A lot has happened since 1996, that Memorial Day weekend when Brian De Palma’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE owned the world breaking whatever box office records were there to break at the time. I loved it, I’ll gladly admit and now years after its release, not to mention long after we’ve all developed somewhat ambivalent feelings towards the personality known as Tom Cruise as well, I wonder if there will be a film this summer that gives me the sort of pleasure this one did. I doubt it. I’m older, more jaded, no matter how much I try to keep an open mind about this sort of thing. Simply put, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was just what I wanted back then and in some ways it’s still what I want right now. It’s not that I was looking for a big screen version of the show. Some people might have been but I didn’t really care about that and while I’m aware the film pretty much tosses out the concept of the series that ran from 1966-73 in the first twenty minutes in favor of “The Adventures of Ethan Hunt”, which is basically what the series became I still don’t care, not when it’s Brian De Palma giving me a hit from this particular crack pipe that contains his own drug of cinema. And it is a mixture, yes. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is Brian De Palma being hired by others to deliver a Brian De Palma film, at least as much as one that the franchise and the very nature of a Tom Cruise star vehicle will allow. And that’s very much what it is, even if within certain boundaries. It may not be 100% pure, uncut De Palma but even that doesn’t always totally connect so MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE is a case of auteurship taking on the tentpole release date and coming out ahead as much as the system will allow, at least far as I’m concerned. Revisiting the film I think it’s just as enjoyable a piece of clockwork as it always was, with Brian De Palma using every ounce of his skill to deliver this collision of Hitchcock and Euro thriller in the guise of a big studio star vehicle. It gives me massive pleasure. It’s still what I want from a summer movie now, even if I don’t expect it anymore.
IMF agent Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) arrives in Prague to meet his team including wife Claire (Emmanuelle Béart) and point man Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) for a new assignment: stop the NOC List, the list that details all IMF agents and would give away their cover. But something goes very wrong and the entire team is all presumably killed by mysterious forces, leaving only Ethan who is on his own soon learning that the CIA in the form of Agent Kittridge (Henry Czerny) believes that, considering he’s alive, he’s the one who had the team taken out. Now disavowed and on the run, Ethan soon discovers that Claire is actually alive as well and soon makes contact with arms dealer Max (Vanessa Redgrave) to begin determining who is behind it all. Recruiting fellow disavowed agents Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Franz Krieger (Jean Reno) they determine their only course of action is to break into CIA headquarters themselves, steal the real NOC List for themselves and bring whoever the guilty party really is out into the open. But first, the small problem of actually breaking into CIA headquarters…
The opening scene of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE actually feels like a De Palma narrative in miniature—a deception, a disguise, a crucial piece of information that needs to be learned, a girl in immediate jeopardy, the possibility of guilt surrounding her fate. Much of what we see is in fact staged as we immediately learn so it’s all an illusion but of course it really isn’t since the girl in question really is in jeopardy. This almost feels like a metaphor for the director acknowledging that this is one step removed from his own world but not really since the game is the same only slightly askew his particular visual eye in the context of an established concept crossed with the type of star vehicle it needs to be. It could be pointed out that as a followup to the classic series MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE the motion picture (story by David Koepp and Steven Zaillian, screenplay by David Koepp and Robert Towne) wants to break down the status quo, destroy the old in favor of the new. I can’t say that this bothers me very much at all. Maybe I’m of the wrong generation to venerate this particular piece of pop culture but that’s just the way it is. And, as it should be, De Palma himself never seems bothered by it, his interest in whatever the old show represents not extending any further than the basics of the concept and what it represents in pop culture—espionage, the famous Lalo Schifrin theme, the main title sequence, “this message will self-destruct in…” and all that. Instead he looks at it as an outlet to plug in his own type of visual shell game as if to make the great Hitchcock 60s spy movie that never existed since all we ever got in reality was TOPAZ, after all.
