Spy 100, #50: Mission: Impossible

I’ve been both looking forward to and dreading this review ever since I saw the Spy 100 list. Mission: Impossible (1996), the famed Tom Cruise vehicle rebooting my favorite television series of all time, had a tug-of-war reaction on me when it was released, by turns impressing and depressing me. I’m pretty sure I watched it more than once in the theater trying to parse its complicated plot and generally admiring it as a production, but over the years it has lodged in my brain as the film that mortally wounded the show’s legacy.

Cruise stars as Rollin Hand…er, I mean Ethan Hunt, fulfilling the “master of disguises” role on the Impossible Missions Force, a daring team of covert operatives that undertakes the U.S. government’s most dangerous secret jobs. Led by cagey mastermind Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), the IMF’s opening mission sends them to Prague, to prevent the theft of the “NOC list,” a digital document of all of the U.S.’s “non-official covert” operatives in Europe. The mission goes horribly wrong, however, and Hunt finds himself cast adrift from his handlers, who think he’s gone rogue. Knowing he’s been set up, Hunt forms his own team and sets his own agenda, with the primary objective of uncovering what happened and clearing his name.

Faced with the task of rebooting the Mission: Impossible concept for a one-off movie, I expect I would have taken the same approach as this film. That is, make it an episodic film that fuses together self-contained gambits with carefully thought out connective tissue. Part of the fun of the original series was the way it changed venues from week to week, with new tactics and stratagems and identities for the heroes. Composing the film of multiple “sub-missions,” as M:I 1 does, is a sensible approach. Although at times the dialogue muddies the waters, by and large the result here is structurally assured, the plot’s torturous twists, turns, and conflicting motives holding together impressively.

It’s by examining the “episodes” of the film, however, that I was able to pinpoint my initial thrill, and ultimate disappointment, with the film. The first episode is essentially a teaser, and it’s a classic Mission “Big Store” interrogation in miniature. This short opening sequence is a celebration of Mission style: breakaway sets, dangerous death-simulating drugs, a ticking clock, and an effective opening mask peel-off. Even the vaguely expositional dialogue from IMF techie Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez) doesn’t break the spell. This is pure Mission, and a nice tonal set-up for the movie.

The second episode is the most compelling, and hews the most closely to the TV show formula. Phelps receives the assignment, briefs the team in a Prague safehouse, and the mission is underway, cool and professional as ever. With the exception of some clunky jokes in the “apartment scene,” this sequence is adroitly handled and highlights the clockwork precision and essential team chemistry that characterized the best classic episodes. Voight is well cast as the team mastermind, and Kristin Scott Thomas makes for an effective Cinnamon Carter figure. The mission, both when it’s on track and later, when it goes disastrously wrong, is truly compelling stuff.

Some bridging material leads to the film’s third episode. It’s a classic “impossible heist” sequence, as Hunt and his team plot the theft of the NOC list from an ultra-secure, standalone computer at CIA headquarters. Although carried off with panache, this sequence is somewhat less convincing. Worse, it begins the breakdown of the Mission team ethos. By bringing in disreputable “disavowed” IMFers Luther Stickle (Ving Rhames) and Franz Krieger (Jean Reno), this sequence hints at what the film as a whole ultimately delivers in force: a Mission world in which the IMF doesn’t implicitly trust each other. The surface mechanics of Mission are executed with aplomb, but the team concept starts to unravel.

The closing episode is Ethan’s endgame, the NOC list hand-off on a high-speed train from London to Paris. This is where it all falls apart for me. Ethan’s plan, designed to pull together all the players and solve the film’s mysteries, is deftly arranged, and the early skulking through the train compartments is fun visual story-telling. But the film resolves in a famously preposterous action sequence that beggars the suspension of disbelief. At the conclusion, while the plot threads have been neatly woven back together, the IMF — and in some ways the Mission: Impossible I grew up with — has been completely blown apart.

Granted, I suspect my dissatisfaction with the first Mission: Impossible may also stem from the fact that its sequels never quite rescued the franchise from what had been done to it. John Woo’s Mission: Impossible 2 is simply crap, while J.J. Abrams’ workmanlike Mission: Impossible 3, despite a fun villainous turn from Philip Seymour Hoffman, didn’t really bring the series back to basics. For me, IMF teamwork was such a huge part of the appeal, and the movies never quite got that. It’s pretty much been a Tom Cruise solo project from day one, which might have been a little more acceptable if Ethan Hunt were more inherently likeable. But Cruise’s Rollin Hand impression is too cocky and arrogant for my taste; give me Martin Landau any day. (I’m really hoping Brad Bird spends some time building up teamwork again in the fourth installment, which — completist that I am — I will probably have to see. After all, it is Brad Bird.)

To be fair, all complaints aside, the film does many things well. Brian De Palma is great directorial casting, and his eye for the material does conjure the feel of the series (something Abrams and especially Woo fail to do). The various deceptive stratagems, identities, gadgets, and gambits the heroes deploy are true to the original. Danny Elfman, not an obvious choice to reboot the Lalo Schifrin music vibe, provides one of his best scores. And, as mentioned, the plot is wildly complex, but surprisingly precise.

Ultimately, though, my love of the series just overrode my ability to truly enjoy the film. The new Mission became the Tom Cruise Show, at the expense of one of television spydom’s true stand-up guys, Jim Phelps. And while this first film in the franchise is in some ways a brilliant celebration of Mission technique, it’s also a betrayal of Mission spirit.

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