Mission: Impossible (1996)
Directed by Brian De Palma
Produced by Tom Cruise & Paula Wagner
Screenplay by David Koepp & Robert Towne | Story by David Koepp & Steven Zaillian
Based on Mission: Impossible by Bruce Geller
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jon Voight
Country: USA | Run Time: 110 min
By Colin Hart
Mission: Impossible is a Tom Cruise action vehicle as much as it is a Brian De Palma film. De Palma, through his stylish direction and homages to Hitchcock, is always able to put his own personal stamp on a film, whether it be psychological thriller or major blockbuster. Likewise, Tom Cruise is capable of carrying an entire movie all by himself, especially if there’s tons of action and it requires him to get places fast.
But Mission: Impossible didn’t live up to my expectations. With Tom Cruise and Brian De Palma—in an action movie, no less—you are immediately set up for success. I wouldn’t say this movie was a failure, but it was definitely a disappointment.
My main issues are with the plot, which is, for the most part, entirely incomprehensible. Tom Cruise is Ethan Hunt, a secret agent who is tasked with impossible missions (I’ve never watched the original TV show). Right away, the complex and intricate plot is easy to get lost in, so it’s best not to pay it any mind. And when you’re not paying any mind to the plot, the film needs to deliver constant action, sex, laffs, stylish directing—something.
We do get plenty of style, but there’s not enough action. Too much downtime with Cruise on a computer typing cryptic messages based on the Book of Job, not enough Cruise kicking foreign ass. And when the action slows down, the plot comes back into focus and we’re left scrambling, and pretty soon we just tune out.
The story is filled with double and triple crosses, characters wearing each other’s latex faces, and characters who you thought were dead turning out not to be dead. Don’t even try to comprehend what’s going on. All you need to know is that Tom Cruise was framed for something and now he is trying to break into somewhere so he can steal the something that will finally clear his name. The music cues will let you know how you’re supposed to feel.
De Palma’s style is enough to at least make the movie passable—same goes for Cruise’s acting. Cruise’s short stature means a director must try and hide his height, so De Palma gets to use his beloved Dutch angles for purposes both stylish and practical.
The film has two great action scenes, but it needed twice as many. The first one is a masterful execution of suspense—the film’s best scene—as Cruise drops down via cable from an air duct in order to steal some computer files thirty feet below. The catch? The alarms are triggered if a sound above a whisper is made, if the hypersensitive floor is touched, or if the room rises in temperature by one degree. The stakes are high and De Palma handles it with deft grace. The end result had me paying rapt attention to a bead of sweat dripping off of Cruise’s glasses. In other words, it may be De Palma’s finest set-piece in any of his films.
The second worthwhile action sequence is the grand finale, where Tom Cruise clings onto a speeding train while being pursued through a tunnel by a helicopter. This is the kind of over-the-top action that the film needed more of. We didn’t get it, but at least Cruise performs his own stunts and looks cool doing it.
The film also needed a romantic interest for Cruise. He doesn’t even fuck in this movie, and there’s never even the sense that he might fuck. De Palma and writer Steven Zaillian know their way around a blockbuster, so this glaring omission comes as a real shock. It’s basically a prerequisite for every Tom Cruise action flick.
It’s not all bad, though. De Palma’s flair for style proves he hasn’t lost his touch and this film did spawn four successful sequels, making tons of money in the process. But wouldn’t you expect the original, the one helmed by New Hollywood cult hero Brian De Palma, to be the best entry in the franchise?
Strangely, that’s not the case. In fact, I prefer the ones directed by Brad Bird (Ghost Protocol, 2011) and Chrisopher McQuarrie (Rogue Nation, 2015). Taking into account the rumor that Cruise and De Palma did not get along, I presume that Cruise favors the later installments too.