Two Cents Lights the Fuse with 1996’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE

Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.

The Pick

The Mission: Impossible series is today regarded as one of the most reliable (in terms of both quality and financial return) franchises going in modern Hollywood, second only to maybe the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But instead of a hundred years of ongoing fantastical narrative and far-flung cosmic characters to draw from, the Mission: Impossible series has only a revolving door of writers and directors, remarkably realistic masks that can be removed at crucial dramatic moments, and Tom Cruise’s heroic/insane drive to one-up his own record for stomach-dropping, mind-numbing, insurance company bankrupting, stunts.

But it wasn’t always like that.

No, in 1996, Mission: Impossible was a long defunct brand name associated with a charmingly passe spy show from the late ’60s, early ‘70s, remembered almost entirely on the strength of an iconic theme song composed by the legendary Lalo Schifrin, and buoyed by a syndication deal in the ’80s. Each week, agents of the IMF (Impossible Mission Force [yes, really]), under the leadership of stalwart leader Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) concocted elaborate heists and tricks to bamboozle villains of the week out of everything from international secrets to illegally obtained artifacts.

Long-term fans of the property were then horrified when Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner selected an adaptation for the show as their first production, turning what had been an entrenched ensemble number into a movie star vehicle. They only grew more incensed when director Brian De Palma used the familiar rhythms of the show as subversion, not structure. Here again, Jim Phelps (now played by Jon Voight after a furious Graves refused to take part) is leading an IMF team, including Cruise’s new character, Ethan Hunt, on yet another high stakes covert mission. But instead of the usual cheerful subterfuge, the mission goes quickly south and all but Hunt are slaughtered. Hunt discovers that he has been framed as a mole and has to go on the run and discover the true identity of the killer, less he spend the rest of his life being…hunt…ed.

Despite what the franchise has become, Mission: Impossible is really not an action film, outside of its explosive conclusion. Instead, De Palma exercises his well-worn Hitchcock fetish with this tale of a wrong man on the run, with a narrative twisting and spiraling in a dozen convoluted directions. While the series would expand tremendously in the two decades since it began (eventually becoming the sort of team-based ensemble adventure that this first film so gleefully disposes of) Mission: Impossible also introduces a number of figures that would become series stalwarts, not least of them Ving Rhames as Luther Stickell, hacker extraordinaire.

But does Mission: Impossible still sizzle, or is this one mission that should long since have been left to self-destruct? — Brendan

Next Week’s Pick

The fate of Universal’s latest Monsters reboot, the “Dark Universe”, is uncertain at best after a couple of false starts. But back in 1999, Universal had great success with Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy which launched a successful series (two if you count The Scorpion King), and in 2004 they tried to repeat the success with the director taking on some of their other classic monsters in a crossover film: the result was Van Helsing starring Hugh Jackman, on fire after two well-received X-flicks. But despite a fun crossover concept and big star power, the film was to many a goofy disappointment. We thought it seemed a good time to revisit this studio oddity which recently made its way onto Netflix streaming.

Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at) anytime before midnight on Thursday!

Our Guest

Brendan Agnew (The Norman Nerd):

My first experience with M:I was the novelization (ask your parents) that I picked up on a family vacation in 1996. I was11, had no real experience with spy fiction, and had four days in the car to kill. I was absolutely hooked, but when I finally managed to see the movie, it ended up being one of those pivotal moments in the development of young film fans.

Names like Tom Cruise and Danny Elfman were familiar, but this Brian de Palma fellow who directed it? The guy behind those wild low angles and cavernous frames and POV sequences and and split diopter shots — hell, I didn’t even know the names of these techniques, but I would soon enough. Mission: Impossible stands out from a sea of ’90s action films as something that was both wildly different for the time (I vividly remember media speculation as whether Tom Cruise would work as an action hero, oh how much we had to learn) and still to this day the obvious work of an auteur being given major studio money and just letting himself off the chain.

The story and plotting of M:I may take a backseat to the set pieces (which are still high water marks of their ilk), but the relentless tension of being hunted comes is soaked into the film by De Palma’s assured mystery of both empowering voyeurism and haunting paranoia. The first act delivers a 1–2 punch of both of these during the beginning mole hunt, and the rest of the film is both Hunt and the audience playing defense. There’s a version of this movie that better portrays the absolute wreckage that this would make of a person, but a talented director and a star just *going for it* really give this movie a pulse long after you’ve stopped caring about potential plotholes.

