Hasta lasagna. Don’t get any on ya.
Despite completing its successful seven-season run in 1973, it would take another twenty-three years before Bruce Geller‘s original television series received its inevitable cinematic adaptation. For a former Emmy winner starring the likes of Peter Graves, Martin Landau, and Leonard Nimoy with an action thriller premise just past science fiction to make it so new technological advancements would perpetually help increase production value, that’s a difficult hiatus to believe until you factor in Hollywood. Not only did rights owner Paramount Pictures find it hard to crack, long-time fan Tom Cruise—who leveraged his newly formed company to get it right—did too. With a revolving door of screenwriters tasked to keep the audience guessing at its mystery, David Koepp and Robert Towne finally got Mission: Impossible onto paper.
They definitely made good on that imperative too as I remember constantly being surprised throughout Brian De Palma‘s film. The result proved to be rather bold considering its initial team of covert spies comprised of an A-list cast including Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Jon Voight (Jim Phelps), Emmanuelle Béart (Claire Phelps), Kristin Scott Thomas (Sarah Davies), and Emilio Estevez (Jack Harmon) found itself more or less decimated after the first twenty minutes. No one expected the body count to be so large so quick nor against preconceptions usually assigned to bankable stars, but it propelled the finished work to heights it couldn’t have otherwise reached. Because watching good guys save the day is always less exciting than a burned agent and his crew of disavowed deplorables seeking payback.
That becomes the main plot once Hunt’s mission in Prague goes south. Not even he can blame his boss (Henry Czerny‘s Kittridge) for assuming he’s the cause of this disaster, especially after discovering the entire ordeal was meant to flush out an embedded mole. The only way to clear his name is therefore finding the real perpetrator—a task that forces him to travel onto the wrong side of the criminality line. No one else but the shady buyer of a list revealing the identities of the CIA’s active spies (Vanessa Redgrave‘s Max) has a line on the man (or woman) framing Hunt, so finding her is his first step. From there it’s a matter of securing what she wants to bring his target out into the open.
This means recruiting known government hacker Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and lethal EXFIL Franz Krieger (Jean Reno) to break into CIA headquarters at Langley (for a tense bit of acrobatics that defined the franchise until recent sequels upped the ante on what Cruise was willing to do for the character) and survive a high-speed cat and mouse chase aboard a European train. We get a little bit of the TV show’s trademarked masks that let agents become anyone in the world and a lot of very dated computer work (with email addresses plucked from the heavens that work with spaces between words). The twisty script of espionage double crossings is where Mission: Impossible achieves its greatest success, though, its visual style pure De Palma with numerous split diopter shots.
So while it may seem dated in many aspects today, you cannot deny the film’s effectiveness at straddling the line of blockbuster appeal and heady mystery. The filmmakers weren’t bogged down with sex appeal beyond subtle allusions (Béart’s Claire is Jim’s wife after all, so any potential connection between she and Hunt comes with baggage) nor backstory since the majority of those Hunt knows and cares about are killed. De Palma and company are instead able to devote every effort they have to a plot that’s overly complex without ever becoming convoluted. Tension arises from smirks and verbal sparring rather than explosions (although the climax does lean heavily on the latter getting the job done) and there’s a nice strain of comedy running throughout for better and worse.
The film becomes a master class on leaving audiences with an ever-present abundance of uncertainty. If we’re honest with ourselves, the mere thought that Ethan Hunt is the good guy proves to be an assumption predicated on nothing other than Cruise’s charisma and the character’s position at the center of the script. For all we know Hunt is the traitor and this whole ordeal is meant to ensure his freedom via escape rather than redemption. It’s this attitude that allows the numerous twists and turns to unfold with genuine mystery. All we ever know for sure is what De Palma shows us and as the first mask removal reveals (conceptually rather than physically since the disguise is obviously Cruise under make-up), there’s always something being hidden from view.
So we willingly go along for the ride whether a slow-burn covert operation inside a public arena leading towards a trap or the fast-paced theatrics of helicopters and trains with nowhere to go inside a tunnel barely big enough to fit both. Some of the suspense is laughable (sweat drops risking to set off motion-sensitive floors), but there’s a certain charm to watching what was “cool” back in the 1990s that couldn’t be done when the show was on the air. Watching the Mission: Impossible franchise from start to finish is a timeline through history with fresh tricks and dangerous stunts continually improving the quality of the action and the difficulty of the scenarios. And through it all stands an ever-aging and ever-game Cruise pushing that envelope forward.