Mission: Impossible (1996)

(c) Paramount Pictures

Jim Phelps and his team of IMF agents are called in to shadow a government traitor who intends to steal the CIA’s NOC list—a file that will blow cover on every special agent currently on assignment. Phelps and his team have to catch the traitor in the act, follow him to his buyer, and apprehend both. Everything seems to go as planned until that moment when—you guessed it—everything starts to unravel. Pretty soon, the entire team, including Phelps, is dead. Point man Ethan Hunt is the only agent left alive, and he’s the CIA’s number one suspect.

Fans of the series had a right to complain. The Mission: Impossible films play in the same park with the Bourne series in that it bears almost no resemblance to its inspiration. Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible wants to be a great action film. You catch glimpses here and there of the film everyone probably had in mind. But the set-pieces and the suspense can’t prop up a story that only has a vague sense of where it needs to go—it just knows it needs to get somewhere.

We go to these movies to be surprised, and setting up all the puzzle pieces is not an enviable chore. Everything has to mesh together just right, or else everything will feel out of balance. Mission: Impossible feels out of balance. Brian DePalma brings a sure hand to the uneven proceedings. He’s very well-versed in style and excitement, and he brings most of his tricks to the table. Much of the movie even feels like a retread of his work on The Untouchables, minus any baseball bats or other similar instances of violence. It retains the low angle camera work, the first-person POV shots, even much of the same shot compositions. Both films even involve trains on some level, with The Untouchable‘s unforgettable train station shoot-out and M:I‘s not so unforgettable bullet train / helicopter pursuit.

Both films also retain the talents of gifted writers. The Untouchables was written by David Mamet—a force to be reckoned with whose talent is out of the question—and as much a part of that film’s success as DePalma.  M:I credits two writers. Going by the rules, we can infer, since their names are separated by the word “and” and not an ampersand, that Robert Towne delivered the final draft. Towne is no slouch, but let’s face it, M:I has almost nothing else in common with Chinatown.

Screenwriter David Koepp receives billing right alongside Towne, and Koepp’s fingerprints are all over this movie. It’s a fast-paced blur with a playful sense of humor that looks real good on camera, but feels just a little thin in all the places that really matter. Kind of like The Lost World, Panic Room, the original Spider-Man, War of the Worlds, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Not that I want to hammer Koepp too much—it’s not like I could fill his shoes. He’s a closer.  He works fast and writes well enough for people to want to put his words on film. His script for The Paper (an old Ron Howard flick) is an energetic jumping bean of comic writing. His adaptation of Secret Window blows Stephen King’s novella right off the page.

Too much of this film, however, is underdeveloped. The sensual tension between Ethan and Claire feels awkward. It’s like it’s assumed; none of it is earned and it comes out of nowhere. Claire, after all, is married to Phelps, and even their coupling feels out of place. There’s something about the image of Jon Voight and Emmanuel Beart that doesn’t jive. In the movies, a girl like that would be with Tom Cruise, not Voight. It’s like the script isn’t in on a joke the rest of us are supposed to get. Thing is, though, we don’t get it either.

It’s not like unattractive men never meet and marry attractive women, it just doesn’t happen a lot in the movies. Aside from those superficial comparisons, Phelps and Claire don’t even behave like they’re married. We get a few perfunctory acknowledgments that yes, these two are together, but aside from that, where’s the evidence? Where’s a husband’s kiss on his wife’s lips?

Then there’s Ethan’s efforts to get to the bottom of things, like the message board he uses to contact Max, the arms dealer. The internet was already a tangled knot of crap in 1996—how does he figure out how to contact Max so quickly?  The Bible verse, Job 3:14, isn’t just cryptic, it’s meaningless. There’s no discernible reason for Ethan to make the leap from thinking “Job 314” somehow refers to the Book of Job other than the fact that a Bible happens to be sitting on the shelf. That Bible, we learn, came from the Drake Hotel, where Phelps was supposedly cooling his heels on assignment before the events of this film. How that’s supposed to relate to anything else in this picture is just another dangling plot thread.

DePalma tries to overcome those short-comings, and in the moments when the script really knows what it’s doing, his direction brings it to dazzling life. The way we follow Ethan around the room of a diner in Prague as he starts to work out the first pieces of the movie’s puzzle is a thing of beauty. The vault break-in, though not as inspired as the train station shoot-out in The Untouchables, creates a gleeful knot of tension, and does deliver a few memorable visuals. After 16 years, though, the set looks more like something out of a MacGruber sketch.

Though it doesn’t resemble it’s television incarnation, M:I strikes out to find its own place in the pantheon of action/adventure franchises. The first film struck a tone that’s followed every film in the series—an uneven lack of plot propped up by eye-popping visuals. Sometimes, that combination’s a winner (just look at what Brad Bird did with Ghost Protocol—the fourth M:I film). The crux of this first adventure, however, can be boiled down to a single moment about a third of the way in. When Ethan first escapes capture, he leaps from a diner in glorious slow-mo as water cascades all around him.  He awkwardly stumbles a little on the landing before breaking into a run. The film trips over it’s feet the very same way, but at least scores points for effort.

Starring

Tom Cruise
Jon Voight
Emmanuelle Beart
Henry Czerny
Jean Reno
Ving Rhames

Screenplay by
David Koepp and Robert Towne

Directed by
Brian DePalma

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