Friday, September 04, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Mission: Impossible (1996)

Created by the late Bruce Geller, the TV series Mission: Impossible ran for seven high-rated seasons -- from 1966 - 1973 -- and was followed by a sequel series of the same title that ran for two years, beginning in 1988.

Each TV iteration of the espionage series depicted the top-secret and dangerous activities of the American IMF (Impossible Missions Force) Team as it brought low bad guys foreign and domestic utilizing a combination of high-tech and low-tech trickery.

Gun play was rarely involved in the series, and instead the IMF agents often waged a kind of psychological warfare against enemies in order to make the evil doers bring themselves to ruin. All told, star Peter Graves played IMF team leader Jim Phelps in a whopping 178 hour-long episodes (accounting for both series).

Director Brian De Palma came to the Mission: Impossible franchise in the 1990s after he had successfully revived another classic TV series at the box office, 1987's The Untouchables.

In many ways, the Geller 1960s creation was a perfect property for a director who believes that "the camera lies 24 times a second," since that axiom is the underlying essence of Mission: Impossible: the "lie" committed against the villain that makes him believe something false. That lie may involve a prosthetic mask that cloaks the identity of an IMF agent, or that lie may involve a camera broadcasting images that are believed to be real (like the death of an operative...), but which, are, in fact, lies. Our perception of reality -- according to De Palma and the IMF force -- can be manipulated by the dedicated (and cunning) use of technical inventions.

And for the tech-obsessed De Palma -- who in his youth had won a science fair prize for a project titled "An Analog Computer to Solve Differential Equations" -- the focus in Mission: Impossible on gimmicks, devices and high-tech toys (like cameras embedded in eye glasses and TV screens on wristwatches...) also appeared a perfect fit.

"My Team is Gone!" -- TV Series vs. Film Series

Where the new Mission: Impossible film of the Clinton Era diverges most dramatically from the TV series heritage is in the nature of the protagonists. The series universally featured a team of IMF operatives, each one flawlessly and emotionlessly fulfilling a designated role in a large, complex plot.

But because box office sensation Tom Cruise was attached to star in the new movie, the updated Brian De Palma Mission: Impossible was designed instead as a star vehicle. That means one man at the forefront of the action...not an ensemble piece, like the original. Cruise's new character, Ethan Hunt, survives the massacre of the team in the film's dynamic first act and then spends the bulk of the narrative working on an unofficial mission to clear his name from the "disavowed" list.

This deliberate change in focus riled some long-time fans of the classic series (as well as the former stars...) because Mission: Impossible had always concerned cooperation and team work; the sublimation of the personal for the greater cause or mission. Indeed, on the TV series, audiences knew virtually nothing of the characters' lives outside of the job. Emotions, personal connections, even humanity itself were downplayed and the "con" was everything. As producer Herb Solow described Mission: Impossible in Patrick J. White's excellent The Complete Mission: Impossible Dossier (Avon, 1991 pages 10 and 11): "The story was always what pushed the program forward, not the characters."

When I interviewed original series star Martin Landau (Rollin Hand) for Cinescape in 2000 (November/December, Volume 6, Number 8, page 79, ) he was not particularly enamored with the re-direction of the continuing film series (particular after John Woo's MI:2). "The TV show was about a team getting in and out and no one ever knowing it was there," he reminds us. "They've turned it into an action-adventure with fireballs and chases...It's Mission: Impossible in name only."

Another reason the new film adaptation angered some longtime fans of the popular series: Jim Phelps (here played by a pre-dementia Jon Voight...) is actually the film's villain, not the hero. Original star Peter Graves had been offered the opportunity to resurrect the beloved character, but turned it down rather than participate in a film that would see the character transformed into a disloyal mercenary and, ultimately, killed while conducting an illicit, personal mission.

The other original team members, including Landau, were offered a chance to participate in the film too, and -- down to the very last actor (Emmy winner Barbara Bain, Greg Morris, and Peter Lupus) -- they all turned it down. "They wanted the old team in the first kill 'em off," Oscar-winner Landau reported, and he was all too-glad not to accept that particular mission. "I said, 'no way.' Rollin Hand will live on in reruns."

