Mission: Impossible (1996)

D: Brian De Palma
S: Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Beart, Ving Rhames

Bruce Geller's sixties spy series was distinguished by its low-key seriousness. It handled outrageous implausibilities with a totally straight face and treated its fetishistic gadgetry as run-of-the-mill details in the lives of its super secret agents. Brian De Palma has never made a subdued film in his life, from the days of low-budget experimentation (Greetings, Hi Mom!) through the operatic stylings of his Hitchcock homages (Dressed to Kill, Body Double, Obsession) to the baroque overstatement of Scarface, The Untochables, Bonfire of the Vanities and Raising Cain. On the face of it, Mission: Impossible seemed like a match made in hell.

But despite some slow moments and a plot that takes a bit of effort, De Palma has crafted one of the few genuinely enjoyable self-reflexive movies made in the postmodern age, balancing sheer high-octane hysteria with taut, controlled direction. There are more than enough happy adrenaline rushes packed into this relatively short action blockbuster to make it work, and, aided by Danny Elfman's ear-splitting rendition of Lalo Schifrin's unforgettable theme music, every time it seems about to cross the line to sheer stupidity, it snaps back and reminds you of the sheer pleasure of viewing well-orchestrated mayhem with a tongue planted firmly, but not condescendingly, in its cheek.

The plot involves the efforts of IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) to extricate himself from a web of lies and corruption which has him framed for the murder of his own deep cover team. Who is trying to get him and why? Will he survive long enough to find out, with both U.S. Government agents and the henchmen of an international arms dealer hot in his trail? A list of heavy-hitting script and story developers and writers including Robert Towne, Steven Zaillian and David Koepp fail utterly to make any of this very much more than whodunnit finger-pointing with lots of oh gosh! twists and revelations. But thankfully, De Palma has never really relied too heavily on the vagaries of screenplays, preferring instead to find the core of the story and then twist it until the visual world becomes a disorienting labyrinth of fantasy and reality which he can manipulate at will, pulling the rug out from under his audience at the slightest opportunity when he senses things have gotten too quiet.

In his hands, Mission: Impossible dances around its implausible plot with the eagerness of a playful kitten, occasionally leaping to scratch just when it seems about to roll over on its back and allow you to rub its belly. He delights in killing off several of the major cast members just when we are getting to know them (including an uncredited Emilio Estevez), in having characters say one thing and see another, in tilting the camera just so the dutch angles make conflicts between characters into visceral visual oppositions, bringing the plot into and out of focus depending on the need of the film's disconcerting momentum. He adds to this three terrific set pieces which raise a genuine sweat (one even plays with sweat itself) and constrain a wry smile, injecting just the right aural note from Elfman and Schifrin just when needed. The result is very much a good time for those able to sit back and let it work, but quick enough to spot that you don't have to worry too much when the dialogue gets hot and heavy about morality and motivation.

It looks beautiful, shot in exotic European locations by director of photography Steven H. Burum, features a good cast (though Jon Voight looks a little bit too stiff), boasts typically excellent pyrotechnics and special effects by ILM and generates a handsome, hypnotic on screen world for De Palma to go nuts in. Co-produced by star Cruise, this movie represents a positive contribution to the Hollywood hit list, even though it is easily dismissed as big-budget claptrap with nothing to say. It all works on a gut level, and is directed with such slick ease that it sets a standard for well-crafted nonsense equal to any of the great Hollywood no-brainers of the past. Yet it always maintains the De Palma edge of cinematic hide and seek which allows you to sense that its pleasures are qualified by a demand for some sort of engagement with its playful form and structure. Mission: Impossible is finally as good a time as we were ever likely to have with the franchise, which will come as a relief both to fans of the series and those who couldn't stand it. Watch it again. It holds up better than you might expect.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.