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Non-Review Review: Mission Impossible

This post is part of James Bond January, being organised by the wonderful Paragraph Films. I will have reviews of all twenty-two official Bond films going on-line over the next month, and a treat or two every once in a while.

I can understand you’re very upset.

Kitrich, you’ve never seen me very upset.

Tom Cruise really wants to be James Bond. I mean, I think that’s the driving force behind the Mission: Impossible films, an attempt to construct an American James Bond franchise around the character of Ethan Hunt – they certainly aren’t the biggest of the blockbuster movies, and yet Cruise has used his influence to produce a trilogy of films (with a fourth one in the works). Between that and Knight & Day, I think the role of a globe-trotting secret agent action hero just appeals to the actor. I think he pretty much wants to be an American James Bond  and – truth be told – I think he’s a great candidate for it.

Just hangin' out...

Mission: Impossible is something of a divisive film to fans of the original series. A lot of people who remember the television show have a whole host of complaints about Brian dePalma’s adaptation of the film. They argue that the series wasn’t about set pieces or chases, but about the psychological interaction between the team and those they were trying to take down – that it was a game of wits rather than a test of strength. Fans of the series observe that the premise of the show was a team working together to take down the bad guy, while the movie elevates Ethan Hunt to leading man status with no supporting cast (in this and the next film) or a greatly diminished on (in the third film). Of course the most serious complaint that fans have about the film (while well-known) is a spoiler – so I’ll discuss that below.

Though I’d argue that Brian dePalma keeps the movie as a game of wits – with various characters “playing” each other and figuring out a complex web of allegiances – I’d observe that the bulk of the changes made to the source material are designed to mirror the Bond the franchise. Here Ethan has, of course, those ridiculously accurate face masks from the television show – but he also has exploding chewing gum and gadget watches to play with. We’re even introduced to Hunt while he’s wearing a tuxedo during a botched operation – certainly intended to call to mind a certain iconic British spy.

The plot isn't water tight...

The movie feels almost like a strange Bond film. There’s a sense that dePalma and Cruise are consciously using practical effects work – to his credit, Cruise insisted on doing as many of his own stunts as possible – and the movie is structured like a Bond film. There’s a cold open, a chase sequence, an agent going rogue, a civil meeting with a bad guy, a macguffin, an infiltration, a reveal of a traitor and a final spectacular confrontation. It’s hard not to see echoes of GoldenEye, the Bond film released late the previous year, in the film.

DePalma has always been a director worth watching, even in those films which aren’t essential viewing. Here, the movie is well-staged, with the globe-trotting adventure providing some wonderful scenery to work with. The movie features several iconic set pieces, including that helicopter and train chase sequence and the famous cable drop (which have arguably engrained themselves in pop consciousness deeper than the film itself). DePalma also manages to assemble a skilled cast, including Emelio Estevez and Kristen Scott Thomas as members of an ill-fated IMF taskforce. The movie isn’t anything close to his best work, but it’s still well-made, and shows signs of a director who knows exactly what he’s doing.

It’s interesting to note how bloodless the film is (so to speak). Although it’s by no means as simplistic as the original television show, there’s a clear emphasis on non-lethal force where applicable – “zero bodycount,” as Hunt warns a colleague. Even though the IMF is a top-secret agency tasked with tracking down double agents, they are decidedly old-school. “Your mission Jim,” the briefing explains, “if you choose to accept it, is to obtain photographic proof of the theft, shadow Golitsyn to his buyer and apprehend them both.” Note that the group isn’t looking to simply catch him and deal with him, they are hoping to produce proof of his duplicity, presumably so this can later be handled through official channels.

A glass act...

The movie is a little jumbled – there’s a sense that it is perhaps more complex than it needs to be. Still, it’s never too difficult to figure out who is playing who and why, but it seems that DePalma loves misdirection for its own sake. That, the movie is remarkably honest and straight-up with its audience, perhaps too much so – I could have done with seeing the clues and later on having their significance re-emphasised so we see where they fit, rather than necessarily figuring it out as Ethan does. Such an approach would have allowed the smarter members of the audience to figure the game out quicker than others, and made it more of an accomplishment.

It’s also interesting, as it is with any nineties film, to look at how the screenwriters use the internet. It’s not too far out from the way it actually works (especially given some of the wilder portrayals of the time), but there’s still a quaint feeling to scenes where Ethan navigates bible groups looking for his weapons dealer. Perhaps I’m being too harsh – the movie was arguably ahead of its time when it comes to the use of explosive chewing gum in the Ukraine.

Note: I’m about to discuss something near the end of the film. It’s also a source of much fan complaint, so I feel like I’m not doing the movie justice if I don’t discuss it. So, you’ve been warned, there are spoilers ahead.

I imagine Cruise had fun shooting it...

Apparently the stars of the original Mission: Impossible television show walked out of the premiere when it was revealed that Jim Phelps was the traitor operating inside the IMF. It’s easy to understand the frustration felt be fans – he’s a character on the show, and a rich part of the legacy of the franchise. Indeed, since these movies are intended as a sequel to (rather than a reboot of) the original television series, Phelps was the only existing character to appear in the movie. Ethan Hunt and his team are all entirely new creations, with no links to the legacy of the show. You can understand why fans and actors might see the decision to make the only returning character a traitor as something which might cause some slight offense.

And yet, I respect it. It’s simple storytelling mechanics. We treat returning characters as “safe”. We implicitly know that characters that have a fanbase built-in are not “expendable” in a storytelling sense – that’s why the Red Shirt always dies in Star Trek, and why it’s bad news to be the only guy on the away team without a first name. Once you become a regular character, the audience has the expectation that you will always be around. That’s why it’s typically so easy to identify the mole on shows like 24 – the audience knows deep down that it won’t be a returning character (in most cases), because they’ve proved their loyalty. We know them and love them, and turning them into a traitor feels like a betrayal to us. So it’s always the new guy who is the outsider and the traitor, because nobody will get upset if he’s a mole.

Cruise doesn't phone it in...

Making Phelps the traitor pulls the rug out from out expectations as an audience. Despite the mounting evidence and the fact that Voight is credited second in the opening titles, we know he can’t be dirty. He may be dead, but he can’t be dirty. And so the movie is able to give us honest-to-god hints which we just overlook, because we aren’t watching Jim Phelps especially closely. I understand the reasoning behind the decision, and I think it was a very bold one to make. It could have been much more banal, but his treachery is somewhat deeper because of his shared history.

Or so I think anyway.

Mission: Impossible isn’t a perfect film, but it’s an entertaining spy thriller. There are certainly weaker ones out there. It’s well-staged and well-directed. If it seems a little heavy-handed and overly complicated at times, that’s grand. It’s still a nice little film.

2 Responses

  1. Another excellent non-Bond review for the event. I will always have a place in my heart for “Mission Impossible” and I too draw a strong mental connection between this film and “Goldeneye.” I have very fond memories of watching them both incessantly.

    • Thanks Stu. it’s more than just the release schedule as well (they were a year apart, if I recall). It’s the same sort of just-short-of-deconstruction cynical take on the spy genre in a a post-Cold-War setting. But I do believe that Cruise has probably asked at least once if the producers would consider an American James Bond.

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