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Days of De Palma (Part 13): Mission: Impossible (1996)

Slowly but surely, my journey through the films of Brian De Palma continues!  (If you scroll down to the bottom of this post, you’ll find links to all the other Brian De Palma films I have watched!)

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Mission: Impossible is probably the Brian De Palma film that I have seen the most over the years.  It’s not a perfect film, but it’s damn good, fiercely entertaining and a heck of a lot of fun.  It’s funny to think that Brian De Palma was involved in a “franchise” film, but the marvelous thing about Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible film series is the way that Mr. Cruise has embraced the idea of working with a variety of filmmakers, each with very strong, singular styles, thus giving each M:I film a very distinct feel.  These films are far more different from one another than any other film series I can think of.  I don’t know if that was Mr. Cruise (and his co-producer, Paula Wagner)’s idea right from the beginning, but I love the way it has turned out.  With the fifth Mission: Impossible installment opening this weekend, it seemed perfect for me to take this opportunity to post my thoughts on my recent re-watch of the film that kicked off the series.

I never watched much of the original Mission: Impossible TV show, so even when I first saw this film back in 1996, I wasn’t going in with any pre-conceived notions of what Mission: Impossible was all about.  (So I wasn’t bothered by, say, what a fan of the TV show might see as a sacrilegious treatment, here in the film, of the character of Jim Phelps!) I have always judged these films purely on their strengths and weaknesses as films. And I think Mission: Impossible is pretty strong!

As I commented in my review of Carlito’s Way, it’s clear that Mr. De Palma can achieve tremendous heights when working from a great script.  And Mission: Impossible has a very solid script, one filled with twists and turns and a story that is engaging and exciting while managing to maintain a fairly light, frothy tone.  The screenplay is by David Koepp (who also wrote the great script for Carlito’s Way) and Robert Towne, with a story by Mr. Koepp and Steve Zaillian (another great screenwriter, who wrote films such as Schindler’s List and Moneyball and Gangs of New York and Clear and Present Danger), and having such strong writers in the mix has again proven here to be an important foundation upon which Mr. De Palma can bring his particular cinematic eye and stylistic flourishes.

Perhaps because he knew that he was involved in a big-budget film intended to appeal to viewers in all four quadrants, Mr. De Palma appears to have somewhat restrained himself in his filmmaking here.  Mission: Impossible looks great (and holds up very well, two decades later) but interestingly it’s not as stuffed-to-the-brim with Mr. De Palma’s usual stylistic devices as some of his other films are.  (For example, I have often commented about how Mr. De Palma’s films seemed over-flowing with gratuitous nudity, but this film is remarkably chaste.  Later in the film, when Claire starts kissing Ethan’s fingers, the film fades immediately to black!  Is this really a Brian De Palma film??)  But I rather like this somewhat buttoned-down De Palma.  It highlights just how skilled he is at telling a story, without leaning on his usual favorite cinematic tricks and flourishes.  And there are still some great De Palma moments.  We get a classic De Palma P.O.V. shot, in this case the view from Ethan’s perspective as he enters a ballroom in disguise, early in the film.  It’s an effective suspense-building scene, and it’s also an example of De Palma using this device for a very specific and important effect in the film, in this case delaying the reveal of Ethan’s disguise.  Very clever.

I love the pre-credits scene that opens the film.  I love that we are thrown right into the M:I world of secrets and lies, as we’re shown a room that turns out to be a set, and characters who turn out to be other characters in disguise.  It’s cool that we start watching the scene through the screen of another video camera.  I love that we get, right here at the very beginning, the reveal of what has become one of the series’ signature elements: the plastic mask being ripped off of one character’s face to reveal another character.  And holy cow, how young is Tom Cruise!!  Even in his fifties, now, he looks like he is twenty or thirty.  But wow, I had forgotten that in his thirties he looked like he was eighteen!!

The opening credits are fun.  It feels like they are very much in the style of the opening credits of a TV show, but updated for a movie.  It works great.  And, of course, it’s great to hear that wonderful Mission: Impossible theme in all its glory.  This is probably a nice time to praise Danny Elfman’s wonderful score for the film.  Just as I have often criticized the scripts of De Palma’s films, I have often criticized his tendency to use what I feel are over-wrought scores.  But I love Mr. Elfman’s score here, it’s fun and exciting and it fits the tone of Mr. De Palma’s film perfectly.

The entire first half-hour with Hunt’s original team is probably my favorite stretch of any of the Mission: Impossible films so far.  (I haven’t seen the new one yet!)  I love this team, and every time I watch the film I hate seeing them all killed off.  The casting of this group is impeccable.  I mean, even Emilio Estevez is pretty great, am I right??  It’s a powerful twist here when they all get killed off, but still, I find it painful that we didn’t get to watch several films with this ensemble.  (Or much of an ensemble at all.  It wouldn’t really be until the fourth Mission: Impossible film before we got back to the idea of Ethan working as part of a team, as opposed to it being all about Ethan Hunt, solo super-spy.)  In particular, I am always especially pained by the death of Kristen Scott Thomas’ character.  She always feels to me like such a deep, mysterious character, with so much we don’t know about her!  I wish we’d gotten a chance to learn more about her.

