Director: Brian de Palma
Cast: Tom Cruise, Ving Rhames, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Béart
Have I Seen it Before: The time is May, 1996. Having just escaped the gulag of the 5th grade, I am now facing the indignity of watching the movie from the backseat of my mom’s Volvo, my head contorted to try to piece together what was happening, and only intermittently succeeding. My neck hurts just thinking about the first time I saw the movie. Whatever anyone says, kids, drive-ins are meant to be enjoyed from the front seat.
Did I Like It: I think most of America didn’t need my mother’s sensible station wagon to be left somewhat befuddled by the plot. Modern audience, too, might be lost in the peak-90s tech that moves the plot along. It is truly amazing that a film exists where equal wait and suspense is given to an exploding helicopter as it is to a deep dive into usenet groups.
But for my money, while the series found an interesting groove thanks to later entries (the less said about the flimsy and tonally strange M:I-2 (2000), the better), this first film ages the best. It just needs a few viewings to keep straight the various chess moves that force the aforementioned helicopter into a TGV tunnel.
The original TV show—before Mission: Impossible became synonymous with Tom Cruise improbably hanging from things—was always a cat and mouse game. The show wasn’t always great, as is evidenced by the few times I’ve attempted to binge-watch episodes of the 1966-1973 series—but the true genius behind the film is where the audience is part of the cat and mouse game. Indeed, de Palma may have been the only director who could have pulled off this quality. We’re not sure—aside from Cruise—who we can trust. More often than not, our assumptions are not rewarded. Emilio Estevez is in the picture! He’s a movie star, maybe not on the caliber of Cruise, but he’s a delight in those hockey movies with the ducks in them, surely, he’s going to stick around. Nope. He doesn’t even get the Goose treatment of dying as the set-up to the third act.
The team is on a mission that goes disastrously in that first reel, but ah ha! The film’s first surprise? The heroes of the piece are the target of an entirely different IMF team. This back and forth goes pretty much up until the last act, when just as it feels as if the bad guys are getting away with the whole thing, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) pulls off one more mask and the plot, mostly comes together. For the most part, is a remarkably thoughtful deconstruction of the source material, especially for a movie that based on a TV show that was content to repeat plots whole-cloth and hope no one would notice.
But that does lead to one interesting question: why does the film work better on repeat viewings? I think the answer may lie in a false attempt at suspense in the the third act. After Hunt and Phelps (Voight) are reunited, it’s absolutely clear that Phelps has been the traitor all along. De Palma takes us through Hunt’s piecing together what happened. And yet, the final scenes on the train try their damndest to obscure the identity of Job. Given that Hunt’s one strategic flaw is not wanting to believe until the last moment that Claire (Béart) has also been playing both sides, had that sequence leaned more into that question, or if the mystery of Job’s identity had been kept obscured until the last possible moment, maybe people wouldn’t have felt so discombobulated by the film on first blush.
Or maybe I just have some issues with my Mom’s late, sainted Volvo that I’m still working through…