Almost every moment seems a part of this design, every seemingly minor exchange turned into something pivotal as a streak of wit glides effortlessly through it all. Nothing is wasted--for the first time ever on this viewing I think I’ve spotted the placement of a certain character in a shot that recalls when Dennis Franz is first seen in BLOW OUT, but maybe I’m imagining things which for all I know is something the film would want anyway. De Palma’s visual design always brings clarity to the confusion, like in the triple jump cut out to Jon Voight on a bridge near the embassy or even in the inherent muddiness of Tom Cruise figuring out exactly what’s going on, working out the personal flashbacks in his own mind while describing something else entirely in great detail. The slipperiness of the plotting isn’t always perfect, as even I’ll admit, with the occasional shoe leather scene where De Palma can’t quite hide his disinterest in the exposition that may as well have “PERFUNCTORY” stamped on the frame and the rug-pulling-out nature of killing off the team in the first twenty minutes means that we miss the chance for a real Brian De Palma film with Kristin Scott Thomas in a lead role. The way De Palma films her through the fog as she walks to her fate is more hypnotic than gobs of dialogue about that damn NOC list could ever be, making me dream of a true Hitchcock film starring her and I wish there could be another twenty minutes of just this sort of delirium.
With the exception of the Bond film LICENCE TO KILL in ’89 the concept of a hero on the run from his own agency was still fairly fresh back in ’96. By now the very nature of questionable allegiances is old hat with the M:I sequels covering some of the same ground and the return of 24 on TV doing it once again with Jack Bauer spending about half the time at odds with whoever the official good guys are. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE seems to intentionally break this down, do away with the Nixon/Reagan-era colorless suits in favor of the Clinton-era loose cannons fighting for the American way while still going up against the old guard who want to keep the same wars going. It is very much a part of its era -- in the context of the time the midfilm introduction of Rhames and Reno played like Quentin Tarantino and Luc Besson were sending in a few of their guys to help out and some of the now dated technology in the film roots it in this time period, if some of it was ever even real or just designed specifically for the film, at one of those last moments when things like portable phones and internet access were still somewhat exotic.
De Palma always seems interested in exploring the possibilities of Tom Cruise both as actor and as screen presence, filming his head from as many different angles as humanly possible and then searching for more. Ethan Hunt is in his own space just as Tom Cruise seemingly is, continually bemused by others around him and choosing to trust them for reasons of his own, maybe via scent. Even the very nature of Tom Cruise’s personality makes him the perfect De Palma lead, with few other actors able to emote quite as well as those unending De Palma slow motion series of shots play out. On a purely visual level it’s also consistently intriguing to watch him placed against the women in this film with every single one, even bit players, always smartly dressed to provide not so much the simple concept of sex appeal but an undeniable feel of sensuality, even (no, especially) Vanessa Redgrave as Max. Those women lurk around the frame providing this effect, more than I imagine is apparent in the script, more than would be provided by any other director. Each of the male characters, meanwhile, are uniformly suspicious, often not even particularly competent at their jobs, none to be trusted while still not seeming like they contain secrets matching those women.
Scenes with Emmanuelle Béart’s Claire Phelps meant to play up any possible romance were filmed and at least one shot can even be glimpsed in the trailers but this is one case where keeping whatever’s going on that much more of a mystery is in the movie’s favor, the coveting thy neighbor’s wife that is spoken of that much more of a question—one track on the soundtrack album is titled “Love Theme?” which seems accurate—and one imagines De Palma demanding multiple rewrites of these sections containing less dialogue on each pass, just siphoning it down to puzzled glances. Before we move up onto the top of the train for action climax whatever’s going on between the three of them in the baggage car—jealousy, jealousy of who, jealousy of what, feels obscured. With the love scene now gone that absence becomes part of what the film is about as well, an intimacy just out of reach, not able to save the woman in question for real in the end. Ethan Hunt has to be an enigma just like each of these women are enigmas and his own feelings for Claire Phelps are forever hidden away—we don’t know exactly what they are, it barely feels like he knows what they are.
