Mission: Impossible (1996) – Brian De Palma

A crack team of super-spies are enlisted to infiltrate an embassy where a top-secret list of code names is being stolen. The operation goes by without a hitch, the team is professional, and they deftly execute their mission and prepare to head to the rendezvous. Then things go wrong. With the job in hand, agents inexplicably start dying, including the team’s leader Jim Phelps (Jon Voight).  They’ve been betrayed. The operation’s point man, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is the only one to survive, so when he is brought in, he’s the obvious first suspect. He goes on the lam.

This is the setup for Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible (1996); for the rest of the movie we’ll watch Hunt struggle to clear his name and find the real mole by breaking into facilities of the highest security and playing the government and black marketers against each other while adding allies and reuniting with other spies and operatives played by the likes of Ving Rhames, Emmanuelle Béart, Jean Reno and Vanessa Redgrave. That all this sounds a little more exciting than it actually is is mainly De Palma’s doing, who seems more concerned with finding an interesting angle for a shot than having anything interesting take place in it, but he (and the movie) still manage a number of exciting moments.

The movie is dated and I don’t mean that because it has pay phones, Walkmans and floppy disks, and characters talk about “the Internet” in exotic tones. Spy and heist movies are certain to eventually become antiquated because of their reliance on technology, but Rififi (1955) or the Bond pictures don’t feel as time-specific as Mission: Impossible does. In fact, Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001), made only five years later, feels like a movie from a different generation. There’s something staid about it, obsolescent even, as if for all the numerous MacGuffins Ethan and his team are assigned to break out of various citadels, they couldn’t rescue the movie from 1996.

Of course, there are worse things than being stuck in the mid-’90s, a place I would think the unemployment rate would love to go back to, and it’s not so distracting as to be the movie’s undoing. In fact, once it gets rolling along, it stops feeling quite as antiquated and starts being rather exhilarating. More damaging to the movie’s success is the confusing plot, which can hardly be followed in detail, which is more or less standard for this type of movie. Even this isn’t much of a bother because the story can be understood in feeling. It’s not important why everyone’s doing what, but it’s very important to know who everyone is in relation to each other, and for the most part (this is a spy thriller after all, with a number of double-dealings), that’s clear.

There’s a feeling that De Palma is often on autopilot here, but he’s too professional a filmmaker to not give us a well-told story, and if he does sleep through much of the espionage dialogue (and often we’d like to join him), he’s fully alive and at the top of his game for the set-pieces. The opening heist is a coup of spatial design, giving us an embassy and surrounding areas that are so well photographed from a relational standpoint that thoughtful viewers should be able to re-create the entire area in their minds after just one viewing. The final chase on an English train gives us a terrific high-speed pursuit on the top of the cars (which we’ve seen before) then arranges to sneak a helicopter racing after the train in a tunnel (which we haven’t).

But even these sequences, and everything else in the movie, pale in comparison to the highlight: the break-in at the C.I.A. headquarters in Langley. This twenty-minute section is so wonderful, so near-perfect in its design and execution that it deserves a better movie around it, but just the same, it should be taught for its textbook achievement of set-up and payoff. It follows a classic formula of heist movies; first we learn why the thing our heroes are after is impossible to obtain, then we see them obtain it. The hurdles here include a security system that can detect intruders if they make too much noise, touch the floor, or raise the temperature even a single degree, and Hunt must outwit the system by performing a ballet while suspended from the ceiling, making as little noise as possible and trying to keep his body temperature down. The sequence is a shining example of the escalating problems principle, as unwanted intruders (one of which is a rat), equipment malfunctions and beads of sweat all conspire to try and foil the caper.

This section is distinguished by its attention to detail, and De Palma, the director of Blow Out (1981), which minutely reconstructs a murder through the use of sound, is a master at supplying detail. He is also confident in the inherent suspense of the situation; there’s very little music or dialogue to lead us on edge, but we wind up there anyway because the circumstances are so well defined. It works so beautifully we nearly don’t ask questions like why there doesn’t seem to be a single security camera in all of the C.I.A. headquarters, the presence of which would have rendered Hunt’s choreography moot.

The movie is mainly supported by its action stunts, and it has good ones (there’s another bit of good filmmaking as Hunt figures out who the mole is in his head while acting as if he’s identified him as someone else). Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t approach those levels of interest. It’s a good thriller, no doubt, but it seems willing to have fun only with its special effects. Cruise, who can be light and charming, is a little too intense for the silly material. Even early on, when the team is joking around, he seems to be the most joking around. I liked the tone of the government chief who tracks Hunt down, Kittridge (Henry Czerny), and his abused and put-upon assistant, Barnes (Dale Dye). They seemed to be more in the spirit of a movie that features helicopters in tunnels, exploding chewing gum, and ink pens that shoot laxatives. I especially liked their handling of the Langley employee whose workstation Hunt infiltrates. “I want him manning a radar tower in Alaska by the end of the day,” Kittridge says. “Just mail him his clothes.” Mission: Impossible is the kind of movie that almost pulls off the trick of having us simply enjoy that bit of dialogue without thinking, Wait a minute; there’s no way of even getting that guy from Virginia to Alaska by the end of the day. 

One Response to Mission: Impossible (1996) – Brian De Palma

  1. I agree with all your comments about the CIA break-in, I feel it is a very under-rated iconic scene. I feel it doesn’t get enough love, yet an image of a guy with a headset suspended in mid air dressed in all black has pretty much defined high-tech heist movies ever since.

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