The collision of one of our greatest actors with one of our greatest directors produces one of the greatest spy films of them all. Funny how that works.
Directed by Brian De Palma
Written by David Koepp, Steve Zaillian, and Robert Towne (based on the show created by Bruce Geller)
With Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Jon Voight (Jim Phelps), Emmanuelle Beart (Claire Phelps), Ving Rhames (Luther Stickell), Jean Reno (Franz Krieger), Kristin Scott Thomas (Sarah Davies), Emilio Estevez (Jack Harmon), Ingeborga Dapkunaite (Hannah Williams), Henry Czerny (Eugene Kittridge), and Vanessa Redgrave (Max)
Spoiler alert: severe, because the twists are rad
By the mid-90s, Tom Cruise was already a powerhouse, having long since established himself as one of our biggest stars—and, not coincidentally, one of the savviest actors of his generation. He had never previously produced a movie, but this would soon change, and the corner of the American cinematic landscape he and his production partner Paula Wagner had claimed for themselves would change with it—until it was finally changed by the American cinematic landscape in its turn, and not for the better. For now, though, let's remain in 1996, when the very first Tom Cruise production arrived.
From his perspective, Cruise was simply capitalizing on his box office appeal while riding the post-Addams wave of TV shows remade as impressively-budgeted blockbusters. We recognize, of course, that his experiment didn't exactly amount to promethean mad science. Cruise didn't go into business to lose money, and Mission: Impossible was indeed a massive, record-breaking hit.
But from our vantage point, what Cruise was really doing is much more interesting than just exploiting the People's desire for name-brand entertainment. Yes, he called it "Mission: Impossible," basing it vaguely upon the TV series of the same name. His focus, however, was upon the highly-skilled cipher known as Ethan Hunt, who—importantly—was never actually in that series. With this, Cruise created one of the purest vehicles for personal expression ever seen in blockbuster filmmaking.
Namely, his own.
Virtually every aspect of Ethan Hunt, the character, as opposed to Ethan Hunt, the chesspiece, emerges solely as the result of Cruise's gilded physicality: the smiling, snarling, sprinting face of the Impossible franchise, a surface disengaged from much at all of substance, yet compelling in its argument that surface, when shiny enough, is every bit a replacement for substance.
Cruise's simplicity is the lifeblood of the series; his curious magnetism its draw. The Impossible franchise was his personal arena, where he could do fine work selling easy charm, easy comedy, easy emotions. And it was where he could do the hard action, performing his own stunts and showcasing his virility. It was where he could establish another kind of dominance, too, and so films nominally about teamwork instead witness talented actors made extensions of their lead's own heroic will, colonies of the Greater Cruise. Today, finally, it has become his safe place, perhaps the last place we can still see Cruise as he wants to be seen, and—crucially—as we still want to see him, a task made very hard for very many, by the ugly strangeness of his personal life.
Cruise's only franchise, the Impossible series was something he returned to infrequently. Yet in none of its incarnations has he ever looked like he is having anything less than the total blast the role requires. Cruise's genius might be more overtly expressed in Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia and Collateral (and, hell, in Days of Thunder and Vanilla Sky), but when we're all dead—even if the ageless Scientologist might not be—the first thing the critics of the future will refer to when asked about Cruise shall be this, his justified monument to himself.
Yet when we talk about how authorship manifests in this collaborative medium, the Impossible films represent a conundrum that demands you abandon thinking of any movie as a singular vision. Yes, the Impossible series is demonstrably the personal creation of its lead actor and most important producer. It is a work with one author. And yet it is a work with many authors. Entirely accidentally, from its first installment onward the Impossible series became the consubstantial canvass of its star and its directors, equal and alike.
Now I understand Nicene Christianity!
The antithesis of today's corporate narrative megastructures, for fifteen years the Impossible franchise was a vessel for very different directors to tell their visually-driven tales in their own very distinctive styles, dwelling upon whatever aspects of the spy-thriller genre particularly interested them. Only one other such collection of films exists. Our subject for the next week is not too unlike that other unintentional directors' anthology, the Alien series—but, then, that franchise's producers' interference is legendary, nobody likes the second half of it anyway, and M:I began with the intent to appeal to a far broader, much less self-selecting audience. Obviously, Cruise would have eschewed from the outset that other franchise's nauseatingly violent, upsettingly sexualized imagery.
