How Brian De Palma Subverted the Blockbuster With 'Mission: Impossible'

(Welcome to Team Leaders, a series where we explore how the directors of the Mission: Impossible movies used this franchise as a canvas to explore their pet themes and show off their unique sensibilities. In this edition: Brian De Palma makes the most fascinating Hollywood blockbuster since Jaws.)

Mission: Impossible was the first movie Tom Cruise ever produced. This fact often gets lost in the conversation when looking back on the 1996 blockbuster (not to mention its subsequent sequels). Nevertheless, the transnational superstar not only built the perfect James Bond clone for himself in IMF Agent Ethan Hunt – all-American, athletic, sexy but never exaggeratedly sexual, and containing a steadfast moral compass to guide his gung-ho screen presence – but also a genre cinema sandbox, in which he could invite some of the most talented artists from around the world to come play.

For each of the first five films in the M:I franchise, a new author was called in to stamp their thumbprint onto its ever-expanding mythology, allowing this initially improbable series to grow into a rather wondrous pulp canvas. Perhaps this is because Hunt's adventures began during an era where movies weren't just viewed as brands or "shared universe" starters (ironic, given its origins as a big screen adaptation of an iconic CBS serial). No, Mission: Impossible kicked off in a Hollywood we'd barely recognize these days: where blockbusters were mostly built to be single stand-out films, manned by visionaries unbeholden to the notion of hypothetical sequels or prequels. Instead, their job was to capture our imaginations for a specific moment in time, without any interminable business plan put in place.

Yet bloom Mission: Impossible did, as the series' sixth installment – the near-perfect Fallout – hits theaters this coming Friday. With "Team Leaders", this writer's hoping to trace the individual contributions of the men who sat in the director's chair, analyzing how their inimitable, idiosyncratic talents helped shepherd along one of the most (if not the most) aesthetically pleasing blockbuster runs in the history of cinema.

Opening with a bang is the one and only master of suspense, Brian De Palma, whose initial Mission: Impossible still stands as possibly the most radical post-Jaws American blockbuster ever made...

A Different Kind of Blockbuster

If you hire Brian De Palma to helm your nearly $100 million blockbuster (whose budget seems unusually small come 2018), chances are it isn't going resemble anything else hitting multiplexes that (or any other) year. This is precisely what happened when Tom Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner brought the notorious Hitchcock conversationalist aboard for Mission: Impossible. It obviously wasn't the first time De Palma had manned a massive studio picture – as he'd already churned out the ultraviolent gangster remake Scarface in '83, its massive, David Mamet-penned period successor The Untouchables in '87, and the infamous bomb Bonfire of the Vanities in '90. However, his signing signaled the direction Cruise was headed with his own 007 companion piece: it was going to be an eccentric series, led by bona fide auteurs as opposed to anonymous journeying workmen.

With that in mind, it's no wonder Mission: Impossible is possibly one of the most subversive, stylistically defined franchise entries – let alone inceptors – in cinema history. Cruise's first outing as Impossible Mission Force Agent Ethan Hunt is just as much a showcase for De Palma's peculiar fascinations as it is the front man's considerable star power. Looking back on the third-highest grossing picture of '96 twenty-two years on is a beguiling investigation of how both the series and studio filmmaking on the whole have radically evolved; notions of "shared universes" a mere glimmer in some future executive's eye. In fact, it's tough to watch M:I and imagine that anyone involved (beyond Cruise, of course) expected it to stretch into a decades-spanning action/adventure serial.