Despite this controversy, the 1996 Mission: Impossible film remains one of De Palma's mainstream blockbuster masterpieces. It was the third-highest grossing film of 1996, and the highest-grossing film of De Palma's career. It is true that the thrust of the movie version of Mission: Impossible is quite different from the predecessor series (featuring an individual James Bond-style hero rather than a team effort...), and it is also true that Jim Phelps is featured as a double-agent/villain. And yet -- to some extent -- that latter development serves its purpose well in De Palma's snake-like narrative: proving itself the king of all surprise twists.

I submit that this climactic twist would have worked even better had Graves returned to the TV role he originated...because then nobody at all would have seen the villainous turn coming. I am sympathetic to the fans who decry the transformation of the property into a Tom Cruise vehicle, but in the case of the first Mission: Impossible, it is difficult to deny that the film is a thrilling, kinetic, invigorating experience, regardless of the perceived fidelity to the TV source material.

And -- after 178 "missions" in two TV series -- you might even wish to commend De Palma (and his writers, Steve Zaillian, Robert Towne and David Koepp) for featuring something the audience had never seen before: "IMF blow back." Here -- for the first time -- we see a mission go disastrously, catastrophically, irrevocably off-track and desperate agents forced to improvise on the spot, under fire and in constant life-threatening dangers. Perhaps that's not the core principle of the long-standing Mission: Impossible franchise, but as a one-off adventure, it's an intriguing tale. I can defend the artistic integrity of M:I as a film -- and as a De Palma film -- till the cows come home. I just don't know if I can do the same for MI:2 or MI:3 which have -- essentially -- become James Bond films on (Tom) Cruise control.

Homage, McGuffins and Lies: Avowing The De Palma Touches

One of the qualities I most admire in Brian De Palma is his unswerving ability to enliven material not his own (such as The Untouchables or Mission: Impossible) with his unique and individual film sensibilities.

Thus, even so-called "paycheck" films (a term I rather like, coined by my friend and colleague, J.D. at the great film review blog, RADIATOR HEAVEN...), are valuable when discussed in light of De Palma's overall career and history. In other words, no matter the subject matter, De Palma brings his own sense of artistry and taste to a project. You can never watch one of his films and mistake it as belonging to anyone else.

In Mission: Impossible, we get another classic, familiar De Palma touch: the tribute or homage. First off,
Mission: Impossible pays tribute to one of De Palma's enduring inspirations: Alfred Hitchcock. Much of the hullabaloo in the film involves something called "The NOC List." In short, this list of clandestine American operatives -- which seems to change hands frequently -- serves as a modern variation on Hitchcock's favorite thriller device, the McGuffin (a plot element that drives a narrative in terms of structure, and is generic enough for easy, quick comprehension). In Mission: Impossible, everybody wants the NOC List, everybody is obsessed with the NOC List, and it is the raison d'etre for each character's behavior and misbehavior.

Another object of homage here is clearly the film canon and stylistic conceits of filmmaker Jules Dassin, who directed two of the all-time great heist films, Rififi (1955) and Topkapi (1964). Indeed, the trademark "black vault" heist in Mission: Impossible has been described as a direct updating of the scene in Topkapi involving the theft of an emerald dagger in a glass case. And the exquisite, meticulous attention to detail during the course of the central crime in Rififi (a film that eschewed sound, music and dialogue for a focus on the details of a jewel heist) is also mirrored in De Palma's exhaustive direction of the film's three impossible missions (in Kiev, in Langley, and in London, respectively). Ironically, it was these two films (Topkapi and Rififi) that reputedly inspired Bruce Geller to create Mission: Impossible in the first place.

More important than either of these two tributes, however, is De Palma's return to his common thesis that the camera lies 24 times a second. In Mission: Impossible, the duplicitous Jim Phelps secretly runs a mission op within a mission op, so-to-speak, in Kiev. His operatives are running one mission; and Phelps is actually working against them, right under their noses. But the camera lies about this fact: we don't see Phelps' hands in-frame as he operates the computer that sends IMF agent Jack (Emilio Estevez) to his death in an elevator shaft. We don't see Phelps douse himself in stage blood before his eye-glass-mounted camera registers a shot of his bloody hands, fumbling at an apparent gunshot wound near his abdomen. Instead, we see Phelps apparently get shot by an independent assailant (on Ethan's wristwatch screen...) and then -- in master shot -- he fall offs a bridge into a river (a death that forecasts a similar scene in De Palma's Femme Fatale).

