Throughout its history, Hollywood has tended to run in cycles, latching onto an idea and running with it until they run it into the ground. From screwball comedies, to Biblical epics, to disaster thrillers, to juvenile gross-out comedies, Hollywood producers love to run in packs, milking all they can from an idea or genre until it runs dry, and then they move on to the next big thing.
For whatever reason, in the mid- to late 1990s the big idea was to remake cultish 1960s-era television shows into big-budget movie spectacles. Starting with the surprise comic hit The Addams Family (1991) and its 1993 sequel (which was helped immeasurably by the visual stylings of director Barry Sonnenfeld), the cycle ran with voracious intensity for several years, kicking out a string of films, most of which were critically savaged box office disappointments such as The Beverly Hillbillies (1994), The Saint (1997), Lost in Space (1998), The Mod Squad (1999), and Wild Wild West (1999). There were a few bright spots that lit up the box office, including Maverick (1994) and Charlie's Angels (2000), but most were undeniable duds.
Arguably the most successful of this cycle was Mission: Impossible. Its triumphant move from almost-forgotten small-screen cult favorite to big-screen action spectacle that launched a multi-decade franchise can be attributed primarily to the impressive array of talent that came together to make it. The movie could easily be sold on the shoulders of mega-star Tom Cruise, who was coming off a successful, if controversial turn as the vampire Lestat in Interview With the Vampire (1994) and returning to the kind of uncomplicated rebel-hero role in which audiences loved to see him. The convoluted script-which makes virtually no sense the first time you see the movie, but reveals itself to be a surprisingly intricate and intelligent piece of work with each additional viewing-was penned by David Koepp (Panic Room, Spider-Man), one of Hollywood's more reliable mainstream writers, and Robert Towne, whose script for Chinatown (1974) is still the pinnacle by which virtually all great scripts are judged.
The movie's greatest asset, however, is director Brian De Palma, who leaves his indelible stamp on the movie despite its being billed primarily as a "Tom Cruise vehicle." De Palma, like his spiritual cinematic godfather Alfred Hitchcock, always has one foot in the mainstream and one foot in some kind of twisted netherworld where few filmmakers will venture. Many of Mission: Impossible's best sequences reflect his unique character, not just stylistically, but tonally. Who else would end the movie's climactic action setpiece with the hero splayed across the back of a high-speed train with the scorched remains of a twisted, knife-life helicopter blade slowly spinning inches from his throat?
The movie's connections to the original 1960s television series amount to little more than the title, the insanely unforgettable theme music (pumped up with techno synthesizers and heavy bass, of course), and the character of Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), who leads the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) team. Phelps, of course, takes a backseat to Cruise's Ethan Hunt, the team's point man, who finds himself the only survivor of a botched mission to entrap a terrorist who wants to steal the CIA's "NOC List," which contains the code names and identities of all its agents working undercover in Eastern Europe.
Framed for killing his own team, Hunt must strike out on his own to entrap the real villain (an arms dealer named Max amusingly played by Vanessa Redgrave) and a secret insider who goes by the name of Job. To do this, Hunt must engineer the actual theft of the NOC List, which is housed in a computer terminal inside a locked vault deep in the bowels of CIA headquarters, with the help of a couple of disavowed former agents, a computer hacker (Ving Rhames) and a helicopter pilot and all-around tough guy (Jean Reno).
The theft of the list is the movie's high point, as it involves a dizzyingly complicated plan involving Hunt being lowered from the ceiling on wires because the floor is pressure sensitive. He can't make any sound, either, because the room is wired to sound an alarm if any noise is made, plus he has to trick the temperature control system because the alarm will also sound if the temperature inside the room raises a single degree. The scene works so well because it plays to all of De Palma's visual strengths and his love of complex, wordless sequences (think about the extended tracking shot in 1976's Carrie that depicts the rigging of a prom queen election or the elegant Steadicam sequence in 1980's Dressed to Kill that follows Angie Dickinson around a sterile art museum). It also allows him pay homage to one of cinema's greats, in this case the incomparable Jules Dassin (Rififi).
Mission: Impossible does lag at times due to its complex plotting and subsequent reliance on heavy dialogue to explain what's going on, although there is a brilliant sequence near the end of the movie in which one character tries to explain to Hunt what happened while we see Hunt's mind concocting a different scenario (or, in one case, two different scenarios). These lags feel even slower than they need to because they tend to alternate with so-over-the-top-they-border-on-parody sequences such as the secret meeting at a postmodern Prague restaurant/aquarium that culminates with Hunt escaping by detonating a piece of explosive gum and running out just ahead of the ensuing tidal wave of water and fish. It's silly, but expertly rendered and ridiculously exhilarating, which is exactly what De Palma does best.
Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (3)
Get a daily dose of Philadelphia Herald news through our daily email, its complimentary and keeps you fully up to date with world and business news as well.