Lighting the Fuse – Revisiting Mission: Impossible

With Tom Cruise returning as the IMF superspy at the end of the month, Cal takes us back nineteen years to where it all began. 

More than merely a Tom Cruise action vehicle, Mission: Impossible was born out of the Hollywood craze during the 1990s to adapt as many cult television shows into big-budget motion pictures as possible, and it remains one of the period’s more successful endeavours. It’s worth noting that this adaptation bears very little resemblance to the 1960s TV series of the same name, only retaining the unforgettable theme song and the character of Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), though Phelps doesn’t play a significant role in the proceedings. Indeed, M:I is its own entity, with writer David Koepp (Jurassic Park) using the idea of an agency-based spy thriller as a springboard for an original action blockbuster. And with veteran filmmaker Brian De Palma (Carrie, The Untouchables) at the helm, this is a densely-plotted potboiler which pays more mind to espionage and complex plot machinations than nonstop thrills.

In Prague, a team of Impossible Missions Force (IMF) agents are assigned to prevent the theft of a highly classified list known as the NOC list, which details the identities of all agents in the field. Led by Phelps, the mission is a failure, resulting in the deaths of several team-members. Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is framed for the killing, forcing him to go rogue as he sets out to expose the mole within his organisation. For assistance, Hunt enlists the help of two disavowed IMF agents, computer hacker Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and all-around tough guy Franz Krieger (Jean Reno). All the while, Hunt also sets out to ensure that the list does not fall into the hands of international terrorists.

To be sure, Mission: Impossible is almost impossibly serpentine, with an immensely convoluted narrative that’s difficult to wrap your head around. It is nice to witness an $80 million summer movie that’s more cerebral than the average action flick, but the effort is not entirely successful; it’s a confusing movie, and definitely could’ve been better-constructed for maximum clarity. It doesn’t help that the screenplay relies on heavy dialogue to keep us up to speed, and the lags in pacing are noticeable. Nevertheless, Mission: Impossible does make for engaging viewing more often than not – it’s a paranoid, edge-of-your-seat spy thriller, with Hunt struggling to figure out who to trust in this situation. There’s sufficient intrigue and tension to see the narrative through to the end, with a dash of romance for good measure.

The production was in sturdy hands with Brian De Palma at the helm; the director imprints the feature with his indelible cinematic stamp. Notable for his ability to construct intense, wordless sequences, De Palma’s greatest contribution here is the iconic scene involving Hunt and his team breaking into CIA headquarters to steal the NOC list. It’s a complex plan which involves Hunt being lowered from the ceiling on wires into a secure room which possesses a dizzying array of security precautions. The set-piece reflects De Palma’s visual and tonal filmmaking voice, and it’s tautly-edited to boot, making it far more gripping than the movie’s ridiculous action scenes. Indeed, M:I needed big money shots to draw in mainstream viewers, and this box is ticked, with the climactic set-piece involving a high-speed train and a helicopter that’s utterly preposterous but nevertheless entertaining.

Mission: Impossible was the first motion picture to bear Cruise’s name as both a producer and as a star, and it would seem the involvement of his new production company motivated Cruise to place forth a focused, skilful performance. The actor’s portrayal of Ethan Hunt is first-rate – he’s physically capable and smart, not to mention the character is for the most part a grounded hero. Although Cruise’s fan base has ostensibly shrunk in recent years, you cannot deny that he is committed to his art. A very appealing supporting cast also chips in, with veteran actor Voight giving the film a degree of gravitas. Meanwhile, Rhames is amusing, and Reno again shows why he’s reliable when it comes to the action genre.

Years on, M:I endures as somewhat of a minor action classic due to its strengths, even though it has been bettered by its sequels, most notably Mission: Impossible III in 2006. Fans of the TV show may scoff if they are expecting something closer to the series, but the movie is something to be admired if taken on its own merits; a precursor to the smart spy action film subgenre that has become so prevalent in recent years.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • While filming the famous scene where Tom Cruise drops from the ceiling and hovers inches above the ground, Cruise’s head kept hitting the floor until he got the idea to put coins in his shoes for balance.
  • Last motion picture from a major studio to be released on Betamax.
  • The only Mission: Impossible film that doesn’t feature any shootouts/gunfights.
  • The main lobby of CIA Headquarters at Langley was actually shot inside County Hall, London. The helipad next to Tower Bridge where Kitteridge lands does not exist and was specially built for the film and removed afterwards. The site is a public park.

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