[Deep Focus]
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE
Directed by Brian De Palma
Music by Danny Elfman
Starring Tom Cruise, Emmanuelle Beart, Jean Reno, Ving Rhames, Vanessa Redgrave, and John Voight
USA, 1996

GRADE: B+


The mere title sequence of Mission: Impossible, this summer's second big blockbuster, is more thrilling than all of Twister. The titles were designed by Kyle Cooper of R/Greenberg Associates (he created the knockout opener for David Fincher's Se7en), and they're made up of ridiculously quick cuts, flashing lights, big noise and sharp graphics. In about 30 seconds, they capture the very ephemeral essence of a weekly television program as well as the in-your-face aesthetic of Action '96, and suggest the concept of continuing franchise even more succinctly than the film's final scene.

They announce a picture that knows enough about style that it's absorbing to watch even when nothing much is going on. Framed in director Brian De Palma's stubbornly widescreen viewfinder (it's like nobody ever told him about the "TV-safe" area), each shot is an almost abstract delight. Tom Cruise looks great, whether he's peering over the screen of his laptop, or doing the James Bond thing on the top of a hurtling, cgi-rendered train. The settings, which range from old-world ornate to a cold high-tech style that recalls Kubrick, are exquisitely rendered. And while the movie never really revs up the headlong rush that I was hoping for, it's a pretty good nailbiter, with a handful of clever set pieces culminating in a nicely realized special effects showcase that knows when to quit -- a rarity in this age of double and triple "surprise" endings.

Tom Cruise is Ethan Hunt, a member of the elite "IMF" team led by Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) to infiltrate delicate situations and extract important information. At the beginning of the movie, one mission goes terribly awry when the force is ambushed and everyone but Ethan is apparently killed. The target of this ambush is a computer disc containing a list of IMF agents worldwide. When Ethan hooks up with a senior agent in Prague, he learns that since he is the only survivor of the raid, he's suspected of being the "mole" working inside the organization, trying to get at the data. Ethan figures out immediately that the only way to clear his name is to escape his superiors and deliver the real bad guy ... mission? Impossible.

And that's why this movie is so much fun. The storyline is stubbornly implausible, but it's not dumb -- in fact, I can't recall a stops-out action picture so precisely calculated, performed, and timed since Andrew Davis's The Fugitive. (On second thought, Luc Besson's The Professional is pretty damned good.) The three acts are defined by their attendant action sequences. In the first, we see Ethan's friends gunned down and blown up one by one. In the second, we watch spellbound as Ethan and new pals Luther (Ving Rhames, Marcellus from Pulp Fiction) and Krieger (Jean Reno, from The Professional/Leon) infiltrate CIA headquarters in Virginia to hack the main computer system (yes, it's utterly ridiculous -- and totally cool). And at the end of the third, loose ends culminate in the aforementioned train sequence, which is eye-popping and almost convincing. (Is it my imagination, or is Tom Cruise completely computer generated in one of these shots?) The major bummer is that if you've seen the trailers, you've already seen too much of the climax for it to be as much of a kick as it should be.

Cruise himself certainly has screen presence, and his sculpted good looks are complementary to the film's vacuum-packed visuals. As Claire, Phelps' wife and Cruise's ostensible love interest -- and the only other member of Ethan's ill-fated mission who manages to survive -- Emmanuelle Beart (Manon of the Spring, Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud) is sleek and gorgeous, even though her presence is barely felt (DePalma told USA Today that what must have been an important opening scene exploring the relationship between Claire, Ethan, and Phelps was cut after test screenings). Reno and Rhames are more than welcome here, although they're not really full-blown characters -- rather, they're exploited as cinematic shorthand, spirits from other movies. And most delightful is Vanessa Redgrave, playing the cultured villain, a charmer among charmers who nevertheless falls under Ethan's spell. (Unfortunately, Cruise can be most irritating when he's trying hard to be charming, and in his scenes with Redgrave, his exaggerated mannerisms made me want to yell "Cut!")

The director loads the film with his own imagery, which is characteristically derivative but distinctive in a post-Hitchcock way. As DePalma films go, this one is relatively satisfying, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it lacks the bizarre circumstances that distinguish much of his work. There's a great scene about two-thirds of the way through, where we're invited inside Ethan's head as he works out the puzzle facing him, even as the fellow he's talking to spins an elaborate lie. It's not a flashback, and it's not "reality." Disorienting stuff for mass consumption, maybe, but audiences should be smart enough to keep up, or at least to wait until everything becomes clear. Does it all make sense? Well, not quite. For instance, in the showdown between Ethan and the real villain, you have to wonder why the baddie, who's pointing a gun right at Tom's lovely chest, doesn't just shoot him dead to get the chief obstacle out of the way. But don't fret over it, or the ludicrous scenes involving computer hardware, or even Cruise's picture-perfect disguises, which apparently involve some magical substance not of this earth. Like the ad man says, "expect the impossible." Indeed.

It's perhaps disconcerting that the productions Hollywood lavishes the most attention on, that it's most proud of, are the ones that are, like this one, pretty much devoid of realistic human feeling and sensitivity. But for me at least, it's heartening when a movie recognizes itself. Mission: Impossible has a heaping helping of well crafted action, a twisting, involving storyline, strong enough performances, and few pretensions. The most pressing question facing Ethan Hunt is who's going to try to kill him next -- there's no time for him to ruminate on the meaning of it all, or to bed down with his co-star. And that seems to suit him, and this movie, just fine.


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