For the uninitiated, Mission: Impossible was a highly successful US TV series which ran for eight 20+ episode seasons across the Sixties and Seventies (with a further 2-season reboot series released in the Eighties). It focussed on the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) which comprised of a team leader (originally Steven Hill’s Dan Briggs, then replaced by series mainstay Peter Graves as Jim Phelps), a point man (notably Martin Landau’s master of disguise, Rollin Hand, but later seasons featured Leonard Nimoy’s magician, Paris), a femme fatale (these changed over the years, although Landau’s real-life wife Barbara Bain as Cinnamon Carter stands out amidst the rest), as well as an electronics expert (Greg Morris’s Barney Collier) and heavy goods ‘muscle’ character (Peter Lupus’s Willy Armitage). They undertook dangerous missions across the globe, overthrowing despots, destabilising fascist regimes, and staving off economic and political disaster at hands of nefarious organisations. Latter seasons would see the focus shift on more national crime, as the team would take on more missions against the mob (although the reboot series would redress the balance).
The unusual thing about the Mission: Impossible series was the fact that it told fairly clever, comparatively adult tales of political conspiracy and large-scale sleight-of-hand, the team-based missions seldom relying on direct conflict – guns and fists – but instead upon indirect scheming. If the target was a dictator who needs to be stopped, rather than simply assassinate him, the team would plan a large-scale confidence trick which involved infiltrating his regime using disguises and false identities, and manufacturing events which would throw the dictator’s actions into doubt amidst his own men. The team would then disappear back from where they came from, leaving the dictator to be ‘taken care of’ by his own people. Double-crosses, triple-crosses and generally very sneaky behaviour was the name of the game, and it was what made the Mission: Impossible series so damn exciting and so refreshingly different. It is also what leaves it surprisingly watchable even to this day.
Paramount, the Studios who owned the rights to the series, attempted to get a movie made with the original cast; even as Peter Graves passed retirement age there were still plans to feature him in a movie, but a suitable script simply never came up, and so it was effectively put in limbo. It was Tom Cruise who changed all of that.
Cruise had been working with Paramount for years, and had just finished filming the big-screen adaptation of John Grisham’s The Firm for them, under the direction of the late Sydney Pollack. In 1993 Cruise formed Cruise/Wagner productions, partnering up with his former agent Paula Wagner – their first project was Mission: Impossible. Cruise had always been interested in the franchise, and its possibilities on the big screen, and he brought Pollack with him to work on a viable screenplay, also securing further funding from Paramount itself. The story that they came up with would be the same basic framework that could be found on the finished product, but, along the way, several other writers were brought on board to do numerous drafts. Indeed when Brian De Palma was brought on board to direct, the screenplay was further changed, with the assistance of Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne.
The story would follow an Impossible Missions Force unit (the IMF having been established as a covert division of the CIA), led by returning character from the TV series, Jim Phelps. After their latest mission does not go according to plan, field operative Ethan Hunt is forced to go on the run, his teammates picked off one by one and team leader Phelps himself shot and dumped off a bridge. The CIA director in charge of overseeing all IMF operations suspects Hunt as being the traitor, and it’s up to Hunt to draw in the services of a number of less-than-reputable ex-IMF operatives to help him break into CIA headquarters at Langley and steal the information required to uncover the true traitor behind this all.
“Should you, or any member of your I.M. force, be caught, or killed, the secretary will disavow all knowledge of your actions. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds.”
It would appear that, whilst a great deal would change in the 3 years that it would take for the project to finally hit the Big Screen, everybody appeared to be on the same page with regards to several key elements in the story: the premise, the second act twist, and the conclusion; as well as the three grandest set-pieces, namely, the opening escape, the CIA infiltration (dangling from the ceiling) and the closing chase on the train. The common intention, of course, particularly with De Palma involved, was to keep the audience in suspense; in that respect, the story for Mission: Impossible worked extremely well. The trouble was that De Palma’s forte tends to be following a single protagonist on his twist-and-turn voyage through an often conspiracy-laden plot: whether it be John Travolta’s solid early turn in the Blow-up re-working, Blow Out, or Al Pacino’s career-defining performances in the half-brother projects Scarface and Carlito’s Way. Aside from the exception to the rule that was The Untouchables, De Palma largely stayed clear of multiple-protagonists in favour of a single clear hero.
Of course the new story for Mission: Impossible catered for this, clearing establishing Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt as the hero and star of the piece, and showing the rest of the IMF team as being not only interchangeable but utterly disposable. It was a great plan for Cruise, providing a potential franchise vehicle for arguably the defining A-list star of the last two decades; a committed, sometimes exceptional actor whose films never fail to entertain (yes, I even liked Knight and Day!) but who would still likely never be a serious contender for Bond (he even got to wear a tux!), nor for Bourne. Undoubtedly nobody but Cruise could have ignited the new Mission: Impossible films in such a way as to totally and utterly make them his own, leaving him not only with the option to pick up and do a new instalment as and when he saw fit, but also making himself the defining element without which a Mission: Impossible movie would likely never get green-lit.
Many fans of the original TV series (and indeed old IMF stalwart actors Peter Graves, Greg Morris and Martin Landau) were initially concerned with the way in which the new Mission: Impossible film effectively jettisoned the whole team-based mentality in favour of what was, essentially, a one-man show. They had been approached with this idea as the premise for a movie back when they were all still starring in the series but had all universally rejected it: Landau himself commenting that this was not what the Mission: Impossible series was about; he said that it had always been about getting in and out without getting caught, and completing a mission with your target blissfully unaware that they had ever been duped. The notion of having the entire team dispatched soon after the opening credits rolled just did not appeal to anybody who had worked on the original series, nor to many fans who had followed it over the preceding decades.
“I can understand you're very upset.”
“You've never seen me very upset.”
Personally, I thought that the new direction, whilst not really making for a classically-styled Mission: Impossible outing, opened things up for an ongoing film series which retained many elements from the old series, whilst also allowing for blockbuster spectacle, grand scale set-pieces and a common lead character throughout the franchise – namely Cruise. None of this could be seen to be a bad thing; Mission: Impossible is now the moniker of a quality blockbuster film series: audiences know to expect certain ongoing themes of duplicity, espionage, double-crossing, confidence trickery and sleight-of-hand (and, of course, lots of key face-mask usage), all wrapped up in a package that involves several jaw-dropping stunts and lots of star players.
Cruise always intended himself to be the common element on the projects, seeking out different directors to bring their own unique vision to the film series. De Palma was the first person to put his stamp on the franchise, and there is no doubt that, even though this is Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible, it’s still done in the style of Brian De Palma. Right from the opening pre-credits setpiece we already have a succession of trademark camera angles and nods towards high tech surveillance equipment, as the expendable first team are introduced; these are further used to heighten the suspense during the tense exchange between Hunt and his suspicious boss, CIA director Kittridge, and, pretty-soon we get further trademark visual imagery in the dioptic shots, first-person viewpoints and then even dream-like hallucinations, mind-tricks and clever flashbacks which play out in the lead character’s mind and reflect his thoughts about the identity of the traitor in their midst. As Hunt talks the situation through with a key player, we hear the man’s story, but get to see, in Hunt’s mind, the real thoughts that he has behind the situation. It’s an ingenious method for De Palma to use to visualise the conspiracy, allowing us to see what the lead character is thinking, without having to force him to spell things out using the usual exposition.
Many would complain about the over-complicated plot of triple-crosses and treachery, but it actually gives this summer blockbuster a particularly intelligent edge. The first time you see it, the thrills really do come as a surprise, with all the elements slowly fitting into place, but enough twists and turns to keep you well and truly glued to the screen for the duration. Sure, I can remember sitting there, initially overjoyed by the Mission: Impossible TV-series homage that it paid within the first half-hour (including a superb prologue classic mission, followed by a credits sequence that cleverly flashed us images of the subsequent movie – as was the format of the old series), and then utterly aghast with the speed at which the team are ripped apart to leave this feeling like just another one-man Tom Cruise show. But, as the narrative goes on, this outing does come into its own as a different kind of Mission: Impossible – one that is just as impossible, but which is less about a perfect, unstoppable team who can do anything without being caught, and more about Cruise’s one-man army, who has to improvise at every turn just to stay alive and get to the truth.
Of course there would be a number of famous supporting cast members on board for the ride, all veritably bringing their respective characters to life irrespective of the length or brevity of their on-screen contributions. The first IMF team consisted of the likes of Charlie Sheen’s brother Emilio Estevez (probably the last big movie that he featured in), little-known Lithuanian actress Ingeborga Dapkunaite (Seven Years in Tibet), The English Patient’s Kristin Scott Thomas, and French actress Emmanuelle Beart (Manon des Sources) as various operatives, all under the control of Jon Voight’s handler, Jim Phelps. In classic Mission: Impossible TV series style, this established the key components of any team: the operation handler (Voight’s Phelps), the point man (Cruise’s Ethan Hunt), the electronics expert (Estevez), and the seductive femme fatale (Beart). With Jim Phelps’s seeming demise during the first act, it then falls upon Cruise’s Ethan Hunt to establish himself as a new team leader, and recruit a new team, which include disavowed members Luther Stickell (Pulp Fiction’s Ving Rhames) as a new hacking expert and Franz Krieger (Leon’s Jean Reno) as supporting operative and resource handler.
“It was inevitable. No more cold war. No more secrets you keep from yourself. Answer to no one but yourself. Then, you wake up one morning and find out the President is running the country without your permission. The son of a bitch, how dare he. Then you realise, it's over. You are an obsolete piece of hardware, not worth upgrading, you got a lousy marriage, and 62 grand a year.”
Those who have seen the movie will know just how important Jon Voight’s role was, and just how controversial it was for both fans and cast members from the old TV series, who were all surprised with the fate of his particularly beloved series character, Jim Phelps. A veteran actor with everything from Deliverance to Midnight Cowboy, Mission: Impossible was the start of something of a comeback for him, and he feels perfectly cast, whether playing the father-figure mentor, or the cynical veteran IMF agent who is troubled by the direction in which the agency has gone in ever since the end of the Cold War. Emmanuelle Beart, whilst not wholly convincing as Phelps’s wife, is perfectly cast as the femme fatale, both of the team, and of the film in general – her dubious part to play largely based on duplicity and seduction, so much so that, even after end of the film, you are left wondering where her loyalties truly lay. The newcomers, who get far more screen-time than the old team members, are Rhames and Reno, both familiar with playing fairly tough on-screen characters, although Rhames would be cast against-type as the more computer-obsessed Stickell, whilst Reno gets to do what he does best as the most threatening, unpredictable member of the group. Indeed this was a point in Reno’s career where, after the success of Nikita, and the development of his character there into a full-feature persona for Leon, he had graduated to Hollywood supporting parts, all of which appeared to stem from the same mould; after Mission: Impossible he would play a tough, no-nonsense mercenary in Godzilla, as well as a similar resource handler in Ronin, opposite De Niro. Indeed this is one of several movies which all have a comparably threatening line from Reno’s character in them: Nikita – “We complete the operation or I burn your face off!”; Leon – “You do that again and I break your head!”; and here on Mission: Impossible – “You try any sleight of hand with my money and I’ll slit your throat!”.
Other bit parts would go to the likes of Henry Czerny (Clear and Present Danger) as the suspicious CIA director out to apprehend Hunt and Vanessa Redgrave (Atonement, Julia) as a crime boss who Hunt has to track down. Redgrave, whose refined voice is simply the epitome of mellifluous, was apparently the ‘kind of person’ that Cruise and De Palma wanted to mould their crime boss character on, and they eventually decided to approach Redgrave herself to play the against-type role, which she readily accepted. She certainly makes for a refreshingly different arms dealer.
Indeed, without Cruise, not only the cast, but the budget and the subsequent stunts would likely have been nowhere near as big and spectacular; Cruise not only suggesting the ideas for, but doing the majority of the stunts himself (they filmed the first act fish-tank explosion with a stunt double, only to find that it was not very authentic, so Cruise lobbied to do the dangerous stunt himself, to much better effect), as well as also securing the permission required for some of the most daring film-work, including personally brokering the deals to both get the budget extended by Paramount, to allow for grander set-pieces (and to afford its unusual Prague setting), and also secure the relevant permissions required to film the huge finale atop the high speed TGV train. Although some of the train stunts would need to be done using green screens, even these would involve high tech machinery that Cruise himself had to source, obtaining the use of a massive skydiver-training wind machine to create the right wind velocity for the sequence (hence why his face looks so authentically distorted during this scene, with genuine 140mph wind blasted at him).
Despite all the full-on stunts, Cruise never allowed his character to stray too far into the realms of superspy territory – still preferring deception and misdirection over direct conflict, seldom physically confronting anybody, and barely brandishing a gun, let alone actually using it (all of which would change dramatically across the sequels). Sure he is shown to be physically capable, but he’s clearly more of a strategist than a one-man strike-force, for the most part. It’s only perhaps in the final move of the final action scene that things go that little bit too far over the top, but, by then, you’re totally caught up in the momentum of the scene and can just about let it slide (c.f. the fall at the end of the first Bourne movie).
Of course arguably the most memorable set-piece would involve dangling Cruise from a ceiling air vent above into a heat-sensitive room above a pressure-sensitive floor, with the very beads of sweat on his brow posing a veritable threat to his discovery. There simply could have been no better director to bring this scene to life, heighten the tension throughout, and leave it playing as one of the best remembered scenes across the entire franchise.
“In the vault, there are three security sensors that will activate at anytime the technician is out of the room. First is voice sensitive. Anything above a whisper will set it off. The second one senses the temperature. The body heat of an unauthorized person in the room can set it off if the temperature rises by a single degree. The temperature is controlled by an air duct system 30 feet above the floor. The vent is guarded by a laser net. The third one is on the floor, and it's pressure sensitive. Just the slightest increase in weight will set it off. If any of these 3 sensors are set off it will trigger an automatic lock-down.”
Standout action blockbuster set-pieces; a plot brimming with conspiracy and double-crossing intrigue; an all-star cast; a stylish director; and an engaging lead actor with the producing clout to make anything happen – what more could you ask for? Well Danny Elfman (Tim Burton’s longtime collaboration), though his work here mostly enhances the more thrilling sequences, messed with Lalo Schifrin’s original score in ways that would not be fully rectified until the third instalment. Even the story itself, which was clearly still being finished off during principal photography, appears to jump around quite a bit in terms of tone, having far too many offbeat quirky moments which don’t really tie in with the gravity of the rest of the script: the sneezing and the rat during the CIA infiltration; the odd reactions of Emilio Estevez during the pre-credits sequence interrogation; and even the choice of the comic actor to play the train driver who gawps as a helicopter flies behind the train in a tunnel and faints when he sees Cruise’s character dangling off the back of the train during the climax. Most of these moments, and many more, seem at odds with the more dramatic, serious elements in the story.
At the end of the day, though, Mission: Impossible (at least in as far as the films are concerned) is Tom Cruise’s baby through and through and, whilst many might wonder what would have happened nowadays with a different cast and different direction – what with the plenty of 80s shows getting film adaptations (including the cheap and frivolous A-Team) – there is no doubt that this is probably the grandest treatment that the franchise could have ever hoped for. Sure, the story itself eschewed the standard Mission: Impossible series plot in favour of a more solo-driven conspiracy thriller, but it still incorporates many of the elements of the TV series, updating them for modern technological developments, whilst staying true to the ethos of clandestine actions, sneaky subterfuge, false identities and confidence tricks. Although there is no doubt that the new character of Ethan Hunt was specifically created for Cruise, you can also see how they’ve taken in some of the best traits from arguably the best character from the early seasons of the TV series – Martin Landau’s master of disguise, Rollin Hand – and, really, what better character would you have liked to commandeer a film series?
Without Cruise, there simply would not be a Mission: Impossible film franchise on this scale, and I, for one, am just glad that, whilst far from masterpieces, they all turned out to be such reliably good thrillers, kick-starting with both one of the best – and most controversial – entries. If you somehow haven’t yet discovered the IMF force in its Big Screen format, then Brian De Palma’s 1996 Mission: Impossible is the place to start; and if it’s been years since you last watched it, then there is simply no better time to revisit it than on the eve of the fourth movie. Recommended.
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