MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996) Movie Review (Spoilers)
And now I begin the home stretch of my M:I review series with the debut of the Tom Cruise movie series. Mission: Impossible (1996) was directed by Brian DePalma, from a story by David Koepp and Steven Zaillian and a screenplay by Koepp and Robert Towne.
We open in the middle of a caper in progress in Kiev, with Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez, uncredited for some reason) watching a screen on which an older moustachioed man is grilling another man in Russian. The man thinks he’s killed the woman lying on the bed, and the older man is demanding the name of his contact in exchange for helping him out of the mess. The scene is scored by Danny Elfman with a few hints of the melody of “The Plot” peeking out here and there. Harmon is concerned that the woman has been under too long. The Russian finally gives a name, whereupon a maid gives him a drink with knockout drops. The older man rips off his mask (via a digital effect) to reveal an astonishingly young Tom Cruise, who orders that the man be disposed of while his team begins striking the set of the hotel room. He injects the woman (Emmannuelle Beart) and there’s clearly a thing between them as he strokes her face once she revives. “We got him,” he confirms…
And we cut to a match head being struck, and a title sequence that’s a flashier version of the original, with very brief, split-second clips from the movie ahead, and occasional shots of an actual fuse burning rather than the animated one from the TV titles. Like the ’88 revival’s titles, it includes a few shots of gadgetry, passport photos, and the like as well as action clips. Elfman gives us a really rich, gorgeous arrangement of Schifrin’s theme. Only Cruise gets his name given over the title sequence. The rest of the credits are shown over the next scene in a jet, where a flight attendant offers a movie on tape to Jon Voight, whom she addresses as Mr. Phelps. For the moment, let’s stipulate that this individual is Jim Phelps, though we’ll explore this idea more later on. The tape scene that follows is in the familiar pattern, except it isn’t Bob Johnson giving the narration. The mission is to intercept Golitsyn, a traitor who’s stolen half of a list of US agents’ non-official covers (the NOC list) and stop him from stealing the other half which reveals their true identities. (Apparently, in real life, NOC agents are spies that have no official government status and are disavowed by their employing government if caught — which means that all IMF agents are NOC agents.) A dossier sequence is incorporated into the spiel, with the narrator saying he’s taken the liberty of selecting agents from Phelps’s usual team, and redundantly telling Phelps what his own usual team members’ jobs are, a really awkward bit of “As You Know, Bob” exposition. The significant ones are Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, the point man “as usual,” and Beart’s Claire Phelps, Jim’s wife (and Jim apparently needs to be reminded of this by the tape as well), who’s in charge of “transport.” There’s also Jack as the hacker, Sarah Davies (Kristin Scott Thomas) already embedded in an undercover role, and a minor female team member named Hannah on surveillance. Phelps lights a cigarette to cover the smoke from the self-destructing tape. So far, aside from a few stylistic touches and the cast changes, this feels like the M:I we know. So far.
In Prague, the team meets in a safe house to plan the mission — reminiscent of the revival series’ frequent use of on-site “command post” briefings. Voight’s Phelps is a sterner boss than Graves’s version, giving curt, fast-paced orders with plenty of CIA-style operational jargon; if anything, he reminds me more of Dan Briggs. But then Ethan asks an impertinent question and the tone softens, with the group joking around like old friends, though Phelps still seems at a remove from the rest. The banter makes a point of referencing a Chicago hotel where Jim stayed during his absence on the Kiev mission. In another echo of Briggs, Phelps doesn’t participate directly in the mission but monitors from the safe house. Since it’s 1996, every team member now has a hidden camera and earwig radio, so Phelps can see everything that’s going on. He’s also able to override Jack’s hacking of the elevator when Jack is too slow, something that I’m sure won’t be at all significant later. Ethan goes to the US embassy in Prague disguised as a US senator who’s basically Cruise in age makeup doing an impression of George Bush, Sr., and Sarah helps him get into the secure area so that he can plant his video glasses to get a shot of Golitsyn when he arrives shortly thereafter to steal the NOC list from the computer.
