Monday, July 27, 2015

Summer School: 'Mission: Impossible' (1996)

With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.

When I pulled up Mission: Impossible to watch on Netflix, I saw that I had apparently rated it two stars at some point in the past, which seemed odd to me because I remember having liked all the movies in the series when I first saw them. Regardless of what I actually thought of Mission: Impossible when I initially saw it in 1996, I thoroughly enjoyed it this time around, even with the convoluted plot and some less-than-convincing special effects in the helicopter-vs.-train finale. As producer and star of the series, Tom Cruise has done a great job of recruiting distinctive directors for each installment, and he started out by giving Brian De Palma one of his most high-profile gigs. It's the last big hit of De Palma's career, which is a shame because it proves that the director can do a great job with a Hollywood franchise if given the proper freedom. Sure, the plot makes no sense (it was constructed piecemeal during shooting, essentially, and built around the action sequences), but the set pieces are great and the visuals are striking. The pacing is so relentless that you hardly have time to stop and think about how nonsensical the plot is.

Although Mission: Impossible purists were apparently not happy with how this movie turned out, it's the closest movie in the series to the original TV show, with Jon Voight playing original IMF leader Jim Phelps and prominent use of the self-destructing mission assignments. De Palma brings a fun action-adventure style to the movie, even though the story is more blockbuster movie than TV procedural. Cruise brings every bit of his movie-star charm to the role of Ethan Hunt, who of course quickly eclipses familiar name Jim Phelps as the movie's actual main character (the purists might have been happier if Voight's character had just been given a different name). Although Ethan is just one part of the IMF team (which also includes short-lived characters played by Emilio Estevez and Kristin Scott Thomas) at the beginning and then recruits his own team once he's on the run, he's more in the mold of the lone-wolf agent, especially since he spends the bulk of the movie being pursued by his own government (a theme that would get repeated throughout the series).

Cruise is a great action hero, and his charm and determination make Ethan easy to root for. Voight is a bit underwhelming as the mentor-turned-villain (a twist that annoyed fans of the TV show), and some of the other supporting players are underused. Henry Czerny, who went on to play a deliciously devious rich douchebag on Revenge, is highly entertaining as the weasely government agent trying to bring Ethan in, and it's actually a little disappointing when he turns out not to be the bad guy. Ethan and Ving Rhames' Luther Stickell went on to form the core of the franchise, but this movie isn't really about characters. It's about bravura set pieces, none better than the incredibly tense sequence in which Ethan is suspended from the ceiling in a CIA vault, determined not to set off any motion or heat sensors as he attempts to copy some sensitive files. The sequence combines humor, stunt work and some stunning deep focus shots to steadily build suspense until ending in a sudden rush of relief.

De Palma is a renowned visual stylist (sometimes to his detriment in the eyes of some critics, although I disagree), and his creative framing makes up for most of this movie's shortcomings. He relies heavily on the aforementioned deep focus, along with near-constant Dutch angles, frequently calling attention to the style for its own sake. It's a sort of pop-art approach to moviemaking, one that fits perfectly with the idea of making a ridiculous Hollywood blockbuster based on a decades-old brand. Mission: Impossible certainly is ridiculous, but it's also consistently entertaining, and it sets the tone for the installments to come, balancing auteurist style with large-scale action.

No comments: