Updated: Oct 14, 2020
In a nutshell: The Impossible Missions Force (IMF) are tasked with stopping the theft of the NOC list – a file containing every secret agent’s real name. When the mission goes horribly wrong and the list revealed to be a fake, Ethan Hunt finds himself framed as a double agent. To clear his name and catch the culprit, he assembles a team to steal the real NOC list from CIA headquarters.
Warning: This review, should you choose to read it, is full of spoilers.
“This whole operation…was a set-up”
1996 was peak blockbuster time. It was the summer that started the short-lived CGI Disaster genre with Independence Day and Twister being the biggest hits. Another trend during the 1990s was the TV show remake, from The Addams Family (1991), Maverick (1994) and Sgt Bilko (1996) to name but a few.
Some remakes struggled at the box office, especially outside of America, with target teenage audiences (like myself at the time) having little to no knowledge of the source material. A few films like The Addams Family and The Brady Bunch were successful enough to warrant a sequel. However, I don’t think anyone would have predicted that the Mission: Impossible franchise would still be going more than 20 years later. What’s the secret to its success? Like it or not, the answer is Tom Cruise.
Mission: Impossible was Cruise’s first foray into producing (alongside partner Paula Wagner). At the time, he was one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood, so Paramount was willing to find some additional budget for the ambitious film Cruise had in mind.
What makes the franchise so unique, (that is, until the latest installment, Fallout), is all the films have had a different director, with their own unique style. One of the first film’s key strengths is hiring legendary Hollywood director Brian De Palma. It certainly made sense as he had previously given Paramount a box office hit with another TV property, The Untouchables (1987). As with that film, much of the source material is jettisoned to make way for a modern action thriller. De Palma uses similar tools at his disposal – his regular DOP, strong casting, atmospheric locations and a bold orchestral score, this time courtesy of Danny Elfman.
The director is famous for "borrowing" from classic films and isn’t afraid to admit it. Unlike many directors, he has the ability to tackle different genres with ease, with success in horror (Carrie), gangster films (Scarface) or erotic thrillers (Body Double, Dressed to Kill). In Mission: Impossible, he skilfully combines elements from different genres including heist, murder mystery, as well as more traditional spy conventions.
Kitteridge makes Ethan very upset…
All this comes to play in the opening act, where De Palma’s goes to lengths to involve the audience in the action, before pulling the rug from underneath them. In true heist tradition, Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) briefs the team on the mission with the aid of maps and photos – it’s a simple plan, what could go wrong? It’s also a handy way to introduce the Impossible Missions team, featuring a host of familiar faces like Emilio Estevez and Kristin Scott Thomas.
We launch into the mission, with De Palma’s love of point of view (POV) perspective making us feel like a team member. Within minutes, the majority of friendly famous faces have all been killed off and fairly brutally too (Estevez’s death still makes me wince). It’s an explosive opening that leaves you shocked, confused and deceived, much like Ethan Hunt.
“Relax Luther, it’s much worse than you think”
The start of the second act begins in a similar manner, this time with Cruise briefing his new team on the Langley job. The scene is set on a train, with no visual aids, instead, De Palma flashes forward to Langley, showing us all the security systems with Cruise in voice-over. This is what makes the Langley job one of the most gripping and most revered heist scenes – we know how difficult (nay impossible) the job will be before it even begins. The silent sequence is a masterclass in tension, with De Palma apparently paying homage to classic French crime film Rififi (1955) – which revolves around an extended silent heist.
Looks pretty difficult.
In the final act, De Palma is back with his narrative tricks when revealing Jim Phelps as the villain. We see Ethan and Jim in a cafe discussing who the mole could be. Jim tries to manipulate Ethan into thinking it’s Kitteridge and from Jim's point of view, Ethan seems to be buying it. However, the audience gets to see what’s going on in Ethan’s head – as he works out the true story – that Jim is the traitor, and he was right not to trust that grouchy Jean Reno too. It’s a great trick in storytelling, though admittedly left me slightly baffled on the first watch.
Outside of the convoluted plot, there are a few niggles. The technology, whilst hi-tech at the time, has dated badly – making the internet seem like a very quaint place! There’s also Cruise’s disguises, which bar the final rug pull on the train, are fooling no one.
Despite all the red herrings and double-crosses, the film remembers it’s a summer blockbuster and we’re treated to a thrilling finale set on the Eurostar/TGV that would set the template for the series going forward. Before the script was even complete, Cruise wanted the final act to include an action scene on the top of a train.
The star/producer wanted it to be as real as possible and used a skydiving simulator to recreate the intense wind speeds. Effects legends ILM do a great job of making it appear as real as possible despite it being done in a studio with a green screen. This feels odd now seeing all the crazy stunts the Cruiser has performed for real over the series since.
Despite the misjudged vanity project that is M:I 2, the series has got progressively better. Yet for me, I always have time for this film – it’s a slick mix of espionage, suspense and action with a cracking score from Danny Elfman. It set the template for a series that continues to be a success.
At 22 years (at the time of writing), the franchise that Tom built shows no signs of fatigue. The teams in front and behind the camera may change, but two things are constant – Cruise and his crazy stunts. Love him or hate him, you have to admire the lengths the man goes to entertain his audience.
Alternative Title: The (Ethan) Hunt for The Red Herring
Coulda Woulda Shoulda: Al Pacino, Michael Douglas and Robert Redford were all considered for the role of Jim Phelps.
Fancy more M: I Action? Check out our podcast review!