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 BÊart 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