Monday, July 23, 2018

Mission Impossible Series: Mission Impossible (1996)

Mission: Impossible (1996) 
Directed by: Brian De Palma.
Written by: David Koepp and Robert Towne and Steven Zallian based on the television series created by Bruce Geller.
Starring: Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Jon Voight (Jim Phelps), Emmanuelle Béart (Claire), Henry Czerny (Kittridge), Jean Reno (Krieger), Ving Rhames (Luther), Kristin Scott Thomas (Sarah Davies), Vanessa Redgrave (Max), Ingeborga Dapkunaite (Hannah), Rolf Saxon (CIA Analyst William Donloe), Karel Dobrý (Matthias), Emilio Estevez (Jack Harmon), Marcel Iures (Alexander Golitsyn).
It was fairly early in my re-watch of Brian De Palma’s Mission Impossible that a realization struck me as to how different blockbuster filmmaking has become in the 22 years since the film was made. This had nothing to do with the so called dated aspects of the film – but they are certainly noticeable when they break out what is considered top of the line technology that looks positively antiquated now, or the way they use this thing called “the internet”. It has more to do with the style of the film altogether. No studio today would hire a director as idiosyncratic in terms of style as Brian De Palma to make a film this today. While my memory of the film is that it was an impersonal film for De Palma – a paycheque film if you will – the reality is there are quite a few stylistic hallmarks of De Palma on display in the film. I’m not going to argue that the film is as personal to him as some of his others – it isn’t – but it’s still a Brian De Palma film, just one that also meets the demands of the summer blockbuster.
This is noticeable fairly early in the film. After the first mission at a big party goes horribly wrong – and Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) watches as his entire team is killed, there is a meeting between him and Kittridge (Henry Czerny), in which De Palma employs some bizarre angles to goose up their conversation. They are disorienting and strange, adding visual interest to a scene that is just the two of them talking, even as we know Hunt is planning something, and Czerny doesn’t (those angles allow us to see exactly what he is doing under the table, without the boring insert shot that would normally be required.
There are two, even better, sequences where this is even clearer. The first is the most famous scene of the film – Hunt breaking into a secure room at CIA headquarters in Langley to steal the NOC list from a computer. This isn’t really an action sequence per se – it’s much more of a heist sequence like the infamous one from Riffifi – which outdoes even this most quiet sequence in that it has no dialogue for a full half hour. This is why you hire De Palma for a movie like this – as it is a visually complex scene, with many movie parts and logistical challenges that have to pulled off effortlessly, and you have to build the tension purely through those visuals – and CGI isn’t an option. It’s one of the more complicated set pieces of De Palma’s career – and he pulls it off effortlessly. Even better, although simpler, is a scene late in the film in which a character (I won’t spoil) tells Hunt his version of events – but as we listen to what is being said, we see what Hunt is thinking – as he puts together the reality of what happened, and exposes the lies he is currently being told. It’s a perverse reveal that Hitchcock would envy.
Those scenes, in a way, stand out in the film because for the most part, no matter how expertly executed the film is, it does meet your expectations for action filmmaking from the 1990s. The action climax – involving a train, a helicopter and a tunnel, has justly become famous (even if, watching in 2018, you can more readily see the seams in the visual effects that you probably would have in 1996). Cruise is in full movie star mode here – and he does it quite well. Hunt is missing a little bit of the cynical edge he would gradually get – but that’s understandable, because here he’s an idealist who has yet to become disillusioned – it will happen by the end though. It’s a little disappointing how the rest of the cast is used though – as none really stand out. The most egregious example is poor Emmanuelle Béart, who is supposed to be the wife of Hunt’s mentor (played by Jon Voight) – although the 25 year age difference between the two is apparent, and even if it was done to also make her a believable love interest for Hunt, it’s still distracting (also distracting in 2018? The way Beart superficially resembles Voight’s daughter, Angelina Jolie). In many ways, so much of the story hinges on her character, and yet the movie gives her nothing to work with. Henry Czerny’s Kittridge, who the movie expends so much energy convincing you is the bad guy you know he cannot possibly be the bad guy, is also too one note. Jon Voight himself fairs better – although I do think his big speech is way too obvious.
Still though, I was surprised by how good I thought the majority of Mission Impossible was. I had it in my mind that it was minor De Palma – a brainless action film, but it’s a stylish, muscular entertainment that has more patience than any film of its size today would even dream of having. It makes me a little sad that De Palma almost immediately squandered whatever cache the film gave him with Snake Eyes (which brilliant opening shot aside isn’t very good) and Mission to Mars (which would be the worse film of De Palma’s resume if Redacted didn’t exist). I sometimes think we can be too hard on modern blockbusters – thinking that the die had been cast decades ago, and it’s just following on its path. Seeing this film though, you realize just how far most of them have fallen – how visually uninteresting they are - how they mistake rapid fire editing, shaky cameras and CGI for style. De Palma knew better in 1996 – and I wish more blockbusters would follow his example.

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