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Mission: Impossible

Review by Carrie Gorringe


Directed by Brian De Palma.

Starring Tom Cruise,
Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Beart,
Ving Rhames, and Vanessa Redgrave.

In re-watching some of the episodes of the old Mission: Impossible series just after having seen the new big screen version, the contrast between the two hit me like the proverbial thunderbolt. Other than the obvious differences between cast, budget size and special effects, there was one other, far more glaring discrepancy, namely that the series had not been afraid of taking chances with its audience’s intelligence. Despite the necessarily formulaic nature of the series (which ran on the ABC television network from 1966 to 1973), with villains always being vanquished no matter what narrative twists and turns had to be employed to put them in that condition, the series generally contained a sufficiently high level of suspense as to the means of defeat, a suspense dependent upon the use of presumably extant but covert gadgetry. No matter that some of the gadgets looked so unabashedly cheesy, because so beyond the scope of then-current technology, that their efficacy seemed doubtful at best (one memorable episode employed a 16mm film, and the use of hallucinogenic drugs to deceive a dictator). The success of the entire enterprise hinged on the fact that the series’ audiences believed in the potential of the electronic avant-garde -- the great economic and military strength of the US during the ‘60s playing no small role in creating that belief -- and so were willing to suspend whatever qualms they had about anything they saw. Both audience and series were willing to push the envelope in the electronic frontier, providing that there seemed to be some logical consistency maintained between products and the plot line.

Likewise with the career of Brian De Palma, who used to be a risk-taker of sorts. Although much of the work done in the early part of his career was warmed-over Hitchcock or Antonioni, he was still able to take these remaindered elements and fashion them into a unique trashiness that was really fun to watch (his 1978 film, The Fury, is still one of my guiltiest of pleasures). At some point (probably after the critical and commercial failure of Body Double in 1984, De Palma seemed to mutate into a merely workmanlike director. This is not to say that 1987’s, The Untouchables was less than entertaining, because it most assuredly was, but De Palma’s handling of the film fell under the category of necessary, but not sufficient.

And so it is with this film. The surface of Mission: Impossible is so slick that everything just glides right off it, up to and including most vestiges of entertainment. The film works -- and just barely -- only because the narrative flies at warp speed; there’s no time to think about gaping holes in the plot and gross violations of the fundamental laws of physics, not to mention credibility, when you finish hurtling in the course of two hours across the Atlantic Ocean and back only to find yourself hurtling through the Chunnel with no chance to catch your breath. The plot, as such, involves the desperate attempts that agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) must make in an attempt to clear his name after a nighttime mission in Prague goes terribly wrong and all of the agents but he are murdered, including his immediate supervisor, Jim Phelps (Voight), and information has been stolen. So Hunt enlists a group of rogue agents and Phelps’ widow (Beart) to accomplish the task. The sequence in Prague is indeed suspenseful, and demonstrates the exciting direction this film could have taken. Instead, even with the melange of technological and geographic razzle-dazzle at the crew’s disposal, there is very little joy in this film; the overall effect on screen bears more than a passing resemblance to what might have occurred with a hypothetical pairing of James Cameron and John Calvin; the decision to eliminate over seventy-five per cent of the cast within the first forty minutes doesn’t help the situation very much. There is no denying that this film has other great, if implausible, moments, such as the "computer room" sequence cited in all of the trailers with Cruise playing a high-tech Pinocchio, but that’s all this film has -- great moments strung together with very little substance. It is also apparent that some major and last-minute editing was performed; one entire subplot involving Hunt and Mrs. Phelps is so obscured throughout the film that its sudden reappearance at the end of the film is as much a surprise as a clarification of audience expectations. Unfortunately, as everything else indicates, editing was not the means by which to save Mission: Impossible.

Apparently, first-time producer Cruise wanted to hedge as many bets as possible in creating a secure market niche for this film, and he has succeeded to the probable tune of at least $200 million, but the cost to the end product was incalculable. Only when the peerless Vanessa Redgrave appears on screen to deliver an elegantly sexy and witty performance, at intervals too infrequent for sustained relief, is any measure of heat detectable. A brief, if inspired (and uncredited), appearance by Emilio Estevez as a computer nerd and Ving Rhames’ role as a cynically bemused computer expert are also welcome oasis’s in a cinematic desert. The movie version of Mission: Impossible dangles on the edge of self-destruction, though it takes somewhat longer than five seconds for the realization to hit home.

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