Mission: Impossible. 1996. Directed by Brian De Palma. Screenplay by David Koepp & Robert Towne from a story by David Koepp/Steven Zaillian; based on the television series created by Bruce Geller.
Starring Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Béart, Henry Czerny, Jean Reno, Ving Rhames, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vanessa Redgrave, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, and Rolf Saxon. Paramount Pictures.
Rated PG. 110 minutes.
There are certain movies out of the 1990s I remember fondly because they’re titles I’d rent on the weekend and watch with my parents. They were always pretty good about letting me watch a lot of things, as long as my little sister wasn’t around, and depending on how crazy it was they would probably watch it with me. But even before that, when I lived with my grandparents – my grandfather was a member of Columbia House when it was in its prime and he’d get like 9 VHS tapes for such a low price. So their place was full of old movies on VHS; I saw tons of stuff I probably shouldn’t have seen at ages 7-8.
Mission: Impossible is one of those movies I remember seeing after it came out on video. My parents and I rented it, I remember enjoying it so much it was one of those films I’d watch over and over. Honestly, I think Brian De Palma did an excellent job directing this with a great deal of suspense and tension, plus there’s the fact I think it’s a pretty damn good adaptation from the original 1966 series. No doubt hardcore fans of the original television series might not enjoy it, however, I think they modernized it, updated things just well enough while keeping the spirit of the original to make it something interesting.
When Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) heads to Prague on another mission with his IMF team – including wife Claire (Emannuelle Béart) and top agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) among others – things begin as per usual. Unfortunately, there is an incredible failure during this new mission; a fatal failure. But no one is sure who did what to cause the chaos.
After he is left the sole survivor in a massacre which sees Phelps and Sarah Davies (Kristin Scott Thomas), among others, all die at the mysterious hands of an outsider, Ethan Hunt is accused of mutiny and the failure of their mission is pinned on him. With the help of Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Franz Krieger (Jean Reno), and even a shadowy arms dealer named Max (Vanessa Redgrave), Hunt goes underground, using everything and everyone at his disposal in order to uncover exactly what has been happening. Most importantly, he hopes to find out who laid waste to his colleagues from the IMF and why they hoped he would be framed.
Above all else, I think De Palma does well by crafting a genuine atmosphere of suspense because while there’s action here, it would come off like any other action film were there no such feeling to the movie. It follows along with the flow of the plot well. As we start, things are light and fun – the team feel in sync with one another, joking, laughing, generally acting as if being secret undercover agents in a dangerous high stakes type of game is no big deal. However, this quickly cuts from that lighthearted feel to one of tension. As the IMF team, one by one, are dispatched, the tension gets thicker. Even the way in which De Palma has the scenes go, the fog on the night air almost seems to intensify with the plot’s movement. Everything is shrouded, until finally it’s Ethan left; things clear off, he is the only one living, and then there are the police. This sets up how the next segments will feel, as we move into the heavy mystery of Mission: Impossible.
Something I’ve always loved about this movie is how there’s a ton of action, but it’s not a load of gunshots and muzzle flares and smashing objects, walls and other set-pieces filled with bullet holes. I find it’s all intense action while not having to resort to the typical gunplay with which so many other American action/crime/thriller movies seem to be obsessed. This is where that ever present air of suspense and tension helps.
While many films might’ve flubbed the scene where Ethan Hunt (Cruise) suspends himself down over the lasers, in that high tech security room from Thieves Hell, De Palma makes this so insanely tense you can almost feel Tom’s butthole clench just watching it. It’s great stuff because what could be so simple and visually unappealing at the hands of another director becomes the stuff of action movie legend under the guidance of Brian De Palma. He doesn’t have a perfect track record as a director – but honestly who in the hell does? Not even Kubrick for those typical film fans who say he’s perfect; he was amazing but not perfect – but I think De Palma is absolutely one of the greats of American cinema. No doubt in my mind about that. Here, he shows why he’s a master of the craft.
The entire sequence leading up to the ‘suspended above lasers’ moment is classic. Well filmed, nice pace, and the set they used for that is very cool. Always loved the way De Palma includes the shot showing a drop of perspiration slipping off a plastic cup, setting off the alarm in the laser protected room; such a perfect zoom in close on the cup as Ethan Hunt describes the security inside. Not sure why I particularly enjoy that little moment, but it’s always one that strikes me for whatever reason.
Ever the fan of Alfred Hitchcock, as so many are, De Palma has a magnificent shot a little over 30 minutes in which reminds me of the staircase in Vertigo (which is my personal favourite Hitchcock). I don’t know if that was intentional, or simply a wonderfully coincidental shot that came up from the use of that location, but either way it is awesome. A wonderful homage. The camera rotates opposite the staircase and it creates a neat effect. Disorienting slightly, in a good way.
One of my favourite scenes is when Ethan uses his explosive gum. The way it’s shot, the angles De Palma frames each one, there’s a good pace of suspense up until the explosion, then Hunt is gone again. Not a long scene, it’s just well executed. De Palma goes for a lot of interesting low angles and tight close-ups in those suspenseful moments. Another great example is when Ethan first meets Max (Redgrave) and they’re watching for a signal – something simple, once more, becomes impressive because of the precise, honed direction. Has all the earmarks of a fabulous thriller.
Though I do like a couple of the other Mission: Impossible films, it’s easy to see the distinction between this and every other one. I was even a huge fan of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, though, there is still no comparing it the original in this series of films. I mean, there’s such a genuine measure of tension built up throughout almost every scene, or every second one, that the movie never seems to let you go. Start to finish. From those opening bits, as the IMF team watch Ethan Hunt do his thing – mask and all – to the incredibly subtle, suspenseful moments as Ethan is being lowered into the ultra secure room at Langley a.k.a CIA Headquarters in Virginia; every important piece is shot in such a way that the maximum suspense comes out. Most of the franchise after the first movie seems to rely heavily on massive, epic-style set-pieces alongside fast paced action sequences and gunfire, as well as the odd explosion and demolition. I’m not saying that’s no good because with movies such as Mission: Impossible, you do come looking for a certain degree of explosive, big Hollywood budget type action movie stuff.
However, Brian De Palma gives us so much more. Almost each shot is deliberately framed which aids in setting the pace, and in turn the tension. Even in Ghost Protocol which I enjoyed to the fullest, there’s not the same type of tense atmosphere and tone created in any of the sequences, it’s mostly balls to the wall sort of filmmaking. Again, nothing wrong. Just different here. De Palma makes this more than another action flick, and more than a reboot of some old television series (something ALL too familiar now in 2015) – this is a genuine thriller, with mystery to boot, and there’s a bonafide sense of old school filmmaking from an old school director.
While my only complaint is mostly a bit of the acting (mainly Jon Voight who I find personally is either hit or big miss), I think the script itself is pretty solid. Lots of good twisty-turny corners and red herring-like activity going on, which fits perfectly with Brian De Palma who, as I mentioned, comes from the school of directors who pretty much worship Hitchcock. Overall, I’ve got to say this is a solid 4.5 out of 5 star film. A few things could’ve been improved on, but I think ultimately so much of this is pure excitement, thrill, and suspense/tension that it’s hard to deny how great of a film it is. Not to mention De Palma’s direction elevates this above all the general tripe we get calling itself action these days.
Naturally, there are some over-the-top elements absolutely. However, I think the way De Palma plays with everything, plus the fact the script knows exactly what it is and what it aims to do, really helps make it all so very worth it. Boasting an impressive performance by Tom Cruise, including his penchant for trying to do as much of his own stunt work as possible, Mission: Impossible is one of my all-time favourite action movies; it has everything from intensity to a drop of humour, and don’t forget there’s an expertly cultivated atmosphere at the hands of De Palma which would never have made it to the screen had this film been helmed by anyone else.