Next, during a splendid, third-act sequence involving Hunt and Phelps, we get the truth for the first time, or at least one possible version of the truth. We see the images of Phelp's nefarious activities -- depicted as Hunt's thoughts; his unvoiced suspicions. On this pass of the events, we see Phelps operating the computer to murderous effect. This time, we see him "act out" his own death for the glasses-camera (and Ethan's benefit). Meanwhile, in the dialogue itself, Phelps lies to us again about what actually occurred and who might be behind it. He fingers IMF supervisor, Kittredge (Henry Czerny)

In another brilliantly vetted moment, Hunt even "re-thinks" the moment that one agent's car was destroyed, first imagining Claire (Phelp's wife) detonating the bomb; and then -- in more palatablefashion -- imagining Phelps doing the deed himself. In this case, we never know the exact truth. This is in keeping with the ambiguous characterization of Claire (Emmanuelle Beart), who is either -- in another typical De Palma move -- a Madonna or a whore.

The Mount Everest of Hacks, (Or a Simple Game For Four Players...): The Black Vault Sequence

The Langley interlude in Mission: Impossible, or the so-called "Black Vault Sequence," remains so accomplished, so tense, so remembered that it has emerged, perhaps, as the most parodied scene in mainstream movies over the last decade.

Basically, this harrowing scene involves four operatives breaking into CIA HQ in Langley, Virginia. Their mission: to download the NOC List from a small chamber called The Black Vault.

First, De Palma lays out the specifics of the difficult operation, showing the audience all the relevant information while Hunt describes it in voice over. For instance, we learn that the console is a standalone mainframe...which means that the expert hacker Luther (Ving Rhames) can't access it from outside. Furthermore, the security checks (voice-print ID, 6-digit access code, retinal scan, and intrusion counter-measure key cards...) prevent conventional access.

Therefore, Hunt, "our point man," must enter the vault through the ceiling, positioned some 30-feet above the console. But the vault itself is wired with counter-measures to prevent just such an invasion. The room is sound sensitive, meaning that if the sound goes up even a few decibels, an alarm will be tripped. A sensor also registers body heat, meaning that if heat rises in the room just a single degree -- again -- the alarm is tripped. And finally, the floors are pressure sensitive, and if they are tripped by any additional weight at all, an "automatic lock down" is initiated.

That's the mountain to climb, and in the film's second act, subtitled "Langley," Hunt and his team broach the impossible mission of accessing the Black Vault console. Hunt is lowered via harness, upside down, through a ceiling vent (initially protected by lasers...), wearing his camera/eye-glasses.

And then, once he's inside, De Palma puts the screws to him and to us. The console operator, William Donloe, for instance, interrupts Hunt in the vault, and the agent is forced to dangle just feet over his head. Donloe need to glance upwards but once, and the mission fails. Importantly, De Palma positions Hunt and Donloe in the same shot to cycle up the anxiety factor: the close-proximity between men becomes plain (and terrifying) as they share space within the same frame.

Secondly, a rat (first viewed in a rack focus, distracting our attention), enters the vent shaft and causes Jean Reno's character to lose a grip on Hunt's harness. Accordingly, Hunt plummets downward and nearly smashes into the pressure-sensitive floor. Hunt then swings uselessly and impotently, trying to maintain equilibrium (an act revealed in long shot, so we can note his spatial relationship to the dangerous floor). And then, in close-up, we see a single, glistening drop of sweat fall down across Hunt's harried face. We trace it down his eye glasses, and down towards the floor....

At the last second, Hunt catches the drop in his open palm...

The punch-line is a humdinger. As a successful Hunt climbs out of the vault, with Reno's help...a knife falls down (in agonizing slow-motion) towards the pressure-sensitive floor below. Miraculously (and humorously) it lands on the console, point down...avoiding immediate detection. At least until Donloe re-enters the room. This is a perfect example of De Palma's wicked sense of humor, the knife functioning as a kind of unintentional "flag" planting by Hunt and his team in the conquered territory.

All throughout this sequence, De Palma utilizes the Dassin motif as seen in Rififi, minimizing dialogue, music and sound effects to great impact. The idea is that the movie -- like the audience itself - is virtually holding its breath throughout the Black Vault Sequence, focusing on the details of the operations with a singular sense of focus, and nail-biting.