Beyond just the great casting, there is so much wonderful stuff crammed into the film’s first thirty minutes.  I love the time the film takes, here in act one, to show us how Ethan and Phelps’ team preps for their mission.  We’re given exactly enough information to have an understanding of the team’s plan and, of course, to be able to follow exactly when and how things start to go wrong.  I also love all of the great spy gadgets we get to see at play in these early sequences.  They strike just the right balance of cool but plausible.

And then things take a sharp left turn and Ethan’s first team is wiped out.  But, of course, though I find these deaths painful, I have to admit that even on repeat viewings these deaths are a pretty shocking way to kick-start the film’s story.  The down-side is that while the rest of the film is great, I don’t think any of it can top the first act, which gives the rest of the film a feeling of being a teensy bit of a let-down.  I guess I just prefer to see Ethan as part of a team rather than on his own.  (And yes, he does recruit himself some new accomplices for the rest of the film, played by Ving Rhames and Jean Reno, but this is not the team of equals that the original team was.)

I love henry Czerny who plays Ethan’s boss, Kittridge.  He’s so perfect here.  I love the increasingly crazy angles, paired with increasingly extreme close-ups, that Mr. De Palma uses as Ethan and Kittridge confront one another at the restaurant.  And, of course, Ethan’s blowing up the aquarium tank and racing away through the cascading water is one of the film’s most iconic images.  Great stuff.

Then Ethan hooks up with Ving Rhames and Jean Reno and breaks into Langley.  (I never quite understood why Ethan seems to trust these two disavowed agents so fully and so quickly.  How did he know that Ving Rhames’ character Luther actually had a heart of gold?  I wish the film had given us a little more info on this point.)  But, whatever, the film quickly brings us to a heist scene that is certainly of an equal to that seen in act one, Ethan’s break-in of the CIA headquarters in Langley.  I love that, here again, we get to see a walk-through of how the operation is supposed to go, before it happens for real.  That device is very well-used by this film.  And then of course we get to the film’s defining sequence and probably it’s most iconic image: that of Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt, all dressed in black, suspended by tiny wires in an entirely white, almost-bare computer room.  What a spectacular image.  And for all that I have said that nothing in the rest of the film lives up to the fun of act one, the Langley break-in sequence is a pretty tremendous piece of filmmaking.  The whole sequence is just about flawless.

The third act is defined by a mixture of small-scale suspense, as our characters move about the close confines of the high-speed train, and the film’s largest-scale piece of action-adventure, the fight on the outside of the speeding train and then the helicopter-versus-train high-speed chase.  It’s all good albeit maybe not spectacular stuff.  It still burns me, twenty years later, that the dramatic final shot of that whole chase sequence, in which the blade of the crashing helicopter’s rotor stops mere inches away from Ethan’s exposed neck, were spoiled by all of the trailers.  What other film has spoiled its most climactic moment that way??  It was a let-down at the time, and I still feel an echo of that let-down every time I re-watch the film.

Some other notes:

I love Vanessa Redgrave as Max.  She is so perfect!!  What a wonderful character!  I wish we saw her again in a future film.

It’s interesting that Ethan’s mom is a plot point in this film.  I don’t believe the series ever refers to her again.

I love seeing Dale Dye in the small role of Kittridge’s number two!  (Watching the behind-the-scenes features of HBO’s Band of Brothers miniseries has made me a forever fan of Mr. Dye.)

I love the film’s final scene, with Ethan now firmly in the role of Jim Phelps.  Very cool, and a nice nod to one of the signatures of the TV show.

Over-all, this a fun, entertaining film!  It’s certainly one that has aged better than many of Mr. De Palma’s others.  This is not a film that aims for the depths of a Blow Out or a Scarface or even a Carlito’s Way.  It’s perhaps more in line with The Untouchables: a big-budget film aimed at mass audiences, but one that is still a smart, tightly-written and well-executed piece of work (in contrast to so many of today’s blockbusters).  But I don’t hold being a franchise film aimed at mass audiences as a criticism against Mission: Impossible.  I LOVE a well-written, well-made blockbuster action-adventure film!  I’m impressed at how easily Mr. De Palma was able to successfully kick-start a franchise film without “dumbing down” his work.  As always, this was a fun film to re-watch.

I’ll be back soon with a look at a film that has been one of the ones I have most eagerly anticipated re-watching as part of this series: Snake Eyes.  I remember really loving that movie when I first saw it in theatres, one of the first De Palma films I ever saw.  But I haven’t ever seen it since that first viewing.  I can’t wait to re-watch it and see what I think of it now!  I’ll be back with that soon.

I’ll also be back soon with my thoughts on the latest Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation!  As well as lots more stuff, including my review of Game of Thrones: season five (which seems to have popped-up in half-finished form on the site in the past few days — sorry about that!!  Human error!!).  Hope to see you all back here soon.

Days of De Palma: Part 1 — Carrie (1976); Part 2 — The Fury (1978); Part 3 — Dressed to Kill (1980); Part 4 — Blow Out (1981); Part 5 – Scarface (1983); Part 6 – Body Double (1984); Part 7 – Wise Guys (1986); Part 8 — The Untouchables (1987); Part 9 — Casualties of War (1989); Part 10 — The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990); Part 11 — Raising Cain (1992); Part 12 — Carlito’s Way (1993).

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