Monday, July 27, 2009

Mission: Impossible

A lot was riding on Mission: Impossible (1996) for Tom Cruise. Not only was it the first film he produced (in addition to starring), it was also his first attempt to kick start his own film franchise. And what better way to do this than resurrecting a classic television show from the 1960s? Cruise, always the calculated risk taker, wisely surrounded himself with talented people: Robert (Chinatown) Towne co-wrote the screenplay, Brian (Scarface) De Palma directing and the likes of Jon Voight, Jean Reno and Vanessa Redgrave in the cast. At the time, the James Bond franchise was in a transitional period and didn’t produce a new film until the following year. Mission: Impossible was a huge box office success spawning two additional sequels.

Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) leads his group of IMF agents on a mission to intercept Alexander Golitsyn (Marcel Iures), a traitorous attaché, who has stolen a list of the code names for all of the CIA operatives in Europe. He plans to steal the other half of the list with their real names from an embassy in Prague. One by one, members of the team are killed off by mysterious assailants. Only Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) survives the bungled mission and rendezvous later with his superior, Kittridge (a wonderfully twitchy Henry Czerny) in a restaurant. Over the course of their conversation, Ethan realizes that he was set-up and that another team was shadowing his own. Kittridge reveals that the embassy debacle was actually an elaborate scheme to expose a traitor within the IMF organization and he believes that it is Ethan and that he also killed his entire team.

De Palma conveys Ethan’s growing sense of paranoia and panic in this scene through increasingly skewed camera angles as the magnitude of what has happened begins to sink in. Henry Czerny plays the scene beautifully as Kittridge talks to Ethan as a parent might scold a child. The conversation between them culminates with a daring escape as Ethan causes a large aquarium to explode, using the ensuing chaos to make his getaway. This scene was Cruise's idea. There were 16 tons of water in all of the tanks but there was a concern that when they blew, a lot of glass would fly around. De Palma tried the sequence with a stuntman but it did not look convincing and he asked Cruise to do it despite the possibility that the actor could have drowned.

Ethan regroups at a safe house where he meets Claire (Emmanuelle Beart), another surviving member of his team. He must find out who set him up and retrieve the list. To aid him in his endeavor, Ethan enlists the help of Claire and two other disavowed agents (Ving Rhames and Jean Reno). The film really gets going once Cruise hooks up with Reno and Rhames (playing an ace hacker no less) and they decide to break into CIA headquarters for what is Mission: Impossible’s most famous set piece. This impressively staged sequence is cheekily dubbed the “Mount Everest of hacks” by Ethan and is masterfully orchestrated by De Palma. The heart of this sequence is nearly soundless proving that one doesn’t need a ton of explosions and gunfire to have an exciting, tension-filled action sequence (Michael Bay take note).

Paramount Pictures owned the rights to the television series and had tried for years to make a film version but had failed to come up with a viable treatment. Cruise was a fan of the show since he was young and thought that it would be a good idea for a film. The actor chose Mission: Impossible to be the first project of his new production company and convinced Paramount to put up a $70 million budget. Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner worked on a story with filmmaker Sydney Pollack for a few months when the actor hired Brian De Palma to direct. They went through two screenplay drafts that no one liked. The screenwriting team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) wrote a draft and then David Koepp was reportedly paid $1 million to rewrite it. According to one project source, there were problems with dialogue and story development. However, the basic plot remained intact. De Palma brought in screenwriter Steve Zaillian (A Civil Action) and finally Robert Towne to work on the script. According to the director, the goal of the script was to "constantly surprise the audience.”

Amazingly, even with all of these talented screenwriters working on it, the film went into pre-production without a script that the filmmakers wanted to use. De Palma designed the action sequences but neither Koepp nor Towne were satisfied with the story that would make these sequences take place. Towne helped organize a beginning, middle and end to hang story details on while De Palma and Koepp worked on the plot. The director convinced Cruise to set the first act of the film in Prague, a city rarely seen in Hollywood films at the time. Reportedly, studio executives wanted to keep the film’s budget in the $40-$50 million range but Cruise wanted a “big, showy action piece” that took the budget up to the $70 million range.

The script that Cruise approved called for a final showdown to take place on top of a moving train. The actor wanted to use the famously fast French train the TGV but rail authorities did not want any part of the stunt performed on their trains. When that was no longer a problem, the track was not available. De Palma visited railroads on two continents trying to get permission. Cruise took the train owners out to dinner and the next day they were allowed to use it. For the actual sequence, the actor wanted wind that was so powerful that it could knock him off the train. Cruise had difficulty finding the right machine that would create the wind velocity that would look visually accurate before remembering a simulator he used while training as a skydiver. The only machine of its kind in Europe was located and acquired. Cruise had it produce winds up to 140 miles per hour so it would distort his face. Most of the sequence, however, was filmed on a stage against a blue screen for later digitizing by the visual effects team at Industrial Light & Magic.

The filmmakers delivered the Mission: Impossible on time and under budget with Cruise doing most of his own stunts. Initially, there was a sophisticated opening sequence that introduced a love triangle between Phelps, his wife Claire and Ethan that was removed because it took the test audience "out of the genre," according to De Palma. There were rumors that Cruise and De Palma did not get along and they were fueled by the director excusing himself at the last moment from scheduled media interviews before the film's theatrical release.

In some scenes, Cruise has a tendency to over-emote, like when Ethan is reunited with Claire after their entire team has been wiped out. Sleep deprived and paranoid, Ethan yells at Claire, “They’re dead! They’re all dead!” It’s an embarrassing bit of overacting on Cruise’s part but the actor redeems himself somewhat later on in a cheeky bit of acting when he cons Reno over a CD of vital information through a clever display of sleight of hand.

The film’s overriding theme is one of deception, a world where nothing is what it seems. The prologue has a disguised Ethan trick a captive man into giving up a name of a key operative. This is only one of many disguises (created by make-up legend Rob Bottin) he adopts throughout the film in order to obtain information or trick an opponent. The prologue also cleverly serves as a metaphor for filmmaking. The spy trade, like cinema, is all about creating an illusion and pretending to be something that you’re not. In addition, several members of his team are not who they appear to be as well and this keeps the audience guessing as to who is “good” and who is “bad.”

Mission: Impossible opened on May 22, 1996 in 3,012 theaters – the most ever up to that point – and broke the record for a film opening on Wednesday with $11.8 million, beating the $11.7 million Terminator 2 made in 1991. De Palma’s film also set house records in several theaters around the United States. It grossed $75 million in its first six days, surpassing the previous record holder, Jurassic Park (1993) and took in more than $56 million over the four-day Memorial Day weekend, beating out previous record holder, The Flintstones (1994). Mission: Impossible went on to make $180.9 million in North America and $276.7 million in the rest of the world for a worldwide total of $457.6 million.

Despite the large revenues, the film received a mixed reaction from critics. Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "This is a movie that exists in the instant, and we must exist in the instant to enjoy it.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden addressed the film's convoluted plot: "If that story doesn't make a shred of sense on any number of levels, so what? Neither did the television series, in which basic credibility didn't matter so long as its sci-fi popular mechanics kept up the suspense.” USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and said that it was "stylish, brisk but lacking in human dimension despite an attractive cast, the glass is either half-empty or half-full here, though the concoction goes down with ease.” Time magazine’s Richard Schickel wrote, "What is not present in Mission: Impossible (which, aside from the title, sound-track quotations from the theme song and self-destructing assignment tapes, has little to do with the old TV show) is a plot that logically links all these events or characters with any discernible motives beyond surviving the crisis of the moment.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The problem isn't that the plot is too complicated; it's that each detail is given the exact same nagging emphasis. Intriguing yet mechanistic, jammed with action yet as talky and dense as a physics seminar, the studiously labyrinthine Mission: Impossible grabs your attention without quite tickling your imagination.”

