Retrospective: Mission: Impossible (1996)

Remember when Tom Cruise was a good actor and cool rather than a crazy scientologist? Well everyone, today I will remind you of a movie that made Tom Cruise who he is today. Mission: Impossible is one of his best and most marketable movies and his attempts since have often tried to recapture that old magic. This was the first Mission: Impossible, albeit an updated version of the old 60s TV series and its 80s remake. This movie put Cruise on the map as an actor who was interesting for the right reasons.

It was also the first movie I can remember that attempted to challenge the Bond movies for supremacy of the spy genre, an almost exclusively British dominated field since the 60s. Released at a time when the Bond method was really starting to feel tired (after a while you were able to time the various plot conventions to your watch), this was a new style of action film that emphasised stunts, which Tom Cruise claimed he did all by himself. It had cool gadgets and was directed by an equally cool director (Brian De Palma) who was known for a cast iron reputation with films such as Scarface and The Untouchables. It is the foreign nature of the cast which makes the movie so interesting, featuring Emmanuelle Beart and Jean Reno, both of whom were big French stars and not very well known outside of France, along with well-known character actors such as Vanessa Redgrave and Kristen Scott Thomas. Looking back, I’m absolutely amazed at the caliber of the cast which worked on this film.

This movie is great for its gimmicks. First and most importantly are the latex face-masks which added a great amount of uncertainty to the film’s first viewing, adding to the shock of seeing something completely unexpected happen to a character and not seeing that it’s a set up. Secondly is the aspect of betrayal and the way it appears to seamlessly moves between Bond and le Carré. The opening of the movie is such a perfect example of this as it plays with your assumptions. You see how amazingly well prepared the team are with all these actors and the cute interplay between them which signifies that they had done this before and have an understanding of the target. When they start getting picked off you share their horror, which makes for a really clever inversion of the spy genre as the protagonists seem one step behind. In this case, it doesn’t matter how good they are but someone is out there and prepared for them so in the end they are all dead except for Ethan (Cruise) and Claire (Beart) who run away, whilst Ethan tries to figure out who did it and why.

After the best opening sequence of the whole M:I series, we are back in the familiar territory of disavowed agents breaking into secure places in order to steal stuff and solve the mystery of the mole, almost the same way Ocean’s Eleven later tried to replicate. This movie also introduces lots of really cool gadgets such as chewing gum explosives, VR lenses and hacking. All of this felt very fresh and was something more interestingly presented than in the equivalent Bond movies of the time (Goldeneye and Tomorrow Never Dies), which had the same ideas but with far less ambition in their execution.

So audience, why is the rest of the series so crap? Well, its always quite a complicated answer but the first issue is taking the wrong lessons from the first movie. Mission: Impossible II had a lot of problems. Firstly, it’s directed by John Woo who loves his Wire Fu at the expense of almost everything else so restraint was packed off to Outer Mongolia. The villain was remarkably stupid and very boring (a Scottish businessman) and it had some incredibly stupid fights such as airborne motorbikes with bloody slow-mo to make this movie all the more obnoxious. It missed out the most important part that made the first film so successful; the betrayal and the backstabbing. The plot was so predictable and dull, such as how some characters could not seem to die or be injured no matter what happened and it certainly started to lose its seriousness. The third movie was directed by JJ Abrams and it’s a bit of a mess with a stupid opening featuring the death of a character which the audience doesn’t care about and yet all the characters see it as a huge tragedy. You just don’t feel anything even if it made a noble attempt in adding a bit more to Tom Cruise’s bland character but the plot is confusing even if it is better than what came immediately before. The most recent and fourth installment, Ghost Protocol, is a fun popcorn movie with the depth of sieve and played for laughs but in many ways it’s the best out of the lot as there aren’t that many light-hearted action movies that don’t take themselves too seriously.

Tom Cruise has been attempting to find the same magic he had in the first Mission: Impossible by taking on variously unsuitable roles such as the recent Jack Reacher. He seems have become a bit of a Mel Gibson figure. An odd, strange actor, desperately looking for a way to return to the good old days. This is a good movie that has some particularly impressive parts and is nicely filmed with some really lovely locations. The opening is particularly strong even if Cruise is typically bland but the rest of the film and the story is solid and doesn’t have the concentrated stupidity that plagued some of the follow ups.

Review by Harry Riedl


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