Paramount's getting serious about the "Mission: Impossible" series.

It's about time.

Since the series was brought to the bigscreen in 1996, it has been focused entirely on Ethan Hunt, played by Tom Cruise.  He hasn't had a consistent team in place from film to film, and the stories have all been freestanding, with little or no continuity of any import.

The first film, directed by Brian De Palma, is a lot of fun, with some great De Palma style (i.e. borrowed and polished) set pieces and a subversive streak.  After all, the film made Jim Phelps, the hero of the original '60s series, the film's villain and then killed him off.  That's not the smartest move in terms of pleasing a fanbase, but it is pretty ballsy.

The second film, by John Woo, is a flat-out catastrophe, playing more like a Mad magazine version of a John Woo film than like the real thing.  I think this was pretty much the nadir of the Hollywood career of John Woo, and a shameless ripoff of Hitchcock's "Notorious" by Robert Towne, whose screenplay is the work of a once-great writer who genuinely couldn't care any less.

The third film, directed by JJ Abrams, was slick and fun and played with the idea of grounding Cruise with a team around him, and for the most part, the film worked.  Philip Seymour Hoffman made a radically different type of villain than in many films, and a very good one at that.  It didn't really set the genre on fire, but it didn't have to in order to redeem the series.  Really.  "M:I 2" is that bad.  

So where does that leave the series now?  According to a report published last night in Variety, the biggest move the studio is making is hiring Jeremy Renner.  Makes perfect sense on a couple of levels.  First, the actor is already signed to join the cast of "The Avengers" as Hawkeye, so why not make sure to shore up his credibility as an action lead in the meantime?  And the idea appears to be that Renner will be a co-lead with Cruise here, not a subordinate.  His character is going to be the guy that Paramount can hand the franchise to if they decide to write Cruise out after this.

It's equally interesting to hear that they're considering a title that doesn't even feature "Mission: Impossible" in it.  I'm not sure how that would work, since I don't think the general public remembers Ethan Hunt's name, and the only real hook to the series appears to be that title.  Still, you gotta give Paramount credit for a general willingness to shake things up.

How about this, Paramount?  Kill Ethan Hunt if you're ready to hand off the baton.  Make sure his death in "M:I 4" is outrageous.  Feel free.  Get some mileage out of the choice.  And please keep Simon Pegg around.

The thing is, whatever happens, I have faith that this could be the best of the bunch.  And that's not because of Tom Cruise.  And it's not because of Jeremy Renner.  And it's not because of screenwriters Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec.  It's not because JJ Abrams is still onboard producing through Bad Robot.  It's not because of the general flexibility of the "Mission: Impossible" idea.

Nope.  It's because of Brad Bird.

There are few directors I have blind faith in, but Brad Bird has earned it in only three feature films.  "The Iron Giant" is a great movie.  Amazing.  "The Incredibles" is a great movie.  Amazing.  "Ratatouille" is a great movie.  Amazing.  He's three for freakin' three.

And he's one of those guys who just has innate story sense.  And genre knowledge.  Look at "The Incredibles" through the eyes of a film lover with a fetish for spy movies.  The score, the sets, the overall design... it's less superhero than James Bond.

I'm excited to see Brad Bird working in live action, shooting in Dubai, Prague, Vancouver and the U.S.  I hope this is a monster hit so he gets some breathing room to develop a dream project or two.  For now, though, if there's going to be a "M:I 4," then I want it to be a guy like Brad Bird, who I think it unable to let himself make a bad movie.  I think he'll keep working at it, finessing it, considering his options, determined, until he cracks the problem.  He's just got that kind of brain.

And the "Mission: Impossible" series will no doubt be better for it.

"Mission: Impossible 4" probably won't be called that, but it will be released on Dec. 16, 2011.

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