The Black Vault Sequence is superlative film style, the trademark De Palma set-piece we have come to expect and cherish in his films (and the climactic equivalent, essentially, to the Odessa Steps scene in The Untouchables). Every shot, every camera move -- every technical parry and every thrust -- is perfectly calibrated to play the audience like a piano.

I had not seen Mission: Impossible in thirteen years before screening it again last night, and I must admit, it was a much stronger, cleverer, and witty film than I recalled from my single theatrical viewing in 1996. De Palma gives us three distinctive impossible missions here, makes clever use of technology and gadgets, and admirable downplays conventional violence (such as gun battles) in the same fashion as the classic series did. Indeed, watching De Palma's tale of a rogue, "disavowed" agent trying to clear his name and outwit his own intelligence superiors reminded me a great deal of the popular Bourne films. It makes you wonder if this movie was somehow a template or inspiration for those (great) movies.

Although fans may certainly feel justified in quibbling over the fact that their beloved series was handed over lock-stock-and-barrel to action-star Cruise, for Brian De Palma Mission: Impossible is Mission Accomplished. No need to disavow the film -- or the director for that matter -- for a job capably and stylishly done.


  1. Another great analysis. Let me add my two cents about this film, which show off one element of DePalma's style that I personally find sets him above most of his peers: gleeful, balls-out, bravura storytelling.

    There are three moments in the film's storyline where I can just imagine the director practically cackling as he brings them into being (it can be debated whether these ideas came from DePalma, Cruise, or the writers... but such moments are hallmarks of DePalma's films, and such moments are nonexistent in the sequels).

    The first is the sudden slaughter of the IMF team. It can be seen as another Hitchcock homage - pulling the rug out of audience expectations as to what the film's focus will be, a la Psycho and at the same time a wiping of the slate for the franchise. The problem is, it doesn't quite work... there isn't quite enough time to establish a team dynamic and allow the characters to imprint on the audience. I saw this film at a preview and had exactly zero knowledge of what to expect plot-wise, but what should have been an "OMG!" moment was just an "Hunh. Look at that" for me. I think about an additional ten minutes was needed to really establish everyone, and the blockbuster dynamics wouldn't allow that. Too bad. Nonetheless, in hindsight I appreciate the ballsiness of the move.

    The second bravura move, however, spurred me to applause... not the CIA break-in itself, which is impeccably directed, as you detail... but the sequence just before that... when Ethan announces that this is what they intend to do. I was like, "Yeah! Now that is in impossible
    mission!" The DePalma touch at its best: setting an extremely high storytelling bar, and rising to the occasion (most of the time).

    And the third, which is less talked-about but, in the context of action movies of the time, equally bravura: the moment when we realize that the helicopter is actually going to be dragged into the chunnel behind the train. It might be hard for some audiences to relate to in these digital days, but at the time that sequence was an entirely new thing in action movies... we'd seen people fighting on a train before, we'd seen fish tanks explode, we'd even seen the sort of caper that was the film's centerpiece before... but the helicopter scene... that was new! I nearly stood up, I was so thrilled. What a terrific popcorn movie.

  2. DLR: You make some valuable and interesting points in that comment.

    Imagine how much the rug would have been pulled out from under viewers if the original team (Landau, Bain, etc.) had been featured...and then killed?!

    I understand the reticence on the part of the original series actors to be involved only to be killed off in a variation of the Janet Leigh trick at the beginning, but I wonder if the reason that the first act surprise doesn't work as well as it might is because of this fact: that it was designed to feature nostalgic familiar faces, but had to settle for a new, unfamiliar team instead.

    And I'm really glad you mentioned the bullet train sequence, and you are correct, I believe, in everything you point out in regards to it. I believe that this sequence (Cruise tossed by an explosion into the train's top...) has become the prototype for virtually every CGI action scene in the last ten years. And certainly, the M:I series has made a practice of having Cruise thrown by explosions, up into the air, several feet.

    Also, I don't believe the other MI films, as you suggest, live up to what De Palma accomplished here.

    Anyway, I loved your comment and it adds a lot to the discussion!



  3. I love that you and J.D. provided some great insight and reviews of this De Palma classic this summer. I teed this up, along with Abrams' third in the series a few weeks back (I find the second a little too Woo excessive). Did you notice J.J.'s quick homage in III to MI's vault gymnastics on Ethan's entrance to the Vatican? The first in this series never gets old. Well... except for that PowerBook 5300 used by Ethan in the hotel room.

