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.



RETRO REVIEW: “St. Elmo’s Fire”


Rewatching “St. Elmo’s Fire” is like stepping into a time machine. As with so many films from its period, it contains numerous components that are unequivocally and distinctly 80s. “St. Elmo’s Fire” was released right in the heart of the decade, July of 1985, and that seems amusingly fitting. Its cast, its look, its mechanics all function like a movie made within those definable 10 years. In some ways that is a compliment because the 80s were so indelibly marked with a unique cinematic style and playfulness. In other ways it is not a flattering statement because many of these films drown in that style and never feel as imaginative or important as they try to be. They simply don’t stand up well outside the boundaries of their decade. All are true when it comes to “St. Elmo’s Fire”.

The film was directed and co-written by the ever so divisive Joel Schumacher and featured most of the major members of the unfairly branded “Brat Pack”. Along with “The Breakfast Club”, “St. Elmo’s Fire” is considered the centerpiece and measuring stick of the Brat Pack genre. Again, this actually contributes to the cool and nostalgic feel, yet watching this cast, all young and promising at the time, wasn’t without a certain amount of baggage (whether fair or not).


At first it would be easy to dismiss “St. Elmo’s Fire” as a film that does nothing and says nothing. Most of the film plays out like scenes of encounters and conversations pasted together and bound only by a thin semblance of plot. That’s actually pretty accurate. But to say the film says nothing would be inaccurate. Often times its storytelling and messaging is muddled and messy, but there is a deeper meaning that I still find effective.

The story follows seven close college friends who have recently graduated from Georgetown University. The film’s intent is to show us their transition from the comforts and structure of college life to the responsibilities and unpredictabilities of adulthood. Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Demi Moore, Andrew McCarthy, Rob Lowe, and Mare Winningham each play ‘types’ (as they were known to do in many of their films). We get the yuppie, the bad boy, the party girl, a buttoned up nerd, the brooder, etc. It is a bit surprising and frustrating as none of them stray too far from their types.


Still some of the characters carry some weight and their intersecting stories are interesting. Ally Sheedy is the most compelling of the bunch and she has the most interesting and thoughtful story. On the opposite end you have Estevez and his throwaway character. His weird and sudden obsession with a past college crush (played by Andie MacDowell) is silly and disjointed. Most of the other characters fall anywhere in between, but ultimately it is their group dynamic that the film banks on and for the most part it works. The performances are pretty solid and even when the material flounders a bit they are often able to salvage the scene.

“St. Elmo’s Fire” was trampled by many critics who saw it as a huge waste of time. The film doesn’t do itself many favors. It meanders a bit and you can’t help but recognize its feelings of self-importance. It simply isn’t as cool or as smart as it wants to be. But I still think its a good movie and I still think it contains a satisfying message. Perhaps some of my appreciation is rooted in unashamed nostalgia. I’m willing to admit that. Ultimately I think there is too much here to write off, even if it is a little rough around the edges.


3 Stars


Emilio Estevez was a household name during the 1980’s and early 1990’s. He starred in several popular films such as “The Breakfast Club”, “Young Guns”, and “The Mighty Ducks”. After seemingly disappearing from the business, Estevez turned up behind the camera with “The Way”. He wrote, produced, and directed the film starring his real-life father Martin Sheen. “The Way” isn’t Estevez’s first foray into writing and directing. His first attempt was with 1986’s forgettable “Wisdom”. He later directed 2006’s slightly better “Bobby”. This time Estevez creates a simple but much stronger and more genuine film that I really enjoyed.

“The Way” is a reference to the Camino de Santiago, a spiritual and historical pilgrimage also known as “The Way of St. James”. It’s a long, arduous journey starting in France and ending at the Cathedrel of Santiago de Compostela in the small town of Galicia in northwest Spain. Thousands of individuals travel the Camino’s different routes each with their own personal and/or spiritual purposes. In the movie “The Way”, the Camino provides the main setting for this touching story of reconciliation and personal transformation.

Martin Sheen plays Thomas Avery, an Optometrist with a successful professional life but a troubled family life. Since the death of his wife several years ago, his relationship with his son Daniel (played by Estevez) has soured. While out on the golf course with friends, Thomas recieves a call notifying him that Daniel was killed during a storm in the Pyrenees mountains. Thomas flies to France to identify and bring back Daniel’s body. While there he discovers that Daniel was killed while walking the Camino de Santiago. Struggling to handle not only the death of his son but the strained relationship they shared, Thomas has the body cremated then takes Daniel’s gear and sets off on the Camino in hopes of finishing the journey for his son.

Estevez’s story could have easily evolved into a mushy, run-of-the-mill road picture but it never does. Sure it’s easy to predict and nothing happens that will catch you by surprise. But it’s a very sincere and sensitive film that doesn’t get caught up in overwrought sentimentality. Thomas’ journey feels authentic and personal and I couldn’t help but wonder if the real-life father-son connection had something to do with it. Along the way Thomas runs into several other pilgrims including Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a Dutchman taking the journey to lose weight for his brother’s wedding, Jack (James Nesbitt) and Irish writer struggling with writer’s block, and Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), a Canadian who wants to quit smoking. Much like Thomas, each of these characters have more going on under the surface and each find themselves effected in different ways by their pilgrimage.

“The Way” also looks fantastic. Estevez took great effort to portray the Camino de Santiago reverently and authentically. The beautiful scenery and the quaintness of the small Spanish towns fills the movie with life and ambience. Also the ability to capture details of the pilgrimage does just as much to contribute to the atmosphere. Estevez proves to have a good eye and I was surprised at how well he handled the camera. It may not be the most polished example of filmmaking but I was impressed.

As I mentioned, “The Way” is a simple and straightforward story. It’s fairly predictable and it’s only real surprise is in how effective the movie is. It’s a heart-felt and inspirational film and even when the story meanders in the middle, I never felt uninterested or disconnected. It doesn’t shy away from it’s spiritual nature but it doesn’t bludgeon you to death with it either. “The Way” may not work for some people but I was moved by it despite it’s few shortcomings. One thing the movie stresses – the journey is often times more important than the destination and it left me wishing I could take a month off and make my own way to Galicia.