Retro Review: “Mission: Impossible” (1996)

Mission Poster

Paramount Pictures had repeatedly tried and failed to adapt the “Mission Impossible” television series to the big screen. Tom Cruise loved the show as a kid and began working on his vision for it. He believed so strongly in the project that he made it the first film developed under the banner of his fledgling production company. The two came together and in 1996 this unique interpretation hit theaters.

The first signal that “Mission Impossible” aimed to be different came with the signing of director Brian De Palma. Though not unfamiliar with studio blockbusters, De Palma came to the film with his own peculiar sensibilities. You see it on the technical side with his extreme closeups and fascinating camera perspectives. But also through his deconstruction of the popular long-running TV series and its characters. That’s what prompted the biggest response from fans of the show.


Obviously “M:I” launched Cruise’s upstanding Ethan Hunt character, less sexualized than James Bond but with the same unflinching moral code. The film begins with Ethan as the frontman for a covert IMF (Impossible Missions Force) mission in Prague. A very good Jon Voight takes over for Peter Graves as John Phelps, the team leader who sends his team to nab a top secret list of undercover IMF agents from the U.S. Embassy before it falls into the wrong hands.

Things go terribly wrong, a mole is unearthed and Ethan finds himself in the crosshairs of IMF director Kittridge (Henry Czerny) who brands him Public Enemy No. 1. He seeks out the help of fellow disavowed agents Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Franz Krieger (Jean Reno) to root out the mole and clear his name. The wonderful Vanessa Redgrave plays a crafty arms dealer, Emmanuelle Béart plays a mysterious IMF agent, and even Emilio Estevez pops up as a not-so-superhacker.

It was interesting to rewatch “M:I” in light of how we routinely see these types of movies today. It’s a blockbuster uninterested in franchise blueprints, shared universes, or other big budget considerations. Those things weren’t as prevelant at the time which allowed for De Palma to play with his Hitchcockian and genre thriller influences.


I still remember the initial reactions from people I knew who didn’t quite know what to make of it. The big finale aside, “Mission Impossible” subverted the blockbuster at nearly every turn. Now keep in mind it was 1996. It shared a big chunk of the summer box office with “Independence Day”, a movie all about fast-paced action and large-scale destruction. “M:I” had a much different idea. Build quiet and focused sequences where a simple bead of sweat can create white-knuckled tension. Of course the famous train sequence showed De Palma could also go big and the scene was a unknowing prophecy of what the franchise would become famous for.

Over time I’ve grown to appreciate this movie more and more. Of course the irony of it all is that this weekend the sixth installment in the “Mission: Impossible” series hits theaters. A subversive first film that went out of its way to break the blockbuster mold birthed a multi-billion dollar franchise. But just like the original, the series has consistently differentiated itself from most other big properties and it has only gotten better. Much of that is due to a perceptive Tom Cruise and he certainly got things started on the right foot.



18 thoughts on “Retro Review: “Mission: Impossible” (1996)

  1. This is still the only film of that franchise that I liked as the next 2 films just bored me and I didn’t bother catching up with the rest and just don’t want to. Plus, I have no interest in watching some aging dinosaur doing stupid stunts just to prove that he’s still got it. If he wants to impress me, why doesn’t he just jump off of a fucking cliff and fucking die?

    • Wow. It’s one of my very favorite movie franchises. I had fun with Woo’s interpretation and even Abrams’ to a lesser degree. But “Ghost Protocol” is where it really redefined itself. I can’t wait for “Fallout”.

      • He’s been hogging the spotlight for too long. It’s time to let someone else do stupid stunts. Besides, he’s old… Not Harrison Ford old but worse. At least Ford can still deliver and be funny while actually play his age.

      • That’s really interesting. I’ve viewed Cruise as taking a much different approach for several movies now. Very seldom does he position himself as the sexy leading man. Both Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation see him as a guy VERY dependent on him team. I’ve liked that.

      • Yes, these “stunt events” of his certainly do do that. They also have the side-effect of taking you out of the movie from time-to-time. More, “How did they do that?”, reaction than keeping you involved with the movie’s story. Although, have to give it to the M:I filmmakers in relying on practical, if dangerously spectacular, stunt effects than the animation-like CGI all Hollywood studios are vomiting up these last few years. Talk about taking you out of the movie! 😉

      • I see what you’re saying but honestly I have never had that experience maybe because I just expect things to go big at any point. Also I don’t necessarily perceive him to be a Superman during those scenes. Often he reluctantly does these things and they almost always go wrong. I think that helps me enjoy them more.

  2. Fine look back at this one, Keith. De Palma’s launch still a favorite of mine. John Woo’s sequel began the action-franchise morph with stagey kinetic gymnastics, which J.J. Abrams distilled for M:I III and set the template going forward. Now, I want to revisit this oldie but goldie myself to fondly ready myself for whatever is going to be unleashed this weekend. Thanks for this. 🙂

    • Thank you my friend. I really have enjoyed the series. I know Woo’s is considered my many to be the weakest but I think it is a ton of fun. But as I said elsewhere “Ghost Protocol” really set it on an interesting course. Rogue Nation blew my mind and I am so excited for tomorrow night. Early reviews have been spectacular.

  3. While i appreciate this more today, I definitely didn’t know what to make of it in 1996. The story was unexpectedly difficult to follow.i nearly fell asleep midway in the movie. but Brian De Palmas direction is undoubtly skillful. Today my favorite one is Mi2 because it embraced its identity as an action film. plus that ending motorcycle chase!

    • Thank You! I’ve often heard M:I 2 called the weakest of the franchise but I really like it. You’re right, it fully embraces its desire to be a stylish action movie. I thought the John Woo flavor was a blast.

  4. I haven’t watched this one in a long time, but I always found it convoluted to the point of being almost incomprehensible – too smart for its own good. 2 & 3 had the opposite problem. They were too dumb. I agree Ghost Protocol is where the series hit it’s stride. While Rogue Nation was close, GP is still my favorite.

    • It’s funny, I felt the story was hard to follow when I first saw it but it has more cohesion with each viewing. I’m a pretty big fan of M:I 2. I kinda love the full blown Woo treatment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s