In the summer of 1996, Paramount Pictures brought three TV shows that originated in the 1960s to the big screen: A Very Brady Sequel, Star Trek: First Contact, and Mission: Impossible. You might have despaired, had you considered this an omen of things to come from Tinsel Town. But Tom Cruise (a legitimate star) and director Brian De Palma (a true auteur) did right by Mission: Impossible, modernizing the property for a market all too used to spy movies and making one of the last great blockbusters.
The main reason Mission: Impossible works is it gives itself over to pure pop stylishness. Convoluted though the script by David Koepp (Carlito’s Way, Jurassic Park) and Robert Towne (Chinatown, Shampoo) is, its illogic is so far gone up its own butt that we come to see that all it’s doing is presenting us with linkages (i.e., MacGuffins) for a breathless series of set pieces meant to dazzle and intrigue. Over the years, I’ve seen this film many times. I understand the storyline, but it still makes little sense—and is irrelevant. Between each deftly orchestrated set piece, De Palma keeps things choogling. We enjoy the confident way he joins the rickety, overcomplicated plot at the seams, even if we’re unsure of our footing until the penultimate climax.
Cruise, who co-produced the movie and sought De Palma for his services, has never looked better. This movie was one of the smartest moves he could have made, after being in the business for about 13 years. There’s a boyish quality to him still, but he’s harder-edged than before, more dangerous. And hiring De Palma (who in 1987 had scored a hit with his other TV-to-big-screen adaptation, The Untouchables, and needed another smash) and allowing him to infuse his aesthetic was a shrewd decision. De Palma, a director who sometimes outdoes Alfred Hitchcock, gives the film a sheen and a playful sense of craft and excitement absent from the other entries in the franchise, save for Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible—Fallout (2018).
The movie opens with extended set piece #1 (the diplomatic reception in Prague). Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is part of an Impossible Missions Force (IMF) team led by Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) to keep a black-market arms dealer (Vanessa Redgrave) from seizing the “NOC list.” Should the list get out, it would expose the identity of every deep-cover IMF agent. But the mission is a bust. Only Hunt survives (or so we think). And this marks him, as a rendezvous with IMF chief Kittridge (Henry Czerny) makes clear: who else but Hunt could have engineered the ambush? Hunt escapes and goes rogue. Already this far into the story, it coils with setups within setups, with deluxe and compelling fakery (e.g., faces turn out to be believable latex masks). We understand nothing is what it appears to be, and that Hunt can trust no-one.
Now that it’s raised the stakes, the movie segues to extended set piece #2 (the break-in at CIA headquarters), where Hunt and a newly assembled crew of disavowed agents (Ving Rhames, Jean Reno) penetrate a sterile-looking computer vault that could have beamed in from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). For many viewers, this sequence is the movie’s standout, and for good reason. Cross-cutting between the crew as Hunt dexterously attempts to float into a room rigged up till Sunday with censors and alarms, De Palma carries the action in spades, allowing most of Hunt’s theft of the list to happen in near-total silence—an ode to the heist films of Jules Dassin (Rififi, Topkaki).
As the dominoes fall into place, De Palma has the putty he needs for the third and final, climactic set piece (the bullet train chase). After Hunt pursues the villain to the top of the TGV train, he tries to stop a helicopter from extracting the baddie in question. The sequence plays out with great special effects (courtesy of Industrial Light and Magic); and absurd as it no doubt is, it works because it’s of an elevated piece with the rest of the movie. As De Palma says in the De Palma (2016) documentary, most of the big, CG-choked action sequences nowadays are creatively D.O.A. because they’re pre-visualized. Filmmakers may farm these expensive bits out to a special effects team that stuffs them with the same tired clichés. De Palma, of course, is a director with a vision, storyboarding his sequences in advance. The chase gels because it bears his stamp—his wry humor but also his knack for building suspense, of how to drive the elements that make a scene into a satisfying whole. Hunt’s daredevil flight is the very definition of an impossible stunt. It caps a series of impossibilities in a film driven by uncertainty, double-crosses, and endless reversals. The movie is such a stylish breeze, though, that we emerge from it elated rather than winded, bored, or insulted.
As for the cadre of charismatic supporting actors that surrounds Cruise, none of them (aside from Redgrave [quirky and seductive], Rhames [tough and hip], and Voight at his steely-eyed best) get much to do. Emmanuelle Beart plays Phelps’ wife, but the movie wastes her. It’s a shame she couldn’t be more than just a female prop.
Watching Mission: Impossible now, though, I appreciate its confidence in two things. First, the faith it has to let its complicated, enemy-within plot turn in and out of itself with both whip-bang speed and a talky, more mid-paced feel is something almost no tent-pole summer movie today would have the guts or patience to exercise. (It’s all relative, of course; I look more for how pacing relates to what a movie tries to achieve.) Here, De Palma gives the viewer time to come down from the highs of each set piece before she steps into the next one. And, as Hunt, Cruise is great at letting us see him think. The movie is not as manic or overcooked as it might have felt to viewers when it first came out. Second, Cruise and co. let De Palma be De Palma within a polished action-movie format. Because of these choices, Mission: Impossible has a kind of grace. It winks, and it gamely defies us to trick out its plot maneuvers, without showing contempt for the audience or the material.
As anyone who’s followed De Palma’s career knows, the man has a history of making hired-gun films to get the influence needed to make his vanity projects (as befits his ‘one for them, one for me’ approach). Not only did Mission: Impossible pump fresh life into Cruise’s career, it gave De Palma’s a jolt as well. 25 years later, we can now regard the movie as the last time De Palma successfully took on a big-budget enterprise and ladled it with his signature brand of style, suspense, and humor.
Brian, we salute you.
Closing note: I have not seen the original TV series that aired from the late ‘60s to the early ‘70s; so, beyond a few choice nods (the theme music, the lit fuse motif, and the “Should you choose to accept it” and “This tape will self-destruct in 5 seconds” lines of dialogue), the movie and its characters exist for me within the framework of De Palma’s creation. For anyone uninitiated to the show, the movie can stand on its own merits.
The 25th Anniversary Collector’s Edition Blu-ray looks great. It comes with a car decal and a movie trailer gallery of the first six Mission: Impossible films. It also includes older bonus content, such as TV spots and interviews with Cruise and others.