And to this end, he selected for his first production the foremost paragon of restraint and virtue to ever set foot in Hollywood: Brian De fucking Palma, director of such feel-good exercises in moral uprightness as Carrie, Scarface, and Dressed to Kill.
At that point, Mission: Impossible was inevitably going to wind up one of the most luridly-directed films ever released on Memorial Day weekend to 3000 screens (those POV shots! those angles!). Yet the man had experience with adapting long-defunct TV shows—he'd swung his biggest hit to date with The Untouchables. And so, with minimal gore, misogyny kept (mostly) at bay, sensuality left to mere allusion, and sexual violence confined to the subtext of one single shot, M:I actually is incredibly restrained by De Palma's standards. This is surely little consolation for those who are not on the Master of the Macabre's wavelength; but I've never gotten those people anyway, and I'm not about to start trying to understand them now.
The big movie of 1996 could still be De Palma all the way to the bone, deeply invested with his chiefest concern: what we see, how we see it, and how bias and biology can limit our gaze, while clearheadedness and technology can expand it—ultimately revealing the truth. It's even more wonderful that such thematic underpinnings could also be wrapped in one of the best popcorn-munching spy-heist-action-thrillers ever made, but no matter how involving the spectacle of M:I becomes, you won't forget who's behind that camera.
Like he'd ever let you.
For at least the third time in a BDP joint, Mission: Impossible opens with someone making a movie of their own—in this case a surveillance tape. But this time the trick isn't the cheap but enjoyable film-within-a-film gag that kickstarted Blow Out and Body Double. The trick here is, quite literally, behind the mask.
And with that, we reach our belated synopsis. M:I remains infamous to this day for the complications of its plot—an odd turn, because it's not really that complex, only hellaciously convoluted and delivered by challenging, but very rewarding, filmmaking.
Ethan Hunt, you know, is an agent of the Impossible Mission Force, attached to a team of spies led by spy-legend Jim Phelps (the hero of the TV series—and thus M:I becomes, brilliantly or repellantly, depending on your temperament, a distant sequel to the show).
In Prague, a double-agent has stolen the NOC list—a database with the real names of America's undercover agents—and he's en route to deliver it to his terrorist buyers. But the IMF has other plans: a sting where they'll take down the traitor and the terrorists. It goes entirely to hell—the IMF team is slaughtered by parties unknown, and the only one to escape is Ethan himself. Alone and exposed , Ethan calls for an extraction. Now revelations are made: the entire operation was a mole-hunt, the NOC list was a decoy, and Ethan's survival is all the evidence that IMF overspy Kittridge needs in order to come to the conclusion that Ethan was the real traitor all along.
Suddenly finding himself in the very model of a wrong man thriller, Ethan runs. It turns out one other agent did survive the massacre in Prague, Jim's wife Claire. Now thrown together, they hatch their bold plan: steal the true NOC list from the CIA, deliver it to the mole's associates, and in the process uncover the true mole. Ethan will not like who it turns out to be.
To get the list, Ethan and Claire enlist hacker god Luther Stickell, along with stab-happy thug Franz Krieger. Together, they break into the most impregnable room in the world. And from there, it's off to the final confrontation with the enemy—involving a train, a helicopter, and a tunnel, very possibly the most batshit crazy collection of objects any action climax has ever seen.
People got bent about a refrigerator, but this was just fine?
So that's the streamlined version of Mission: Impossible, countenancing few of the twists and turns of its very twisty-turny plot. Its mystery, if subject to some measure of convenience, still hangs together beautifully. And that's a small miracle, given that not only did pre-production begin without a script, but that the one it finally got was being written and rewritten on the fly by the always-troublesome David Koepp. (Of course, De Palma always did bring out the best in Koepp.) Just as deserving of a writing credit anyway is Cruise himself. His contribution wasn't just money and movie star metaphysics: he was instrumental in designing M:I's unforgettable setpieces, particularly the aquarium sequence—the beginning of Cruise's franchise-long obsession with stuntwork—and the bonkers fight atop the train.
Then there is the centerpiece of this entire endeavor, without which M:I might have faded into obscurity, sequelless and dismissed as merely another decent spy movie. With it, M:I became instead the very exemplar of action-adventure filmmaking until The Matrix arrived and changed all the rules for a decade.
And, being an exemplar, the heist was naturally the subject of 1000 terrible parodies—for we apparently cannot help but tarnish greatness, in this case by smearing our feces over it.
Ripped off wholesale from Topkapi but improving upon it in every way, the NOC list heist is nearly peerless. Within Langley is the Black Vault. Within the Black Vault are obstacles, each sufficient to dissuade any lesser man. But Ethan Hunt? This is, it turns out, just what he does every five or so years.
It's amongst the few sets in M:I that really look conspicuously designed, but what a design—and what a designer, too, the legendary Norman Reynolds doing his thing with elegant radial symmetry. (But the finest detail of the set are the lights built into the pressure-sensitive floor, turning jet black when inactive, vividest red when set off, incorporated beautifully into the stark cinematography of De Palma's frequently-essential collaborator, Stephen Burum.)
In one stroke, the NOC list heist devises the formula that shall serve the franchise well for all its days, despite its many variations: the plan fucking up, then fucking up even more, till the improbable becomes truly impossible—and Ethan pulling it off anyway.
But despite M:I's setpiece badassery, I keep coming back to the script, and De Palma's treatment of that. M:I feels quite action-packed, yet until the finale anyway, it's the quietest of the whole franchise, the Bondian spectacle heavily downplayed for extra De Palmian suspense. The movie-spy gadgets remain enormous fun—especially the gum, "just don't chew it," indeed!—but the essential technology is pure Mission: Impossible: the mask.
Before we close, I must draw attention to the two choices that elevate M:I to a level far beyond your average spy-heist-action-thriller, choices that employ the language of star-driven cinema to amp the tension and deny you any clue as what's really happened to poor, deluded Ethan, even though there's no real red herring and in retrospect it's quite obvious. And they do it at a near-subliminal level.
The first choice: the original IMF team on the scene at Prague is comprised wholly of real actors—not just Jon Voight, but Kristin Scott Thomas and Emilio Estevez, of all people. (And Estevez' death in an elevator is a brutal nod to the De Palma viciousness that we all know and some of us love: not exactly gory, but the violence so terrifically implied that a split-second delay in Paul Hirsch's masterful editing would've surely required an R-rating.) When the faces we naturally assumed would be with us till the end wind up crushed into jelly by elevator spikes instead, it's easy to believe that Jon Voight died too—or that Emmanuelle Beart survived. De Palma hides his villains in plain sight, and it would have taken a fortune-teller to have seen his design within the context of such extraordinary camouflage. Like Ethan, we're unable to even conceive that Jim could have betrayed him, because we saw him die with all the other famous people—didn't we?
And if Peter Graves hadn't been such a dick, it would've been even cooler.
The second choice: when Ethan has figured almost everything out—in a sequence that is itself most formally gratifying, as he hears Jim's story, but we're shown the truth he finally perceives—he still needs to know whether his only friend in the world, Claire, whom perhaps he loves (though the final cut wisely never pushes it), is innocent, or if she's just as guilty as his mentor and her husband. I alluded to this bit of brilliance earlier: you should know that Tom Cruise doesn't play just one role this film, but four. Each man whose face Ethan has heretofore stolen was already Cruise, only in very heavy makeup. And it all comes fiendishly close to lying to the audience, when we see Claire spilling her guts to what must be Jim Phelps—for it is, in fact, Jon Voight—but was only Ethan, behind a mask. It never quite crosses that line, though: for the rules De Palma knew we would assume were never really part of the contract between us. The very clever might not have believed their lying eyes, and they'd have been very clever indeed if they didn't—for it is thriller filmmaking at its cagey best.
Mission: Impossible will never fail to confound and delight me. In every frame, it is its star's creation—and in every frame its director's, too. It stands as the beginning of Tom Cruise's greatest populist achievement. Meanwhile, it is the most financially successful film of De Palma's whole career—and one of his finest, too, even coming within striking distance of his greatest masterworks. Like red and green, Cruise and De Palma exploded when they came together.
Nearly literally, in fact. And that is how the Impossible series became its best self: Cruise and De Palma fucking hated each other, and De Palma walked away. Thus we were given witness to something perhaps even more special, for though we'll forever wonder what a BDP franchise could have been, this wouldn't be the last time an Impossible movie saw a director operating at the height of his powers. Cruise must never be discounted, but I suspect Mission: Impossible's most singular and enduring legacy shall be its fusion of blockbuster entertainment and true auteurist vision.
Other reviews in this series:
Mission: Impossible 2
Mission: Impossible 3
Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol
Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation