Mission Impossible Revisited

(Welcome to Man on a Mission, a monthly series where we revisit the films of the Mission: Impossible franchise as we sprint toward the release of the seventh film in the franchise.)

There are two phases to the career of Thomas Cruise Mapother IV. In the first phase of his career, Tom Cruise worked with exciting and distinctive auteurist directors, often being pushed to deliver daring and adventurous work. Not every film Cruise made in this phase was a creative success, but working with filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Stanley Kubrick, Cameron Crowe, and Paul Thomas Anderson led the star to unlock deep wells of talent in genres as diverse as Gothic horror, ’50s teen drama, and romantic comedy.

The other phase of Cruise’s career is much simpler and more straightforward. It’s Tom Cruise: Action Hero. In this phase, Cruise has fought mummies, never looked back (looking back is a classic rookie mistake), warded off science-fiction baddies, and generally kicked ass. Over the last quarter-century, Cruise has moved from working within both of these phases to fully embracing his action-hero credentials. (In the few times he has worked against those credentials in the 21st century, the resulting films are forgettable. Consider Lions for Lambs. Or maybe don’t.) 

Yet there’s a bridge between the two phases, connecting auteurs with Cruise’s gung-ho action style. In this bridge, the films manage to be distinctive products of not one, but two auteurs: the man credited as director (it’s always men), and Cruise himself. That bridge is comprised, of course, of the many misadventures of IMF Agent Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible series. To date, there are six M:I films; the seventh installment, originally scheduled to open this July, is now slated to open on Memorial Day weekend 2022, with an eighth on the way in July 2023. 

The series’ 25th anniversary is this month, and even as we continue to wait for the seventh and eighth chapters, there’s no better time than now to dive deep into each existing entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise. Over the next six months, the Man on a Mission column will explore the films of the M:I series, from its inception as one of countless adaptations of TV series into feature films to its current state as the standard-bearer of mainstream action filmmaking. 

And we begin with the first installment, which is best known as the origin story of an Americanized James Bond, which was plenty controversial at the time for the many people hoping that it would be a true Mission: Impossible adaptation.

A Star-Driven Story

One of the most predominant trends in American studio filmmaking of the 1990s was the decision to treat television shows of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s like valuable intellectual property that was ripe for a cinematic revival of some kind. A few of the resulting adaptations were enormously successful at the box office and with audiences, such as The Fugitive, which received a Best Picture Oscar nomination and turned Tommy Lee Jones into a craggy Oscar-winning movie star. Others, like The Brady Bunch Movie and The Addams Family, were well-liked comedies with a pleasantly modern bent on their antiquated source material. But there were many others, such as The Flintstones or Car 54, Where Are You? or The Little Rascals or Leave it to Beaver, that are best left forgotten.

In the middle of this melange entered one of the biggest movie stars in the world. By the mid-1990s, Tom Cruise had worked with challenging directors, garnered praise from critics and audiences, and gotten nominated for an Academy Award. But as he approached his mid-30s, the time was clearly right for him to expand into having more control on his projects. Thus was created Cruise/Wagner Productions, a production arm overseen by the star and his then-agent Paula Wagner, ensuring that he’d have even more say on the films in which he starred. The shingle made a big deal with Paramount Pictures, starting with a film that seemed an unlikely choice for the actor based on its ensemble-driven premise compared to his uncompromising attitude and oversight. That’s because Mission: Impossible, as a TV show, was never defined by one of its actors or actresses, by design.

Though Mission: Impossible is known for having gone into production without a fully completed script, articles like this one from Entertainment Weekly in the late days of 1994 imply the framework was present from the start. The core premise of the film – that one member of a larger team of spies is framed as a murderous mole, and must go on the run to figure out who’s trying to ruin his life – was established before filming even began. That includes the consequential disdain from the show’s original cast members. Oscar-winner Martin Landau said at the time, “I haven’t seen a script, but I’m certainly not in favor of having the old team perish.” And Peter Graves, who played team leader Jim Phelps, said, “I haven’t even been contacted yet. Who knows? Maybe they killed us off already.”

Getting the Band Back Together

At first blush, the 1996 film that kickstarted the franchise does seem very much like the show, at least in the broad strokes. As was the case in the 1960s spy thriller, the head of the Impossible Mission Force team is Phelps (played here by Jon Voight). When the film begins, it’s he who’s given a mysterious case file via video and told of his mission, should he choose to accept it. And it’s he who sees said tape self-destruct in five seconds. Phelps is the one overseeing a team, one of whose members is the reliably cocky Ethan Hunt. But the mission is reliant on each member of the team – also including characters played by Kristin Scott-Thomas, Emmanuelle Beart, and an uncredited Emilio Estevez – performing their tasks, often wearing elaborate masks and costumes.

That’s the first 25 minutes of the tightly wound and constructed Mission: Impossible. But just as you might figure a film starring Tom Cruise – especially at this stage of his career – would really be about Tom Cruise, you might figure that a thriller directed by Brian de Palma has something up its sleeve. Just as it appears that the mission has gone off without a hitch, one by one, the members of the team are offed – by bomb, by knife, by strange sharp object descending from the top of an elevator. (Hasta lasagna, Emilio Estevez.) De Palma, the New Hollywood cohort of Coppola and Martin Scorsese (each of whom had directed Cruise a decade earlier), had long balanced his distinctive tendencies and influences, complex and often adult sensibilities, and mainstream success. So in the same vein as his being selected to direct the tense 1987 adaptation of another TV series, The Untouchables, De Palma got to try his hand at this one too, quickly making clear that the TV inspiration didn’t mean he wouldn’t make Mission: Impossible as much a De Palma film as a Cruise film.

So about 25 minutes into Mission: Impossible, the team of many turns into a team of one. The task at hand – recovering a list of undercover agents’ fake and real identities before the list gets into the hands of terrorist organizations around the globe – is completely ruined…until Ethan learns that the whole mission was a mole hunt to rifle out the sole survivor. The scene in which Ethan realizes he’s been set up as the IMF mole, and must go on the run to clear his name, is a perfect balance of Cruise’s sensibilities and De Palma’s. It’s a relatively simple back-and-forth, as supercilious CIA director Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny) lays out what seems like a pretty airtight case against our hero. But the dialogue, growing more suspenseful, is a buildup to a watery climax, as Ethan employs a useful gadget: a stick of gum that can be used as an explosive when smushed together, here detonating an explosion in a swanky Prague restaurant with aquariums aplenty so he can make his escape. 

Red Light – Green Light

Some of the hallmarks of Brian De Palma’s work are absent from Mission: Impossible. It’s one of the least lurid films of his career, far less sexy (either intentionally or subtextually) in its depiction of a kinda/sorta love triangle between Jim, Ethan, and Jim’s wife Claire (Beart). As much fun as the film continues to be, its handling of Claire as…well, anything really, is its greatest miscue, and one that gets grosser with time, as in a moment near the end where Jim refers to his wife as “the goods.” But that scene with Ethan and Kittridge both visually and verbally, tracks with many of the helmer’s predilections. The true setup of the film, even as it favors Cruise, is a pitch-perfect way for De Palma to pay homage once again to Alfred Hitchcock; Ethan Hunt is the wrong man at the wrong place at the wrong time, accused of crimes he didn’t commit and forced to clear his name with increasing desperation. And the way De Palma films the scene is vintage, with the camera not only closing in on both Cruise’s and Czerny’s faces, but doing so via canted angle, as if the camera was placed at their feet, not over their shoulders.

Though Mission: Impossible is the rare PG-13-rated film in the director’s career (a few of his efforts, including Mission to Mars, were rated PG), the visual elements throughout the film mark this as a true De Palma effort. There are touches like the canted angles at the aquarium restaurant, split-diopter shots, and the constant use of disguises – not just a hallmark of the show, but of films like Phantom of the Paradise and Dressed to Kill. (And nowhere else in the franchise can you find the truly odd image of Tom Cruise in disguise as an old Southern-accented U.S. Senator arguing with political gadfly John McLaughlin.) And then, of course, there’s the centerpiece sequence of Mission: Impossible, in which Ethan, Claire and their new cohorts, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Franz Krieger (Jean Reno), break into the headquarters of the CIA to retrieve the real list of agent names and aliases right underneath the agency’s collective nose. That sequence takes place, as Ethan hisses while in an air vent, in “absolute silence.” 

Each Mission: Impossible film has at least one truly indelible image in which Tom Cruise either re-cements his status as a movie star or tries to reshape it ever so slightly. There’s no doubt what that image is in the first film: it’s the sight of Ethan Hunt dropping spread-eagle to the floor of a highly secured CIA vault housing the aforementioned list of agent names. By holding out his arms and legs, it’s as if Ethan (by which it’s more accurate to say Cruise himself) can stop himself from hitting the ground by sheer force of will. Tom Cruise’s career is marked by images of him in movement, from sliding across the floor of his house in his skivvies to flying a fighter jet because he feels the need for speed. But Ethan’s ability to be relaxed and desperate all at once, in such a fraught situation, may be the most unforgettable image associated with the performer.

That piece of action goes hand in hand with Ethan’s explosive escape from the aquarium restaurant in establishing an important piece of the puzzle of this series: Tom Cruise doing his own stunts. On one hand, the stunts in this film don’t seem as death-defying as that of climbing up the side of the tallest building in the world or hanging on the wing of an in-flight airplane (as we will see in later films). But those stunts only became possible after Cruise dangled from a wire and literally saved his own hide by catching a bead of his sweat in a gloved hand. The sense of the thrilling is communicated here, as it is in the other films in the series, specifically because the audience is visually informed that an extremely famous person has put himself in harm’s way for entertainment.

Hasta Lasagna

25 years later, much of the charm of Mission: Impossible is still present. Though some fans, as well as the show’s original cast, were dismayed not only that the IMF team is killed off early on, but that Jim Phelps is the villain of the film, the reveal is incredibly effective. After Jim reveals himself in a surprise move at the London Underground, he and Ethan talk things over. As Jim tries to pin the entire operation on Kittridge, we see Ethan envision exactly how Jim (and the nefarious Krieger) actually pulled everything off. For a film that was initially criticized for making little sense – a baffling critique to consider in an era when blockbuster films are riddled with plot holes almost by design – Mission: Impossible treats its audience intelligently, by visually communicating what its dialogue chooses not to spell out.

Fan complaints aside, Mission: Impossible was an out-of-the-gate massive hit, eventually grossing $180 million domestically after becoming the first film to be released in 3,000 theaters in North America. The criticisms about the film’s plot were ignored by audiences, and Cruise seemed to have found himself a full-on action franchise he could anchor himself to. And because Cruise was still firmly focused on working with auteurs, he could branch out for the second film – much like within the James Bond franchise – and pull in another filmmaker with a distinctive visual eye.

The result was the most divisive film in the franchise.

***

Next Time: Get ready for some motorcycle fights.

Cool Posts From Around the Web: