Brian De Palma Month: “Mission: Impossible” (1996)

Aw heck yeah, Mission: Impossible!  Bet you didn’t know Brian De Palma directed the first entry into this long-lasting film series.  When the mere idea for this adaptation (from producers Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner) was conceived, it was very risky.  The TV show, that I haven’t seen, was loved by many, and no one was asking for a movie version.  Tom Cruise (who was known for movies like Risky Business, Top Gun, and A Few Good Men), was not an action star.  To top it off, David Koepp couldn’t finish the script because he was directing his own film (The Trigger Effect).  Despite all of that, audiences were treated to an action/thriller no one but master of suspense Brian De Palma could have come up with.

Mission Impossible (1996) is directed by Brian De Palma and written by: David Koepp, Steven Zaillian, and Robert Towne.  Stars-Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Béart, Jean Reno, Ving Rhames, and Vanessa Redgrave.  Premise-IMF (Impossible Mission Force) agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is accused of killing his team and betraying his agency.  Now he must uncover the real culprit using his wits while being pursued by his own superiors.

Out of all 5 of these movies, the first one is my favorite (followed by Mission: Impossible III and Ghost Protocol).  This thing grossed over $450 million on an $80 million budget and it was the third highest-grossing movie of 1996.  It successfully launched a franchise that outdid James Bond for a while.  “How did it accomplish this?”  You may ask.  I can’t wait to tell you why!

From the opening scene (De Palma is great at those isn’t he?) the movie sets up its tone and pace with an excellent split screen shot of an IMF operation.  You’ll notice that Stephen H. Burum outdoes himself in every scene.  The lighting on Jon Voight in the plane scene, the angles he uses during the restaurant confrontation, and oh gosh, and the vault scene (we’ll get to that later).  De Palma’s psychological style is perfectly reflected with the camerawork, you feel the tension in every scene.  Complementing the action sequences is Danny Elman’s slick score.  Lalo Schifrin composed the remixed theme, and Elman did the rest of the soundtrack.  It’s the type of cool music you’d listen to while doing math.  What, no one else does that?  I do.  It makes me feel like I’m doing some serious hacking.

At the expense of the top notch thrills of Mission: Impossible, it would be unfortunate if the story was utterly confusing.  Actually that is the major criticism of this movie, the screenplay.  I have watched this movie four times in my life (once before I wrote this), and I followed the plot easily each time.  Admittedly there are a few plotholes (refer to Koepp’s incomplete script), but the overall story is solid.  The creators (especially De Palma) really wanted to capture the sense of misdirection the show was known for.  Some people are easily offended when a movie outsmarts them (they would be called the negative critics of Inception), but I love the spy-like secrecy in this movie.  When Hunt’s mission goes awry, we don’t learn what really happened until the very end.  Our knowledge is limited to what Hunt knows, and he’s a great protagonist.  There are very few scenes where he is visibly panicked.  He’s resourceful, calculated, fast, effective, intimidating, intelligent, and Cruise’s likability anchors the coolest cinematic American agent this side of Jason Bourne.

Finally, we get to one of the best M.M.M.’s of all time… the vault infiltration sequence.  If you really want to watch this scene, you could find at least five videos of it on YouTube, but all I want to say is how awesome it is!  This is one of the reasons why Mission: Impossible is my favorite out of all five movies, because this scene carries more tension than the rest of the movies put together.  From the use of slow motion, to the lack of music, to the crosscutting editing, to the buildup of the operation, to that heart-stopping moment, this scene is so impressive, only Brian De Palma could have come up with it.  This scene has been copied, parodied, and ripped-off many times (even Ghost Protocol had a clever homage to it).

My few issues with this movie are mostly things that were the result of the limitations of the 90s.  For one, the search engine they use was Netscape, the F/X are really cheap-looking now, and the makeup is obviously fake.  Also, the sound is really stock.  It will be too loud in some scenes, too quiet in others, and occasionally out-of-sync.  Finally, the climax is extremely over-the-top.  Most of this movie’s action sequences were practical, and more focused on wits rather than Michael Bay explosions.  For the sake of not spoiling anything, just know that this finale was too bombastic for a movie this subtle.

Mission: Impossible has become a pop culture and cinematic icon because of its stylistic execution.  It is among one of the best action thrillers of the 90s, and for dang good reason.  Mission: Impossible gets Guy’s Guru Grade of an A.

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