The plan is to follow Golitsyn to his contact, but something goes wrong — Jack loses control of the elevator that he’s sitting on the roof of, and it sends him up to the top of the shaft, which for some reason is equipped with deadly spikes that drop down and impale him. Phelps says he’s lost control of the system and comes to rendezvous with the team, but then reports he’s being tailed. Ethan goes to him while sending Sarah to tail Golitsyn. Then Ethan hears shots and arrives in time to see a bloodied Phelps falling off a bridge into the river. The car that Claire and Hannah are apparently in blows up, and Ethan finds Sarah and Golitsyn stabbed, the list gone. The cops come after him and he rabbits. Getting to a phone and inserting a security gadget, he contacts IMF director Kittredge (Henry Czerny) for help, and Kittredge, who’s surprisingly in Prague already, arranges to meet him at an aquarium-themed restaurant. Czerny is apparently the voice we heard giving Phelps’s briefing at the beginning. The idea of the briefing coming from the IMF director himself never occurred to me; I always figured the Voice on Tape/Disc was some support staffer relaying instructions from on high. But it makes sense — if the IMF was originally this small, deniable, garage-band operation as I like to think, it wouldn’t have had much of a permanent staff. So maybe Bob Johnson was playing the actual head of the IMF all those years, or at least someone very senior.
Anyway, Czerny gives a twitchy, smarmy, unsubtle performance as Kittredge grills Ethan, and Cruise’s performance isn’t much better, his reaction to the death of all his friends consisting mostly of shouting. I need to make something clear here: Although Tom Cruise gets a lot of guff for his personal eccentricities, I think that should be kept separate from his work as an actor, and I’ve long been very impressed by his total commitment and professionalism in his film work. So don’t expect any habit of Cruise-bashing in the reviews to follow. However, he’s really not that good in this one — which is interesting given that he would be nominated for an Oscar for his work in the same year’s Jerry Maguire, after previously getting an Oscar nomination for Born on the Fourth of July and a Golden Globe nomination for A Few Good Men. Since Czerny does a pretty bad job too, maybe the fault lay with Brian DePalma.
Ethan recognizes that the restaurant patrons around him were at the party and on the streets in various roles before — they’re a second IMF team! Kittredge reveals that the Golitsyn mission was bait to catch a mole inside the IMF with a fake NOC list — and since Ethan’s the only survivor from his team, that suggests it’s him. Realizing he’s in trouble, Ethan palms a chewing-gum explosive from his pocket, a final legacy from Jack, and tosses it against an aquarium wall, producing one of the more famous action scenes from the film as the glass breaks and all the water pours out, even from the aquaria overhead. (One guy is blown clear through the front windows even though the charge isn’t much more than firecracker-sized. Huh?) Ethan breaks into a Patented Tom Cruise Run to get away.
For some reason, he then decides that the best place to hide from his own agency is the very safe house his own team leader set up. Not to worry, though — he shatters glass from a light bulb across the hallway so he’ll hear if anyone comes. He remembers Kittredge’s exposition about the buyer for the NOC list being an arms dealer named Max, who referred to the deal as “Job 314.” Hunt attempts a rather implausible Usenet search in which terms like “Max” and “Job” produce, not a useless overabundance of hits as you’d expect, but no hits whatsoever. Then he happens to notice a Bible on the bookshelf and thinks of Job 3:14. He finds Usenet forums about that chapter and verse and sends e-mails to Max, warning that the stolen list is a fake. Later, weary, he has a rather ridiculous dream of a bloody Phelps accusing him of failure, only to wake up and find it’s actually Claire, whom he holds at gunpoint since he can’t believe she’s alive. The whole scene is kind of incoherent, and kind of uncomfortably rapey as he forces her onto the bed at gunpoint while she insists it’s really her. But just reminding him over and over again of their plan to return to the safe house at 4 AM, 0400, four o’clock, when the big hand’s on the four, eight bells, etc., is enough to convince him.
Later, Ethan gets a hit from Max and arranges a meeting, which involves blindfolding him with a stocking cap that makes him look like the world’s most badly assembled Muppet. Max turns out to be Vanessa Redgrave (you were expecting maybe Tony Hamilton?), who flirts with him shamelessly. He warns her the list is a fake and has a homing device (somehow), but the only way to prove it is to let her activate it and then flee just before Kittredge’s team arrives. In order to get the true identity of the mole called Job, Ethan arranges with Max to steal the actual NOC list. So… basically his plan to clear his name of a crime is to commit the actual crime he’s accused of. Oh, that makes perfect sense. Claire agrees to go along to avenge her husband, and they need to recruit help from the “Disavowed List.”
