I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Mission: Impossible

tn_m-iI don’t know about you guys, but I have found that it’s weird watching Brian DePalma’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE for the first time since the 1990s. Tom Cruise sure doesn’t look 52 now, but he does look a little younger here than he does now. I kinda forgot he used to be like this. More fidgety and cocky, kinda smarmy, playing it really different from in the other movies, because he’s newer. His Ethan Hunt is not the leader, he’s the apprentice of the original TV series hero Jim Phelps (now played by John Voight), forced to strike out on his own, without his mentor or his team, for the first time. Yeah, he seems much younger.

Holy shit, this movie is 19 years old. That’s almost 20 years old. Which is alot of years in my opinion. And alot has changed. I forgot how different this series got over time.

I think MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is unique among the summer blockbusters. It has a bunch of the usual qualities: it’s a big movie star vehicle, based on an existing “property,” climaxes in a noisy special effects-laden action spectacle, did end up becoming a franchise that’s still going today. At the same time it is a Brian DePalma movie, it doesn’t feel like he had to compromise anything. He got to take his style and his interests and experiment with them on a little larger canvas than usual. His gimmicky suspense sequences, twists and tricks are right at home with characters who elaborately deceive for a living. His POV shots put you right into the action when you enter a party as Hunt in disguise, but also they show up in the form of cameras actually worn by the agents to keep tabs on each other and, in one case, to mislead each other.

As in just about any DePalma picture there are several clever, suspenseful setpieces. One involves a great cross-section set so he can show what’s going on inside, outside and on top of an elevator in one shot. Also he brings in his love of impalement. One character gets quickly but graphically impaled on top of an elevator at the beginning, and Hunt’s neck ends up just barely not impaled on a helicopter turret at the end (much like the sundial scene in RAISING CAIN).

mp_m-iAlot of the greatness of DePalma is in suspense sequences that are almost like musical numbers in that they build to a crescendo and you feel like you oughta applaud when they’re over. The obvious standout here is the famous CIA computer break-in scene. I love the way he builds to it, with Hunt telling his team all about how ridiculous this security system is, then cut to them heading to CIA headquarters disguised as firemen to the tune of Lalo Schifrin’s great theme song (as covered by Danny Elfman). The plan turns out to involve a fake fire, poisoning, hacking, climbing through a vent, tricking a laser grid with mirrors and suspending from a wire without touching the ground. The room is so sensitive that a drop of sweat from Hunt’s forehead almost busts him. And of course it drips onto his glasses and dangles there forever like a half-tipped bucket of pig’s blood.

They have to do it in absolute silence, so the soundtrack gets so quiet you feel like you can’t breathe or swallow. It’s an idea he might’ve got from Jules Dassin’s RIFIFI, but the heist itself is more like Dassin’s more comedic one, TOPKAPI.

(Note: I wonder if maybe they shouldn’t have a waste bin in the CIA’s highest security vault. Seems like they wouldn’t want anybody throwing anything out from there. But I’m glad they had it there for that guy to puke in.)

Another big sequence is a battle on top of a high speed train going through the Chunnel. That doesn’t hold up as well since it looks very, very green screened (or probly blue screened). But it’s still really well done, with Hunt and his prey climbing across the train with magnets while getting blown all over the place.

Even more thrilling in my opinion are the stunts DePalma pulls with cinematic language. The best is the scene where (19 YEAR OLD SPOILER) Hunt discovers that Phelps is still alive and discusses with him what happened when his team got ambushed and killed. Based on what Phelps says, Hunt talks through each step of the attack, saying what he knows is what Phelps wants him to think happened, but meanwhile we see flashbacks of what actually happened – or really what Hunt is determining to have happened, since some of it we see different versions of as he considers the possibilities. Then, when Ethan asks why Phelps’ scapegoat Kittridge (the old timey looking Henry Czerny) would do something like that, Phelps offers a motive for him, of course transparently admitting what his own motives are. It’s a beautiful triple backflip of a reveal scene.

You know, despite the big helicopter explosion and the cool mask gimmick and everything this is also notable for many quiet and thoughtful moments. I was surprised by the scenes of him alone in the safe house quietly typing into a laptop, doing searches, finding contacts on Usenet! Very dated computer shit, of course, and not very realistic, but honestly not as exaggerated as computer shit in many movies. There’s not a bunch of crazy animations, and were there the usual beeping sounds? I don’t remember noticing any. And being the early days of internet prominence there’s an excuse for more close quarters hacking – stealing a zip disc, jamming the signal on a nearby laptop, stuff like that is pretty cool.

There had already been many ’90s movies based on old TV shows: THE ADDAMS FAMILY, THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, CAR 54 WHERE ARE YOU?, MAVERICK, THE FLINTSTONES, LASSIE, THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE, SGT. BILKO, FLIPPER. I guess this was more like THE FUGITIVE, a serious action-adventure type show attempting to be reborn as a modern, kinda respectable studio action movie.

I like that it’s not entirely a straight remake of the show, it’s also an extension of its concepts. Like, that famous tape that will self destruct, it always said that “the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions” if they’re caught or killed. Well, here’s what happens when he gets disavowed. And when he needs help to save himself from the agency, what does he do? He goes to a list of the disavowed. People with special skills, but a need for work, and possibly a chip on their shoulder against the agency. But also, possibly, not trustworthy.

Hunt represents a new generation of Impossible Mission Force agents. He often wears black t-shirts and leather jackets while Phelps, Kittridge and the agents trying to catch him wear suits and ties that could pass for the era of the original show. DePalma (with a script credited to David Koepp [I COME IN PEACE], Steven Zaillian [AMERICAN GANGSTER] and Robert Towne [TEQUILA SUNRISE], reportedly based on a draft by Gloria Katz & Willard Huyck [HOWARD THE DUCK]) doesn’t look fawningly at the cloak and dagger Cold War fun of the series; he takes the more ’90s approach of depicting blowback for their activities. Using the original show’s hero as the villain is not only a surprising plot twist, it’s a statement. Back then spy shit was fun and glamorous, now we’re more aware of the messes it causes, and the consequences of training people with deadly skills and then running out of things for them to do. The guy that was the hero back then is now willing to betray everyone because he’s not getting paid enough. Times are tough.

I remember hearing that people who grew up on the show were outraged by that twist, and I read that the cast of the show were pissed about it too. Apparently they tried to get Peter Graves to come back as Phelps, but he refused to do it because of the (what wrestling fans call a) heel turn. Being only slightly familiar with the show I didn’t get it back then. Now I can understand now why it would be upsetting, but of course I can also appreciate that DePalma wasn’t looking at it from this modern idea of giving the fans what they want and doing a faithful adaptation. He was looking at it as a way to use this story to say something about this world. And also to surprise you by doing the one thing you wouldn’t think they’d have the balls to do. In a standalone movie the old mentor would be pretty easy to guess as the mole, but when he’s supposed to be the star of the TV show? They’d never do that. Would they?

So that’s how it’s faithful to the show: in it’s willingness to really pull one over on you. You start out feeling like you’re watching your classic Mission: Impossible scenario. A team of experts going in in disguise to pull off an elaborate ruse. I particularly like the way one character pretends to be putting on perfume, but really is spraying the back of the mark’s head for heat vision so they don’t lose him in the crowd. It’s all going as expected and then, whoops, almost the entire team gets slaughtered. Now all bets are off.

Here’s one 1996 movie that holds up. Real solid entertainment by Palm-Palm, as I believe he prefers to be called, I read that somewhere I’m sure.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 19th, 2015 at 10:05 am and is filed under Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

30 Responses to “Mission: Impossible”

  1. For my money definitely one of the high points of the last twenty years of Blockbuster/Popcorn movies. I loved GHOST PROTOCOL and I’m looking forward to ROGUE NATION, but I can’t really imagine the series ever touching this (nor have they tried to make anything like it, I suppose to their credit)

    (For completeness sake I found M:I-2 a tough sit but kind of stylish with a few cool and/or memorable moments, and the third a totally watchable but very bland potboiler I have no desire to ever watch again)

  2. Vern, this is dead-on.

  3. Still pound for pound the best one in the franchise.

  4. There is still a lot to love in it, but for me, it lost a huge part of its entertainment value on repeated viewing, just because I know already who the mole is. The good stuff still works, but for me, this makes it only the 3rd best of the M:Is for me.

  5. Captain Aktion

    May 19th, 2015 at 1:33 pm

    Can’t believe you didn’t mention the Hunt/Kittridge restaurant confrontation. Classic DePalma head games that actually culminates into a genuinely bad-ass “action film moment”. For whatever reason, and there’s a few, that scene is the one that pops into my head immediately when I think of the film.

  6. caruso_stalker217

    May 19th, 2015 at 1:54 pm

    This and almost all of M:I 2 are the best of the series in my opinion.

  7. The Original Paul

    May 19th, 2015 at 2:40 pm

    You knew I’d comment on this one, right? This is easily in my personal top five blockbuster films of the nineties, and has a strong claim to be number one in my opinion.

    First off… this is probably the best the Cruiser has ever been. (Yes, better than MAGNOLIA. Better than RAIN MAN. That damn good.) I’ve watched this movie four or five times and I’m still seeing new stuff in it. For example…

    SPOILERS FOLLOW…

    …The bit with Jean Reno’s character in the air vent with the knife. I don’t think I picked up until the third viewing of this film that Cruise’s “Oh shit!” moment isn’t because the knife is falling, it’s because he recognises that it’s the exact same knife as the one that killed Kristen Scott Thomas’ character earlier on in the movie.

    END SPOILERS.

    Anyway, this is IMO close to being a masterpiece. A large part of that is Cruise’s performance – some of the stuff he does with his eyes is flat-out brilliant. He’s just a perfect personification of crazy intellect and observation, able to assess a room with two hundred people in it, and spot the spies and the threats in it at a single glance. Cruise just sells this with a terrifically subtle performance, a lot of it done with his eyes alone. He’s constantly watching, observing, assessing, and always ready to make whatever move he needs to make. This is the type of role that he does best (at least when he’s not playing a smarmy self-serving asshole like in EDGE OF TOMORROW or VANILLA SKY) – he’s not threatening because he intimidates, but rather because he blends in so damn well yet is so effortlessly and convincingly able. (He gave the same type of performance with a black-as-night twist in Michael Mann’s COLLATERAL. Not coincidentally MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, EDGE OF TOMORROW and COLLATERAL are all excellent films.)

    And the Kittridge / Hunt confrontation is another fantastic scene. In fact, the only bit of this movie that I don’t like is action scene at the end. It just feels so out-of-place in the movie, and like Vern I don’t think it’s particularly convincing or filmed particularly well. I do like the sense of speed, but it feels like a dumb action movie epilogue to one of the smartest blockbusters out there. Still, it doesn’t even come close to spoiling the movie.

    Man, I wish this movie had had sequels that showed even a little understanding of why it worked as well as it does. If Vern reviews them (well, I think he’s already done #3) then I’d go into more detail about my problems with them, but suffice to say… all of the stuff I just mentioned, and a lot of stuff I didn’t, regarding why MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE worked, the sequels completely ignore. I had really, really high hopes that this would be an all-time great movie franchise, but with #2 and #3 in the series… let’s just say that those hopes were pretty much dashed.

    That said, I’m happy I got one great MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie. It’s still among my all-time favorites.

  8. Brilliant, masterful DePalma film, he fired up all cylinders for this one. I love it when an auteur gets unleashed and given a Hollywood budget, like Woo with FACE/OFF and MI:2.

    I agree Paul, Cruise too was in top form, and I like the endings action set-piece through the tunnels a whole lot more than you did, despite the obvious green/blue-screenery. It was a great, borderline absurd piece of action, what with that almost hair-cut-by-helicopter-blade finale. Good use of music during that scene too. I like how the music stops for a prolonged moment when Cruise is (on the train I think?) in the tunnel, and then that awesome score kicks in and takes the movie up a notch.

  9. Just for the record, 1996 was also the year that gave us some of my favorite films – THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, BOUND, THE ISLAND OF DR MOREAU, FARGO, KINGPIN and last but not least ESCAPE FROM L.A. A good year in my books.

  10. Good point about the knife, Paul. I never thought of that. Even without that layer it was already a high point, a great punchline to that scene that it just sticks in the desk there.