Now, if we can just convince them to bring back Vanessa Redgrave as Max. (@BLCAgnew)

The Team

Justin Harlan:

With a new M:I film out, it’s time once again to scold myself for falling off the series years ago and never correcting that. I’ve seen the first three, the first movie a good few times.

Of the three that I’ve seen, the first remains the best by a long shot. I’m not a particularly huge De Palma guy, but I think I’ve enjoyed just about everything of his I’ve seen. This is probably my third favorite of his with Carrie and Phantom of the Paradise ahead of it. To me, this is one that I don’t always think about in terms of it being a De Palma film, though.

Falling for this movie before I spent much time thinking about directors, this is a film that represents my early high school film tastes and an era where big action movies were simple the best thing ever. Between the nostalgia and my ability to better understand and appreciate film than in my younger years, I really still enjoy this one… and I’m excited as hell to finally make my way through the rest of this series. This was a good excuse to get that process started so that I’m not in the same boat again when M:I inevitably releases another installment next year or in 2020. (@thepaintedman)

Brendan Foley:

If Mission: Impossible has a flaw, and I’m not convinced this is one, but just theoretically if it does, it’s that Cruise, De Palma, and the whole squad of writers and actors and technicians they assembled to execute this movie did such an incredible job at turning Mission: Impossible into such an all-out blitz of delightful thrills and chills that they missed the bleak, cynical edge at the heart of their own story. And make no mistake: Mission: Impossible has a deeply cynical, jaded heart, if it has a heart at all. The film’s view of spycraft is not dissimilar from that put forth by John Le Carre, a world in which emotional connections are a weapon to be exploited and only the most truly detached, the most truly paranoid and alone, can thrive. Because the movie pile-drives through these concerns to get to the next maddeningly tense set-piece, there are payoffs and reveals that should land like emotional atom bombs, but there’s just no time for it. This is especially true of the film’s final scene, which must have played as a sneering punchline on the page, but instead comes across as a tease for the assumed-sequel.

Again, this isn’t really a complaint. Because at no point does it seem like either De Palma or Cruise especially wanted to make that kind of melancholy, mean movie. They’re just having too much got-dang fun piling crazy twist after crazy stunt after crazy twist. For Cruise, you can really see him starting to experiment with his personal brand and stretching his persona into interesting places. Cruise made his name as the epitome of All-American can-doery, the guy who greets every challenge with a cocksure grin and wills his way to victory. Ethan Hunt, meanwhile, spends the entirety of his first movie on his heels, constantly playing from behind and desperately trying to hold things together as they implode around him. It’s still shocking even at this late date to Cruise so out of sorts as he is during the early stretches of this movie, and he plays it very well.

If Cruise is venturing outside his wheelhouse, De Palma is playing squarely in his zone. This is as much a fetish piece as Blow Out or Dressed to Kill, as De Palma uses every trick in the book to trip you up and keep you on your toes. It’s thrilling work, expressing a degree of style and confidence that is largely foreign to today’s blockbuster realm. (@theTrueBrendanF)

Austin Vashaw:

I remember being anxious to rent Mission: Impossible when it released on VHS and then feeling a little let down that it was less of the action-packed radness promised by the TV spots and more of a melancholy espionage tale.

And really, not much has changed.

In a franchise now six films deep, the original Mission:Impossible film is retroactively something of an outlier. Whereas John Woo steered the franchise into a reliable action extravaganza known for its massive action setpieces and huge stunts and JJ Abrams brought back more of an ongoing team dynamic (replacing the one dismantled at the beginning of this film), De Palma’s first entry is a slower and definitely moodier creature, and my least favorite in the series.

That’s not a knock though, because we’re talking about a franchise that I really enjoy. And I personally have to give it major credit for instilling my love of both Ving Rhames and Jean Reno. M:I sets up a ton of ground work, and it does bear many of the traits which would become staples of the sequels, though it does so more sparingly: face swapping masks, heist sequences, and a big action finale — they’re all here, just with a different flair. (@VforVashaw)

Next week’s pick:

Previous post SOMEONE’S WATCHING ME!: Lost John Carpenter Film Is Progressive & Frightening
Next post THE EQUALIZER Defends the Downtrodden in Crisp 4K