"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

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. 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 Towne (among others) co-wrote the screenplay, Brian 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. Despite a well-publicized troubled production, rife with clashing egos, Mission: Impossible was a huge box office success spawning a franchise that continues to produce installments.

Jim Phelps (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 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. Ethan Hunt (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 Luther Stickell and Franz Krieger (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).

It is interesting to note that at the beginning of the film, Ethan is not the leader of the IMF team but rather Phelps is the point man. It isn’t until most of the team is killed off during the Prague embassy mission that he’s forced to go it alone. He even tries to form a new team with Franz and Luther but even that doesn’t stick with the former turning out to be a traitor, leaving only Ethan and Luther at the end. The film is an epic test to see if Ethan has what it takes to survive on his own and have the ability to complete the mission with limited resources. Obviously, he is successful which paves the way for subsequent sequels where he’s the team leader.

Initially, Cruise plays Ethan as a cocky upstart not unlike his characters in Top Gun (1986) and The Color of Money (1986) but that bravado is stripped away when everything he knows is taken away from him. He’s running scared and after his meeting with Kittridge, increasingly paranoid. After being disavowed by his own government, who can he trust? Cruise is excellent in these early scenes as Ethan is in a sweaty panic, trying to figure out what happened. That being said, in some scenes, the actor 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.

De Palma constantly plays with our perception, showing us the Prague mission three times: once as it happens, then from Ethan’s point-of-view as he recounts it to Kittridge and then at the end from Phelps’ perspective where we learn what actually happened. The director pulls out his usual stylistic bag of tricks: the P.O.V. tracking shots, the Dutch angles, the diopter shots, but unlike The Untouchables (1987), for example, it feels subdued perhaps supporting the stories of behind-the-scenes meddling that diluted the purity of his trademark style. It is a testimony to his prowess behind the camera that Mission: Impossible still works as well as it does and this is due in large part to bravura sequences like the CIA HQ heist, which is one of De Palma’s most memorably orchestrated sequences.

As far back as 1982, 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 in 1993 thought that it would be a good idea for a film despite the discouragement of those around him – that is until The Fugitive (1993) came out. 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 and then the actor saw and liked certain sequences from Carlito’s Way (1993) and hired Brian De Palma to direct. After the commercial success of The Untouchables (1987), the director had box office duds with the likes of Casualties of War (1989) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) and was desperate for another hit. “Did I take it hard? Absolutely. When you spend two years making a movie and no one sees it…it hurts. You take it personally.” Even Raising Cain (1992) and Carlito’s Way didn’t make as much money as he’d hoped and he thought, “’Well, I’d better change everything and go back to Untouchables.’ Take a T.V. piece people were familiar with and make something new out of it.”

The screenwriting team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) wrote a draft and then Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) was next in line, but he could only commit for six weeks. He and De Palma hammered out a storyline in that time. “I mean, going over every way to go about this story, staring at each other across the coffee table until we came up a scenario,” the director said. Zaillian gave way to De Palma’s go-to scribe, David Koepp (The Shadow) who was reportedly paid $1 million to rewrite it and had quit smoking before starting work on it only to be driven to start up again while writing it. According to one project source, there were problems with dialogue and story development. However, the basic plot remained intact. Koepp worked on it until he had to start making his director debut Trigger Effect (1996) and this prompted Cruise to bring in his own go-to writer, Robert Towne to work on the script. According to De Palma, 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. According to Towne, “On any given day you’d think it was disaster. But after while, you knew it was working.” Koepp admitted that he and De Palma discovered separate plot holes in the script and they knew “that the plot would beat us, we were never going to beat it.”

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. Rumors circulated that Cruise and De Palma did not get along during filming on location in London and Prague. One rumor had the actor holding a stopwatch on the director during filming. Both men denied these rumors. Cruise said, “I mean there was pressure, there’s always pressure…But I think it’s, like, tension to me is when you hear stories about two people not talking at all, okay?” Koepp said, “Yep, no shortage of opinions on this movie. No one was going to roll over and let the other’s creative opinion rule the day.”

Cruise was a quick study and would observe his stunt double at work and then do the stunts himself. This included a flip on top of a train with a 175-mile-per-hour wind in his face, outrunning an exploding aquarium full of water, and the now famous dialogue-free sequence where Ethan breaks into CIA headquarters hanging upside down while using a computer, which was a direct lift from Jules Dassin’s 1964 heist film, Topkapi. While filming it, Cruise’s head kept hitting the floor as he was off balance. He put a bunch of English pound coins in his shoes and this provided the balance he needed.

The film’s last act was the source of most of production’s tension with De Palma sending last minute faxes to Koepp and Towne begging for revisions to the script. The director had read Towne’s original ending and hated it. “Bob thought we could resolve the movie with a character revelation in the boxcar, leaning toward a Maltese Falcon type of ending.” De Palma came to Cruise with the high-speed chase scene on top of the train. He knew it would add millions to the budget but felt the film “needed this visceral ending to work,” and Cruise agreed.

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 it could knock him off the train. Cruise had difficulty finding the right machine to 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 175 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 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 as 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.

Despite the large revenues, the film received a mixed reaction from critics. 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 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.”

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?


Brennan, Judy. "Cruise's Mission." Entertainment Weekly. December 16, 1995.

Friend, Tom. “Man with a Mission.” Premiere. June 1996.

Kroll, Jack. “Mission Accomplished.” Newsweek. May 27, 1996.

Penfield III, Wilder. "The Impossible Dream." Toronto Sun. May 19, 1996.

Portman, Jamie. "Cruise's Mission Accomplished." The Montreal Gazette. May 18, 1996.

Green, Tom. "Handling an impossible task – A Mission complete with intrigue." USA Today. May 22, 1996.


  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.