Retro Review: Mission Impossible (1996.)
We choose to accept the mission of re-watching the film that launched the 3 billion dollar MI franchise. We may or may not have self destructed after viewing.
I have to admit that I’ve never been a fan of the Mission: Impossible franchise. Besides a general dislike of Cruise’s early action flicks (except for Legend, naturally), I also found the series to be silly. The tone of the films is dead serious, but the premise and old spy tropes felt like parodies. The original TV series was fairly campy, like a blend of Get Smart and The A-Team. My sour first impression from the first MI movie actually made me pass on any of the other films, even though they’ve reportedly gotten better. After re watching Mission: Impossible most of my original gripes remain, but I can see the DNA of what would go on to become the hallmarks of the franchise.
Mission: Impossible (1996.)
IMF is a covert agency specializing in subterfuge and infiltration. Helmed by veteran agent Phelps and his golden boy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), they get into places other agencies consider impossible to crack. On a mission to secure a list of friendly spies, the group is attacked and only Hunt survives. The CIA is convinced it was an inside job and that Hunt is a traitor. He must evade capture long enough to find the people who killed his team and secure the secret list.
MI is determined to establish itself as a stylish and gritty departure from the TV series right from the beginning. Like the shows, it begins with a mission in progress, the iconic theme music, and a self-destructing recording outlining the op. As you settle into the routine of the traditional MI caper, everything goes sideways and the crew is eviscerated. In one bloodletting the film transitions from the team oriented heist/spy genre to an action chase model similar to The Fugitive.
The shift in tone and style was jarring to me in 1996. Being pretty familiar with the series, and having seen the trailer show a team-oriented montage, I was expecting an ensemble affair. Most of the run time is instead Tom Cruise flying solo. Even when Hunt manages to get some back up from former IMF agents, it’s very much a one man show. It’s not as discomfiting 20 years later thanks to the ubiquity of the hard-boiled loner spy model (think Matt Damon’s Bourne or Daniel Craig’s Bond) but it still feels at odds with the MI ethos.
Tricks of the Trade.
Another aspect of the TV series that feels out of place in the film is all of the spy gimmicks. Poison pens, exploding bubble gum, and rubber disguises make appearances and feel kitschy. I was waiting for Hunt to whip out a shoe-phone! Much like the team caper element, it shows up early, disappears and then re-surfaces late in the film. It leads to a feeling that the script (reportedly not finished by the start of filming) couldn’t quite figure out how “Mission Impossible” it wanted to be.
Demolish and Rebuild.
While MI stumbles trying to appropriate material from the old series, it shines in establishing what would become the spirit of the new series. Modern MI is driven by spectacle: gorgeous globe-trotting destinations that serve as the backdrop to iconic stunt sequences. The story has become incidental (I feel like they’ve cribbed the “team gets set up, needs to clear Hunt’s name” plot in about half of the films!) The willingness of Tom Cruise and his team to pull Jackie Chan-level crazy stunts each film, and to really sell them with blood, sweat and tears has made the franchise stand out.
Director Brian De Palma and TC really commit the action sequences in Mission: Impossible. Each is well crafted and memorable. Twenty years later, I could still recall each one – even when I had no clue as to how or why they were in the story.
“If You Choose to Accept It…”
Tonally, MI is a chimeric mess. The old and new styles are oil and water and never really match up. In 1996, I think it was a much more jarring disconnect. Now that MI is established int its current form, it doesn’t strike one as so incongruous. The structure of what was to come is there, under the rubble of blowing up the old expectations. I’d imagine fans of the new series will appreciate the proto-MI formula… but I can’t say there’s a ton more to see than the flashy stunts. The characters are rather generic, criminally misusing talents like Jon Voight, Vanessa Redgraves and Jean Reno. The plot is rather generic as well – except for when its downright silly. If you accept this mission, just know you’re signing up for frenetic action with a bit of spy-play grafted on.