All of these pieces of the puzzle are present in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, even if buried within the subtext. But spending too much time on that ignores how purely enjoyable the film is even if it wasn’t there the film would still contain its dynamic visual style (credit to cinematographer Steven Burum along with De Palma). So much of it puts a gigantic grin on my face through the presentation of the opening embassy sequence, the restaurant seemingly floating in the middle of that Prague square, Ethan Hunt scrawling forever through those search groups in search of Job 3:14, the way Vanessa Redgrave gazes at him, the smugness of Henry Czerny, the way Jon Voight blurts out, “It was Kittridge” (or, for that matter, when anyone says the name “Kittridge”), to the endless silence of the now iconic break-in at Langley which plays as the De Palma take on RIFIFI/TOPKAPI, borrowing from legendary setpieces in two Jules Dassin films but making the conceit totally and forever his own. And the thrill of the high-speed train climax with presumably early CGI effects that are still phenomenal, totally real looking (maybe it’s the wind machines—either way, a similar bullet train sequence in 2013’s THE WOLVERINE doesn’t look half as convincing in comparison) and hugely thrilling. Ethan Hunt jumps from the bullet train to the helicopter and back again. Sure, that’s impossible. Hell, that’s the title of the film. If Brian De Palma doesn’t get me to believe the impossible that can only be possible in cinema, no one can. His direction clicks through the film from setpiece to setpiece as if a finely tuned piece of music, flowing just right, poking its head around the corner of the next plot turn as if trying to determine if it should go there just yet.
And going along with that feel is the off kilter nature of the Danny Elfman score which truly does turn the film into something other, jangly and alien, made all the more miraculous considering it was a late in the game replacement for a score by Alan Silvestri (who did score ERASER which was released a month later and features some odd plot similarities to this film) and more than is usually the case I can’t imagine what the film would be without it—plus there’s bongos. Bongos! With the classic main title theme placed judiciously (three times – beginning, middle, end) the music always adds to our paranoia, our insecurity, that anything could be hiding behind the next corner while, correct for De Palma, just the right twinkle in there building up to the climax where that score explodes once and for all. It may not be a work of pure De Palma cinema like DRESSED TO KILL but with the exception of Jan De Bont’s SPEED, I can’t think of another 90s summer blockbuster that gives me as much pure, unencumbered, love-of-cinema joy the way this film does. At the end Ethan Hunt gets his next assignment from yet another comely woman offering him the next chance. The illusion continues. Well, it didn’t in a way that came from Brian De Palma, but maybe we can always imagine those sequels.
I’m probably not the only person to notice how Tom Cruise was consistently working with strong directors back in those days, not so much now, and it added to his performances it added to whatever he was bringing to the role. It made him interesting, it made the films play like he was willing to toy with his image. He overdoes it at times in trying to seem ‘intense’ but so does Ethan Hunt and whatever rumored tensions were going on between him and De Palma onscreen he seems to totally give himself over to the approach (one minor misstep: the old age makeup early on which strangely makes him look more like Matthew Modine in old age makeup than Tom Cruise and you get the feeling they’re trying to cut around it as much as possible. It doesn’t bother me that much, though). Jon Voight plays the deadpan nature of Jim Phelps well and when he spits out his big speech later on, not about himself but only about himself, you can feel the anger building up that’s been seething long before the film began (dialoguewise, it’s the best moment of the film). Henry Czerny, playing basically a funnier version of his CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER role, nails the smarmy arrogance of Kittridge, giving the feeling that anything someone says to him, however trivial, is a massive inconvenience. Emmanuelle Béart’s enigmatic presence as Claire says more than any dialogue would ever need to and makes her that much more intriguing, although it still feels like something is lost when Kristin Scott Thomas exits. I’m still curious about what the prequel that gives her a larger role would be, just like how Emilio Estevez’s unbilled cameo feels like a goof as if he’s reprising a role from an unseen 80s version of the franchise. I’ll have to wonder.
1996 was a summer that also featured the likes of INDEPENDENCE DAY, ERASER, THE ROCK
(god help us all), KINGPIN and STRIPTEASE. Maybe not the greatest but not the worst either. My rose-colored glasses tell me that those were ok times and looking back on it now this film feels like a high-water mark (to lift from Hunter S. Thompson) for blockbuster filmmaking of the era before things became that much more corporatized, CGI overwhelmed things and the superheroes hit the scene. They still had the potential for fun, they could still be cool. The mid-nineties didn’t last. Nothing ever does although for all I know MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE sequels just might, whoever stars in them. But the cool vibe De Palma infused this film with stays with me, the images of this film stay with me, the flow of how certain shots go together along with the growing intensity of the score are undeniable. Through every frame of its cinematic delirium De Palma makes the film his own. He makes MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE his own. And, as far as I’m concerned, it’s what MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE always will be.