  11. Terrific read. I remember this movie took a lot of knocks for being too tough to follow, and I think the criticism sunk in on future wannabe blockbusters. They’ve always been accessible by design, but here’s a movie about subterfuge that (appropriately enough) lets the audience be misled throughout, and trusts that getting the truth is going to be a special reward instead of a burn. Wonder how much of the grousing was due to that great scene cited where Cruise’s visualized thoughts don’t illustrate the story he’s simultaneously feeding the other character. Nowadays there’s a terror of losing any of the audience for any amount of time (and maybe then too – M:I made bucks, but the simpler Independence Day and Twister did much better.)

  12. Great review. I kind of want to see this again now.

    Also, I miss Usenet but it wasn’t too outdated in 1996. I remember still using it up to around 2002, although it got less and less useful.

  13. The Original Paul

    May 19th, 2015 at 7:30 pm

    Vern – thanks very much. The film is full of moments like that (rewatch the embassy party scene after seeing the restaurant conversation between Hunt and Kitteridge, for example) and it’s one of the many things that I think are so damn great about it.

    Inspector Li – good points regarding the critical response. I think, looking back, that AICN’s wholehearted embrace of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 3, and its collective dismissal of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, were what really made me give up on that site as a source of opinions that I could get on board with – their criteria is obviously far too different from my own. (Well, that and the comments section, although I don’t suppose you can blame the site authors for that.) I got the impression that all they wanted from MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was a feature-length TV episode. Which seems to me to be an awful, awful idea compared to what we actually got (and that’s coming from someone who watched the TV program as a child).

  14. Thanks Paul. Next time I pop it in, I’m going to be watching the knives in your honor.

  15. Paul: I am not sure I understand what you are saying vis-a-vis EDGE OF TOMORROW.

  16. The Original Paul

    May 20th, 2015 at 10:26 am

    Phillip – just that Tom Cruise has some specific character types that he seems to excel at playing. The two that really come to mind for me are the deadly ghost type (COLLATERAL / MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE) and the selfish manipulative character (EDGE OF TOMORROW, VANILLA SKY, possibly MAGNOLIA).

  17. Paul: My mistake. I was confused because I thought you were saying you disliked smarmy, asshole Tom Cruise, while then saying that, naturally, smarmy asshole Tom Cruise made for a good movie in EOT. Glad to hear that though, I might actually see EOT then.

  18. For me, the movie was kind of ruined because they clearly set up that some stupid bad guy is going to chew the explosive gum and have his head go all Scanners, but sadly this opportunity was completely missed.

  19. KaeptnKrautsalat

    May 21st, 2015 at 12:10 am

    You expected a head explosion in a PG-13 movie?

  20. LICENSE TO KILL had one. G.I. JOE had at least three!

  21. License to Kill is the equivalent of a R rating in the UK.

  22. Yeah, here in Norway too.

  23. The Original Paul

    May 21st, 2015 at 4:03 am

    Phillip – all I can say is that EDGE OF TOMORROW is my most-watched movie, by far, of last year. It’s excellent.

  24. KaeptnKrautsalat

    May 21st, 2015 at 4:31 am

    The uncut version of Licence to Kill is rated R, the PG-13 version is missing the head explosion.

    http://www.movie-censorship.com/report.php?ID=3129

  25. Paul Allen's Card

    May 21st, 2015 at 1:40 pm

    While the idea that the knife dropping from the vent is when Hunt recognizes it is pretty cool, I think Hunt gets his first look at Krieger’s knife when Krieger is about to stab a security guard who walks in on them changing out of their fireman uniforms (“Zero body count.” “We’ll see.”). One detail I love about the “Hunt pieces it together while keeping his poker face on for Phelps” scene is that when he flashes back to this moment, we see the same shot of Hunt pinning Krieger’s knifehand to the wall, but unlike the original shot Hunt LOOKS right at the knife and even gets this face of recognition. Like this is (was?) him actively piecing it together in his memories. It’s subtle, and really cool. Thank you Vern for singling out this scene, I’ve often used it myself to argue that M:I is awfully sophisticated for seems like a dumb summer movie on the surface.