    I'll admit, being a fan of the TV series, I was thrown for a loop in how they turned the Phelps character. But being a De Palma fan, and what he accomplished here, that was quickly overlooked. Your note of this being "a mission go disastrously, catastrophically, irrevocably off-track and desperate agents forced to improvise on the spot, under fire and in constant life-threatening dangers is a good one." I couldn't name the episode or season, but I recall one of the extraordinary installments in the venerable series followed Barney (the late Greg Morris) after a mission goes wrong and his similar, singular struggle. It's worth a look at.

    Thanks, JKM. Great post, as always.

  4. Hey Le0pard13,

    I also appreciated J.D.'s in-depth retrospective and review of Mission: Impossible (1996) this summer. He's a damn fine researcher and writer, and I'm glad to know him!

    I will keep an eye out for that M:I episode you mention, especially since at some point soon I hope to re-visit the show for a cult tv flashback! I don't remember it with any detail, but your good description rings some bell in my mind. (Was Barney captured and tortured perhaps, and the other team members had to spring him?)

    Thanks for the great comment!


  5. Hey Le0pard13,

    I also appreciated J.D.'s in-depth retrospective and review of Mission: Impossible (1996) this summer. He's a damn fine researcher and writer, and I'm glad to know him!

    I will keep an eye out for that M:I episode you mention, especially since at some point soon I hope to re-visit the show for a cult tv flashback! I don't remember it with any detail, but your good description rings some bell in my mind. (Was Barney captured and tortured perhaps, and the other team members had to spring him?)

    Thanks for the great comment!


  6. Thanks to the inter-tubes, we might have the answer. The installment I was thinking of may be this:

    Season 5, episode 10 - The Hunted: While rescuing the seriously-ill leader of an anti-apartheid movement from an African country, Barney (in Caucasian disguise) is injured and must rely on the help of a deaf-mute seamstress in order to stay out of the clutches of the police.

    November 21, 1970

    Could it be this was the one you were thinking of?:

    Season 6, episode 20 - Double Dead: When Willy is captured stealing the $10 million bankroll of a pair of Syndicate loan sharks, the rest of the IMF must not only turn the loan sharks against each other in order to get the money, but also rescue Willy before a Syndicate doctor can break him using a truth serum.

    February 12, 1972

    Thanks, JKM.

  7. Hey Le0pard13:

    The inter-tubes are great! :)

    I think "Double Dead" sounds right...but -- wow! --, thank you for the excellent research and information!


  8. This is a really wonderful look at this film. I hadn't known about the whole backstory of trying to get the show's original cast members back only to kill them off in the beginning of the film. I can't say that I blame them for turning it down. It must've come as something of a slap in the face for them after all the hard work they put into the TV show. That being said, having not been a fan of the show I don't really mind that they turned it down. I also don't mind how much the film revamped the show's concept.

    Altho, I will say that out of all of the M:I films this one features the most amount of teamwork, from the botched job at the beginning to the break-in at CIA HQ, we do see Cruise working with others quite often. I think this is what soured me so much on M:I 2 (well, that and many other things) was that they moved away from the teamwork aspect too much and it was all Cruise's show.

    I felt that with M:I 3 they at least tried to get back to the teamwork concept. I've only watched it once so I can't recall how successful they were but I remember enjoying the film quite a bit. The inclusion of Philip Seymour Hoffman as the baddie was a nice touch and he certainly gave the film some much needed gravitas.

  9. I think what made this movie was the casting of Henry Czerny as IMF boss Kittridge. He's a snarling bureaucrat ("...just mail him his clothes") who's just a little too clever for his own good. Who could forget the restuarant scene..." survived!". Together with de Palmas slowly canting shot, he transforms from concerned father figure (almost blase about the loss of the team) to raging boyscout thirsty for revenge so quickly it turns your stomach into an icy ball!

  10. Another noted location was the Bradbury Building used in other films and series (from The Outer Limits to Blade Runner).
    I will definitely buy the dvd collection in a online dvd store


20 Years Ago: Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)

A “generation’s final journey” begins in  Star Trek: Nemesis  (2002), the film that finally took the crown of “worst” (and lowest grossing…)...