alternatively, the exactness of life and death. Although highly improbable, it is possible for one to have actually survived everything Ethan Hunt has survived thus far in the fiction of the films. There is wayward gratification in safely observing how dazzlingly close we can physically come to the edge of own mortality — without ever fully crossing that threshold. What makes for better escapist entertainment? ~