  26. Yeah I like this one, but there’s three things I’d like to comment on
    1. The opening scene is weird. It feels like it was originally longer and more intricate, but they cut the beginning of it out for whatever reason, and as such we just come into this scene of a guy panicking about an apparently dead prostitute and here’s some guy trying to fix it for him, this guy being obviously Tom Cruise in makeup. Which leads me to
    2. The masks…they don’t really work, as the effects aren’t there yet to do the transition from one actor’s face to another, so instead it’s again, clearly Tom Cruise with a ridiculous false nose, or having “age” effects that look like he’s melting
    3. Not a criticism of the movie itself, more the series, but it’s kinda funny the first movie uses the “set up and disavowed” plot…which then gets used TWICE more in the series after that. MI: II is the only one where he just has a mission and is setting out to complete it, not clear his name. How many times can this happen to the same guy? The new one doesn’t seem to be doing that, but it does seem to possibly be another case of “Ethan and his team are on their own and can’t rely on backup from anyone”.

    What’s interesting when you back and rewatch it though is yeah, while Tom Cruise often plays slightly different iterations of the same guy, the Ethan we see in the beginning of the movie is miles separated from the one we have in later movies. Ethan when we meet him is somewhat cocky, and clearly is having a blast with his job, while 3 and 4 has him as the veteran who really takes it all so much more seriously and is aware of the dangers and the consequences of being an agent, and while they never refer back to the events of the first movie at all (besides faintly by having Luther around), it’s obvious it had a lasting effect on him.

  27. Oh and other personal thing to realise watching the epilogue is that I’ve been to the same pub Ethan is drinking in at the end.

  28. Seeing it in the theater back in 1996 remember thinking Vanessa Redgrave was hot for an old lady. The term “cougar” hadn’t been invented yet. Looking at her IMDB(which puts Mission:Impossible next to her on the search page) she was about the same age as her son-in-law Liam Neeson when he made the first TAKEN movie.

    Rewatching it I had forgotten about that poor train conductor at the end! Still a great laugh.

  29. The Original Paul

    May 22nd, 2015 at 3:10 pm

    Stu – the Ethan Hunt of the first movie is absolutely nothing like the Ethan Hunt of the later movies, I would agree.

    But that’s mainly because Hunt from MI:1 is, as I said above, pretty much a superhuman intelligence in a skilled everyman’s body. Hunt from the first movie was a stone-cold badass who would’ve beat the villains of MIs 2, 3 and 4 before breakfast.

    Hunt from the subsequent movies was an action-hero pretty-boy who spent the best part of MI:2 and 3 following his dick around like a schmuck. Like the majority of the characters in the first two sequels from what i remember (and yes, even MI:3 got a good performance from P S Hoffman; but holy shit, Davian’s plan was ridiculous, and his execution of it even worse), Hunt was a fucking moron. If he’d been the same guy from the first movie, he would’ve twigged who the traitor in MI:3 was while he was still at that party in the opening scene, incapacitated him, trussed him up in a secret room in the walls or something that he’d had prepared for just this type of occasion, and would’ve rejoined the party without anybody having noticed he’d been gone.

    But let us not desecrate this tribute to one of my favorite movies of all time with references to the serial bastardization of it that is its sequels, eh?

  30. Rewatched this recently for the first time since, well I don´t know when. Its the first time I´ve seen the film presented in the original format. I had the fullscreeen VHS copy. It stuns me how good this movie looks and the visual style that DePalma deploys here really works. Outside the dumb explosion ending, this is truly the best movie-adaptation of a TV-series I´ve seen. I´ve recently reacquainted myself with the series. It is more intelligent than the sequels, unfortuanatley but the movie actually surpasses the show by using the trap of expectations. It´s really cool to see how ballsy this movie is. Killing of the original team and let Phelps be the villain is actually clever.

    I think the best sequence in the film is the reveal which is presented as a mindgame between Hunt and Phelps. It´s really cinematic and gives the ol´villain speech in a really clever way. As they are discussing Kittridge as the mole, Phelps explains his possible motivations, but is actually talking about himself. At the same time Hunt is discussing Kittridge´s scheme, we are shown his thought process in how he figured out how Phelps got out of the mission.

    I liked this one a lot more now, than before.

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