The common complaint leveled at Mission: Impossible was that it was hard to follow, fueling speculation that De Palma’s original cut was non-linear in nature and that Cruise re-cut it after disastrous test screenings. Regardless, if one is paying attention to what is happening and what is being said (or not being said, in some cases) it isn’t difficult to navigate the film’s narrative waters. The script is lean and unusually well-written for a big budget action blockbuster, which is quite amazing when you consider how many writers worked on it. Make no mistake about it; this is a paycheck film for De Palma. However, being the consummate professional that he is, the veteran director still delivers an entertaining film with some nice stylistic flourishes. What more could you ask for from this kind of film?

NOTE: If you want to get more of a De Palma fix, head on over to John Kenneth Muir's blog where every Friday he takes a look at one of the man's films. The first one is Dressed to Kill and is up and ready for you to check out. There is also a great debate raging over at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies about whether De Palma is an auteur or not.


  1. Hey J.D.:

    Thanks for the link to the Dressed to Kill review, and also for your great, well-researched addition to De Palma Blogging!

    I have not seen Mission:Impossible (1996) in several years, so I desperately need to see the Cruise film again.

    At the time of the theatrical release, I was rather disturbed about how far afield the movie went from the TV series (I'm a fan...); but I wonder if I would feel the same way today, gazing at M:I as a De Palma film instead.

    Your excellent retrospective makes me want to watch the movie again;

    I just watched The Untouchables (another "paycheck" picture, to steal your lingo [!]), and it's pretty damn good too. Even when De Palma is a hired hand, his movies have a high-level of intelligence and a remarkable visual flair, I think.

    John Kenneth Muir

  2. John Kenneth Muir said...

    No probs on the link to your review. It seemed like a good idea to continue the love for De Palma around the blogosphere.

    I just watched MI recently and it holds up quite well. Cruise hams it up a little as I noted, but otherwise it is a solid piece of filmmaking and very entertaining. I would be curious to hear your thoughts on it.

    I love THE UNTOUCHABLES. Definitely one of my all-time fave De Palma films, amazing considering he did for the money as well but with that great cast and David Mamet's tough-guy script... great stuff. As you point out, even when De Palma's a hired hand he still manages to give the film so class even if it is only through camerawork/style.

    As always, thanks for stopping by and for the kind words.

  3. I recall when this hit theaters and the pall that hit long-time M.I. fans on the twist befalling Mr. Phelps. Perhaps, that was reflected on the critic write-ups at that time. Me? I found that I could easily separate my fondness for the venerable series and what was on the screen (since I more than appreciate the work of De Palma). And I agree with blogger JKM that your review calls to me to re-screen this once more. Hmm... Target had this on sale recently in Blu-ray Disc. Time to warm up the BD player, me thinks. Thank you for this.

  4. Hey J.D. Great review on this one. This is one of your best yet. You did a fantastic job covering this movie. I actually did not like this movie the first time I watched it. I'm not really sure why. It was after seeing it a second time that I actually liked it. I haven't seen it in awhile though. I might try to catch it again.

  5. le0pard13:

    Yeah, MI fans were not happy with the what the film did with Phelps and I have to admit that I am coming at the film from someone who really isn't a fan of the show and seeing it more as a stand-alone thing.

    I wonder if fans of THE UNTOUCHABLES TV show felt the same way about De Palma's film version?

    Thanks for stopping by and for the compliments! Enjoy re-discovering the film!


    Thanks for the kind words, Keith! I really appreciate it. I have found that this film has improved over time and I enjoy catching up with it every so often.

  6. Hey there. Make sure you stop by my Sugar & Spice blog for my Friday post. I gave you some awards. Your blog is awesome. You definitely deserve it. Have a great Friday and weekend. Cheers!

  7. Keith:

    Thanks, Keith! That was very cool of you. I really appreciate it.