Friday, April 1, 2016

Film Review: Mission Impossible

Previously on the SDP, I wrapped up the 007 Golden Jubilee once again with my Spectre review last month.  But it would seem there's one corner of the James Bond film series I've left unaddressed.  Maybe there's some Bond movie out there not recognised by EON Productions?  Well ladies and gentlemen, that ends now, because today I'm reviewing...

Mission: Impossible
  • Publisher: Paramount
  • Studio: Cruise/Wagner Productions
  • Genre: Action
  • Release: 22 May 1996
  • Director: Brian de Palma
  • Producers: Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner
  • Writers: David Koepp, Robert Towne
April Fools!  ...But seriously folks, 2016 does mark the 20th anniversary of the Mission: Impossible film series, plus the 50th anniversary of the TV show that inspired it to begin with, so I figured, why not kick off a new mini-series devoted to them?  Hence, the Mission: Impossible Golden Jubilee.  Links to reviews of the other movies will be provided below as they are made available.
  • Mission: Impossible (1996)
  • Mission: Impossible II (2000)
  • Mission: Impossible III (2006)
  • Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)
  • Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)
Now just so we're clear, this event is focusing solely on the five Mission: Impossible movies released thus far.  As of this posting, I have not seen any episodes of the TV shows (yes, plural), so the extent to which I can use them as a frame of reference is limited.  On the flip side, that means I don't have to worry about coming in with expectations that may not be met.  So, how well does the introductory entry hold up two decades on?  Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to read on.

Our story starts in Prague, where the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) is seeking to recover a list of the CIA's non-official cover (NOC) agents from the American embassy.  The team is directed by Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), its leader from the TV series.  The mission starts off well enough, but the agents are killed off one by one -- except its point man, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise).  Hunt is later debriefed by his boss, Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny), that the mission was a trap to identify a mole inside IMF -- and by surviving, Hunt is fingered as a suspect.  His mission is then three-fold: clear his name with the IMF, protect the NOC list from the hands of an arms dealer named Max, and identify the mole working with Max.
Mission: Impossible boasts a number of unique shots,
including many slanted camera angles.
Kicking off a long line of star directors handling this franchise, this first entry was directed by Brian de Palma, whose eouvre includes Carrie (1976), Scarface (1983), and The Untouchables (1987).  Among the touches he brings to the table is his use of simultaneous events in the foreground and background to advance the story without cutting, which is good, and a slight over-depenence on tilted camera angles, which is... weird.  Huh, maybe the director of Battlefield Earth got inspired by this movie.  Other notable scenes in this movie, from a directorial standpoint, are a brief section shot in Ethan's first-person view as he gets picked up by Max's henchmen, and two different scenes where flashbacks are used to illustrate Ethan's thought process as he works out the twists laid out to him.

And then there's movie's most iconic scene: the computer room cable drop.  See, Ethan and some other disavowed agents need to steal the real NOC list from a computer room at the CIA headquarters, in order to flush out the real mole.  Said room has only two entrances: a door, guarded by biometric locks he won't be able to fool, and an air vent from the ceiling.  On top of that, the room is guarded by three types of sensors: sound, temperature (to detect the body heat of an intruder), and a floor-mounted pressure sensor.  Ethan thus has to be lowered by cables into the room.  This whole scene lasts about ten minutes, with little to no music or other sensory overloads to accompany it, but keeps managing to find new ways to inject tension, some of them admittedly more contrived than others.  (A wild rat appears?  Come on Franz, you should've brought a Max Repel!)  Still, if you gave this scene to a more flashy director like the Michael Bays of the world, it just wouldn't work in the same way.  For the record, this scene is an homage to the climax of Topkapi, a 1964 heist film about a group of con artists attempting to steal jewelry from the titular palace in Istanbul.
The computer-room cable-drop scene succeds in its quiet tension.
Mission: Impossible got a mixed reception at the time of its release.  Among the disapproving voices were actors from the original TV shows, including Peter Graves and Martin Landau, due to a late-movie plot twist which seemed out-of-character for that person.  (Namely, former hero Jim Phelps is revealed as the aforementioned mole.)  But to its credit, it does manage to respect some of the show's traditions here and there.  Both the initial embassy mission and the CIA break-in show Phelps or Hunt building and briefing their teams, and it is subsequently clear that the success of those missions depend on all of the members doing their part, not just one pointman.  It's just a shame that few team members, apart from Hunt and perhaps Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), manage to show off any sort of personality to distinguish themselves with.  If anyone else had a chance in that department, it would be the wisecracking hacker Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez) and the weaselly pilot Franz Kriegler (Jean Reno), but of course they both get killed at different points.

Apart from that, criticisms were leveled mainly against the convoluted nature of the plot.  If you don't pay attention, it's easy to miss some leaps of logic that take Ethan from one scene to the next.  I for one never had a problem following it, but then again I'm one of those weirdos who could keep track of all the dream-diving in Inception.  Personally, I'd point to the aforementioned altered-flashback scenes as key to deciphering much of the plot twists, as they present exposition in a much-needed "show, don't tell" fashion.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say that in this regard, Mission: Impossible is no worse than some of the more complex Bond films, like Octopussy or The Living Daylights.  So, as long as you don't nod off for whatever reason, and you're not too attached with the Jim Phelps of the TV show, I'm sure you'll agree with me that this movie still holds up.

+ Several creative shots.
+ The computer-room cable-drop scene is just BOSS.
+ Honours some of its source material's traditions, while doing its own thing with them.
- Bland side characters.
- The plot is challenging, but not insurmountable, to follow.
- Certain plot twists may irk fans of the TV show.

Acting: 4 out of 5
Writing: 3 out of 5
Technical: 5 out of 5
The Call: 80% (B)

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