That De Palma Touch

De Palma has always been a pop dissident. From his earliest days helming Godardian farces such as Greetings ('68) and Hi, Mom! ('70), there's been an air of angry rebellion contained in even his funniest work (just look at the harrowing Be Black Baby sequence from the latter for the best example). Phantom of the Paradise ('74) doubles as the director's commentary on how commercialization can bastardize great art (having been inspired by hearing a Muzak cover of the Beatles in an elevator), and Carrie ('76) is just as much a scathing indictment of every popular high school kid – who this self-described "science dork" was the antithesis of at the same age – as it is a rip-roaring psychedelic horror show. Even his dizzying erotic thriller – the perverted, porno chic nightmare Body Double ('84) – is a knowing middle finger to the criticisms he received for his previous Hitch riffs, its title derived from the jabs taken at the stylist for using a stand-in during Angie Dickinson's Dressed to Kill ('80) nude scenes. In short, De Palma is an artist often fueled by "fuck you", willing to antagonize his detractors by doing whatever the hell he wants.

However, if there's any entry in BDP's filmography that his Mission: Impossible shares the most in common with, it's the paranoid conspiracy thriller Blow Out ('81). In that near inscrutable masterpiece, B-Movie sound man Jack Terry (John Travolta) accidentally captures a Senatorial assassination while recording new foley effects for his latest body count picture. Using the tools of the cinematic trade, Terry reconstructs the murder into a moving image, all while an unhinged government operative (a lecherous John Lithgow) pursues him and the only other surviving witness to the crime: a lovable floozy name Sally (De Palma's then wife Nancy Allen). Blow Out is a motion picture awash in both distrust of authority and its author's punch-drunk love of cinema, as he utilizes all the tricks in his deep magician's bag to craft one of our finest motion pictures.

With Mission: Impossible, De Palma essentially becomes Jack Terry, disassembling the elements that made Bruce Geller's prime time pulp a cultural touchstone and then rebuilding them in his own image*. Hunt's initial mission – which we bear witness to through a series of the director's trademark Steadicam POV shots – is quickly dismantled by an unseen killer (via a rather grisly upending of expectations), placing the baby-faced operative on the run while higher ups like IMF Director Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny) treat him like Public Enemy No. 1 (their initial tense, post-op meeting a barrage of split-diopter shots scored by Danny Elfman's rising strings).

In Ethan's quest to clear his name and reveal who the mole is inside the IMF that helped take down his team, he assembles the first of many international squads – including IT man Luther Sitckell (Ving Rhames), French operative Krieger (Jean Reno), and the hyper-sexy Claire (Emmanuelle Béart) – to break into the CIA's intel vaults and obtain an undercover NOC (Non-Official Cover) list that could be the key to their survival.

Oppressive Claustrophobia Meets Bombast

The movie's central set piece – in which Cruise famously repels into a stark white high-tech cupola, where even a bead of sweat dripping off his forehead could trigger the alarm – sees De Palma practically showing off. Here, the auteur's again cribbing from the past, as the sequence evokes Jules Dassin – whose Rififi ('55) seems to have served at least as a subconscious template – with its acute stillness and silence. When compared to the wanton property damage that would dominate the blockbuster scene for the next two decades (thanks in part to fellow '96 alumnus Independence Day's notable monument decimation), the sequence is lovely and elegant, relying on precision as opposed to chaos in order to generate maximum tension. This is a master filmmaker getting to flex every creative muscle he owns, and De Palma doesn't waste a single moment.

Of course, the bullet train sequence (set atop France's famous TGV) that caps the first M:I would more resemble what the series went on to become: a veritable stunt show (with Cruise performing much of his own death-defying aerobatics), augmented with fiery CGI. Yet even in this compromised action arrangement – which Cruise pushed the studio for and the filmmaker finally agreed to – De Palma is gleefully playing with concepts of space onscreen, as he jams a helicopter into a train tunnel with reckless abandon. It's a brilliant amalgamation of his usual affection for oppressive claustrophobic tension and the bombast that'd later come to define the series.

Yet for a moment in time, Mission: Impossible was all about the sophistication of spy craft, as filtered through the hazy anti-reality that was its author's bread and butter. The shame of it is: Cruise invited De Palma back for the sequel, and the director declined, leading to John Woo's hiring for arguably the most controversial entry amongst fans: Mission: Impossible II.

*Including making former hero Jim Phelps (played here by Jon Voight) the bad guy, much to long time M:I admirers' chagrin.