Retro Review: “Mission: Impossible” (1996)

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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.

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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.

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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.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

K&M RETRO REVIEW: “The Untouchables”

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“The Untouchables” hit theaters on June 3, 1987. It was a little over a month away from my 16th birthday and I still remember my unbridled enthusiasm for the movie. I would perk up with every TV spot. I read the movie novelization. I read “The Untouchables: The Real Story” by Eliot Ness. I watched the old Robert Stack television series (what few chances I had in a small rural town). In other words seeing this movie was a big deal at the time.

I can’t count how many times I have watched it since. I can say that after paying it a visit for the first time in a while, it still excites me. Director Brian De Palma’s Prohibition era gangster picture pulls from an assortment of different inspirations. De Palma certainly infuses it with a specific visual style. At the same time the film features several classic filmmaking and storytelling touches. It was a big success. It did well at the box office and at the Academy Awards. It grabbed four Oscar nominations winning one for Sean Connery’s supporting work.

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Kevin Costner plays Eliot Ness, a young and eager Prohibition agent in 1930 Chicago (the role was originally offered to Mickey Rourke). He is assigned the seemingly impossible task of taking down mob boss Al Capone (Robert De Niro). Capone owns most of the city through violence, bribes, and liquor distribution. Ness flounders his first few liquor raids and borders on being a laughing stock around town.

Ness catches the eye of a seasoned cop named Jimmy Malone (Connery) who is fed up with the mass corruption running through the system. Malone pushes Ness to go further and to be willing to get his hands dirty if he wants to stop Capone. The two add a young academy trainee and expert marksman George Stone (Andy Garcia) and Washington bureau accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith) to their team. They begin to make dents in Capone’s organization eventually earning the nickname “The Untouchables”. But can anyone be called ‘untouchable’ in De Palma’s corrupt and violent Chicago?

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Even at almost 30 years-old “The Untouchables” hasn’t lost a bit of its excitement or intensity. De Palma and screenwriter David Mamet deliver a fluid, high energy story that weaves through rampant police corruption and bloody gangland violence. And there is certainly some bloody violence. At times the film flows with a classic gangster movie vibe. But then De Palma will broadside us with a scene of jarring violence which feeds the film’s unique tone.

The presentation is top notch. It was brilliantly shot by Stephen H. Burum and several of Chicago’s historical locations were used. The settings, wardrobes, and set designs are impeccable. The Grammy Award winning score from the great Ennio Morricone is simply superb. Who can forget the deep piano accompanied by the haunting wail of a harmonica? Like so much else in the movie, Morricone’s score is truly phenomenal.

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And how about the cast? A young Kevin Costner is the perfect fit for an earnest and determined Ness. De Niro hams it up to epic levels. Of course he goes really, really big, but he is a ton of fun. And then you have Sean Connery who gives one of the best performances of his impressive career. He’s surly, he’s tough, and he has a ton of charisma. Garcia is really good as the soft-spoken cop in training and Billy Drago is gloriously evil in his version of Frank Nitti. The cast is fabulous from top to bottom.

High expectations can often be a death knell. Thankfully that wasn’t the case with “The Untouchables”. It more than delivered when I finally saw it during the summer of 1987. It was nice to see that it still holds up after all these years. Some have picked the film apart, pointing to everything from Mamet’s script to Connery’s accent. Neither were an issue for me. Instead I see this as a fabulous bit of entertainment that hasn’t aged a bit and is unquestionably one of Brian De Palma’s best.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS