The Mission: Impossible franchise is among my favorite film series for many reasons; I like the fact every film director tries to bring something new to the table, and put their own spin on the series. Making each film entry feel distinct from one another preventing the series from becoming stale. Another aspect I enjoy about the Mission: Impossible films is seeing the transformation of the Hollywood blockbuster over the years. Being a rare example where going bigger in a series feels organic instead of a necessity. Surprisingly enough, I’ve always consider the first entry in the franchise to be the weakest. A sentiment that is further cemented with the fact future entries would add levity to their storylines, offers up more action spectacles, and slowly strive to improve the team dynamic which was always a small piece instead of its core that Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) made it. In hindsight, Brian De Palma’s starter entry is the most high brow the series ever gotten with its writing, but also provides the least entertainment having trouble being both a cerebral spy thriller, and a blockbuster.
Mission: Impossible follows Impossible Mission Force American agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) attempting to clear his name as the prime murder suspect of a disastrous operation that got his whole team killed. This movie tells a simple story, that is easy to follow, but throws in twists, and loops that make an organic story come off as convoluted when it isn’t. An obvious trick that is attempting to hide the thin plot that has little to go on. Offering little to nothing in the way of characterization for Ethan Hunt, and even less in the form of expressing compassion. Ethan Hunt dwells on his fallen comrades for a bit, and than moves on from it. It’s not a movie about characters, nor the strength of their relationship. Skipping the tradition of most first installments in franchises of being an origin story. Opting to put the viewer in the middle of the story instead. Rarely in the film are characters even allowed to have personalities, and the instances they do are sparse. The most engaging it characters become is when they work as a team to accomplish a task. Seeing the team dynamic trying to pull off a difficult job with various setbacks is eventful more so than the people involved in them.
This movie is more about the chase, the mystery, and solving it by any means. You’ll have plenty of scenes of characters talking about the logistics of their plans, the potential double crosses, and the ever increasing murkiness of everyone surrounding Ethan Hunt. The mystery aspect of the film keep things going, and is easily the best part of the film’s writing. Right from the beginning, the film drops plenty of clues for viewers to pick up on, and connect the dots. While the film does dedicate an entire sequence in the climax explaining everything. Before that point it respected the viewer intelligence by not dumbing down any scenes. Dialogue throughout is often used to reveal snippets of characters over showing it. In most films this would be a negative, but works excellently here in its attempt to make proceeding events murky in their true nature. Always ensuring you can’t entirely trust anyone on screen, even those on Ethan Hunt side, or the intent of the situation.
Now the worst part of the movie is the climax. Beforehand the film did a fine job keeping everything grounded with a few silly things relegated to small stuff like exploding bubblegum, and self detonating cassette tapes. It’s here where the serious tone becomes its own undoing creating a joke of a climax that belongs in a different movie. Seeing the sight of a Helicopter in a tunnel trying not to crash as our main character is attempting to prevent the villains escape doesn’t belong in a cerebral thriller. It’s too simplistic in the way the climax plays out compare to the rest of the movie where Ethan Hunt had to play mind games against two opponents, and his own teammates who he is uncertain he could trust. It’s just a messy climax that simply feels like it is there just to check of the big climax checklist out of a blockbuster. Another problem is Ethan Hunt getting out of some difficult situation through convoluted means. For example, the first time Ethan Hunt uses exploding bubble gum it makes sense since it was set up before he used it, but the second time Hunt uses it there’s setup to it, and comes out of nowhere to resolve the issue of a writer who wrote himself into a corner.
Tom Cruise takes the lead, and does a decent job committing to the role that limits him. While the film itself is unable to create paranoia, Tom Cruise actually believes it himself helping to sell the story even more. Believing in his characters, and the story he’s convincing in a serious role. Switching between the sly, and paranoid side with ease. There’s a few sequences where Cruise is allowed to display more of his charisma, but the material doesn’t allow him much opportunity for that. Not allowing Cruise to show off what he’s fully capable off. Despite this restriction, Cruise is able to make you invested in a character that has little going for him simply because he’s that good of an actor. The only other actor who presence is enjoyable is Ving Rhames. Surprisingly playing the most balanced character. He isn’t too serious, but he isn’t just here to purely add levity to the movie. He’s able to be both fun, and be engaging despite only appearing in the second of the movie. In the few scenes he shares with Cruise are easily the best moments since they are the only moment the film nails a balance between high brow spy thriller, and Hollywood blockbuster.
Other cast members don’t come of as good because of the writing. Jon Voight enjoys himself, although he doesn’t do much besides sneer, and smile. Removing a bit of his mystic, and making a plot twist revolving around his character not come off as shocking as it should. Jean Reno is a good choice in as a potential double crosser. However, he only appears second half of the movie, and isn’t given much to do. He’s just here to look the part, and nothing more. Then there’s Emmanuelle Beart who is in a thankless role. What she’s meant to do is uncertain since she hardly appears. When she is in the movie it’s to be mopey, or supporting of Cruise. It’s okay, but not much for her to do. Henry Czerny is the most fortunate who at least is noteworthy as a enjoyable foil in his serious demeanor. As for the rest of the cast they also go forth a similar fate; good choices for the role, but not enough screen time to do anything to liven the material.
Brian De Palma direction is most unsure about what to be. On one hand he wants create tension, and paranoia with his many dutch angles close up. It has the opposite effect looking awkward instead of uneasy. Resulting in scenes that visually work fine to just being miscalculated. Where Brian De Palma shines is the film singular best set piece. It’s a sequence involving Cruise attempting to retrieve information from a computer in a room littered with sensing equipment, including pressure sensitive floors, temperature controls and audio sensors. This sequence, played largely without dialogue, and no music. Excellently captures thrills in a single sequence having the viewer wonder if anything will go array. Masterfully directed, edited, and perform this is Brian De Palma best showcase of being master of the camera. It’s not a nail biting sequence, but it is thrilling nonetheless.
When it comes to action sequences there is none. There’s no car chases, gunfights, or fisticuffs one would expect from an action film. It’s not the fault of this movie future installments would fall more in line with what a action movie traditionally is. This entry does offer one action sequence; the climax of the movie which is easily the worst part of the movie. On paper, it’s a cool idea having a helicopter in a subway tunnel, but the terrible mixture of outdated CGI, and blue & green screen effects make the whole thing look like a cartoon. Visually being out of place with everything else that was done through practical means. It’s also boring since not much happens on top of the subway, even in the tunnel it’s just Tom Cruise attempting to prevent someone escaping. Cruise, and antagonist just try to hang on on the subway, and that’s about it. This climax aged horribly, especially the special effects when the Helicopter blows up. Another thing that aged is some of technology used. Instead of coming of as high tech some of it technology, like cellphones with big antennas, are relics of the past. However, the music is quite stellar, and moody. Doing a much better to get across the appropriate mood than the visuals themselves.
Mission: Impossible is a solid piece of spy thriller entertainment, but mixed results in everything it does. The story itself is intriguing to witness thanks to a good mystery, but without characters to get invested it prevents the movie from being engaging. Brian De Palma doesn’t know if he wants a cold, cerebral spy thriller, or a blockbuster opting for a middle ground that often juxtapose each other in bad ways. There’s hardly any action, and levity to satisfy the blockbuster crowd, and too many plot conveniences solution in difficult situations, and silly climax to fully satisfy the cerebral crowd. What comes out unscathed is the casting being decent if nothing else, and a killer theme song that is likely to get stuck in your head. It’s a odd film to see since it kickstarted would become an action franchise juggernaut from such an uneven first film.