Okay, now, I commented back in my review of “The Fortune” that it doesn’t make much sense for the IMF to keep a computer record of agents it’s disavowed and denied any knowledge of. Isn’t that rather counterproductive? Also, wouldn’t most disavowed agents be either dead or imprisoned in foreign countries for their crimes? But the movie, despite using the familiar phrase in the briefing scene — and despite building the whole story around the real-life NOC phenomenon that’s the closest equivalent to M:I-style disavowal — suddenly decides to reinterpret disavowed agents as ones who’ve simply gone rogue. It’s never really explained, though, since we cut right to Ethan and Claire’s first meeting with the “disavowed” duo. Ethan’s pick was Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), a master hacker, while Claire has brought in Franz Krieger (Jean Reno), an “exfiltration” man, i.e. getaway chopper pilot. They break into CIA headquarters in Langley, VA to steal the list, and I’m not sure I need to recap the most famous sequence in the franchise. It’s really very clever, a set piece worthy of the best of M:I (and drawing on the Topkapi heist scene that was part of the inspiration for the entire franchise). They have to break into a vaultlike security room with pressure sensors in the floor, heat sensors, and audio sensors, and it’s very clever the way they circumvent them as Krieger lowers Ethan down on a cable from a grille in the ceiling, with Luther hacking in from outside and Claire slipping an emetic to the vault’s lone staffer so he’ll be out of the room for a while. (Although their crawling around through metal air conditioning ducts without making a huge amount of noise is quite implausible.) I love DePalma’s use of silence, something that so few action movies appreciate how to use. It really adds a layer of suspense (no pun intended) to the scene. Anyway, Ethan almost has the data when Krieger is startled by a rat and lets the rope slip, leading to the famous and well-executed moment where Ethan is stuck just a couple of inches above the floor and forced to flail around in two dimensions, which must’ve been very difficult for Cruise. It highlights the physical skills that Cruise will use to impressive effect in this film series. They’re almost out scot-free when Krieger drops his knife into the room, tipping the clerk off on his return. The team makes its escape, but Kittredge knows what they’ve taken.
The team goes to London, where Ethan and Krieger have a falling out and Krieger leaves. Hunt notices that the Bible he’s been drawing verses from for his communications with Max comes from the same hotel where Phelps mentioned staying earlier. After learning that Kittredge has arrested his parents on trumped-up drug charges, Ethan calls Kittredge from a public place to confront him, making sure to hang up before he can be traced. He’s shocked to find Jim Phelps standing next to him. Phelps tells him that Kittredge is the mole, and Ethan plays along, but we see his thoughts as he reconstructs what really happened: Phelps himself faked his death and killed the team. Though Ethan backs away from the suspicion that Claire helped him kill the others. He also realizes that Krieger’s knife was the one that killed Sarah and Golinsky. He asks why Kittredge (read: Phelps) would do what he did, and Phelps spins some vague excuse about the Cold War being over and not having a purpose and the President running the country without his permission or something. At this point it’s very clear that this is not the Jim Phelps we knew. (This is probably the point where Greg Morris stormed out of the theater when he saw the film.)
Hunt arranges to meet Max on the bullet train to Paris, and makes sure Kittredge gets tickets. He gets the list to Max, but has Luther nearby jamming her laptop signal so she can’t transmit it. We don’t see him at this point, only hear his voice as he stage-manages things, and seeing what looks like Jim Phelps assembling a gun. Once Max reveals the location of the money, Claire goes back to the baggage compartment and confronts Phelps, letting on that she’s in cahoots with him and telling him they can get away with the money. “Phelps” pulls off his face digitally to reveal a disappointed Ethan. But then the, err, real Phelps (for the sake of argument) comes out and holds him at gunpoint. He asks how Ethan figured out that he was the mole, and Ethan tells him about the Bible from the hotel room.
Except… that makes absolutely no sense. Okay, so the Bible was from a hotel he knew Phelps had stayed at — but he found the Bible in the safe house that Phelps himself had set up!!! The only thing it proves is a connection between Phelps and Phelps’s own safe house. Ethan only used that Bible to figure out the Job clue and contact Max because it happened to be the copy of the Bible that was on the shelf where he already was when he had the idea, so he had no reason in the world to associate that particular copy of the Bible with Max herself. The chain of reasoning absolutely does not work. It’s an enormous, enormous plot hole that’s bugged me about this film for years, and no matter how many times I see the film I just can’t see any way to make sense of it.
If anything, the person Ethan should have suspected was Claire. She’s the one who brought Krieger aboard, so once Ethan recognized Krieger’s knife as the murder weapon, he should’ve concluded that Claire was the mole, and recruited Phelps to help him expose her. He had a legitimate chain of evidence leading to her involvement, something he absolutely did not have for Phelps. Although, granted, he did suspect Claire in his “here’s what really happened” flashbacks earlier, but backed away from that suspicion because he was in love with her. So he could’ve been blinded to Claire’s involvement here too. But that still doesn’t give him any actual reason to suspect Phelps.
But Phelps, existing within the movie, goes along with the totally invalid premise that the Bible somehow proves his guilt, yet reminds Ethan that nobody else has seen he’s alive. Until Ethan puts on his video-glasses and sends the signal to the video-watch he left for Kittredge, thereby video-proving that Phelps was the mole. It’s not at all clear what Hunt planned to do next, because he just dodges and Phelps randomly shoots Claire by mistake, and then Phelps escapes through the roof hatch and Ethan follows and fights the ferocious winds, and Krieger shows up in a chopper to pick up Phelps, but Hunt grabs the cable and hooks the chopper to the train, so Krieger has to fly it into the Chunnel behind the train. Is that even possible? Somebody call the Mythbusters, I want to know if it’s possible for a helicopter to fly inside a train tunnel. Is there enough air in there to hold it up? Anyway, Phelps jumps onto one runner, then Ethan jumps onto the other, and he somehow still happens to have a stick of Jack’s plastique gum on him, and he uses it to blow up the chopper, and the force of the blast blows him back onto the train and somehow doesn’t liquefy his organs in the process, and the chopper blades are right up against his throat when the train abruptly… stops?
Wait a minute…
It stops. Abruptly.
This vehicle massing thousands of tons was traveling at 300 mph one moment… and is suddenly at a complete stop seconds later? How the hell did that happen? More to the point, why? Even if we stipulate to the fantasy premise that a bullet train could brake as quickly as an automobile, why would they choose to stop the train when a fiery crashing helicopter was coming right at them from behind?!!! I’m sorry, this makes as little sense as the Bible non-clue.
So anyway, Kittredge annoyingly turns out not to be the bad guy, and he arrests Max, who flirts with him too, proving she has no standards. And Ethan and Luther are pardoned, but Ethan doesn’t see much point to the work anymore and plans to leave. But he gets an offer of a mission from a flight attendant just like Phelps did at the start, and that’s when the movie ends, with the end titles giving us a modernized version of the Schifrin theme courtesy of a couple of members of U2.
This is a very, very flawed movie. There are parts of it that work. The teaser, main titles, and briefing scene feel authentic, and while the Prague caper is a little off and the initial team rather nondescript (and lacking in racial diversity), it’s fairly well-handled. And the Langley set piece is really nifty, the highlight of the film. And Elfman’s music is pretty good, a lively action-movie score that quotes or paraphrases snippets of “The Plot” at key moments (though never uses the whole melody, continuing the trend established by John E. Davis in the revival) and occasionally breaks into big statements of the main title theme. But a lot of the rest doesn’t work well, or just plain doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. There are enormous plot holes and implausibilities, as I’ve described. The characters lack depth and clear motivation and don’t give us much reason to care about them. Some directorial touches are interesting but not successful; for instance, there are a couple of sequences that are shot from Ethan’s POV without showing his face, as if to create suspense about what face he’s wearing, but in the first case it’s a face we’ve already been shown (in video footage of the senator as Ethan practiced mimicking him) and in the second it’s just his own face. And the actors are directed too broadly. Like Cruise, Ving Rhames seems lesser here than he’s been elsewhere, including later in this franchise. Emmanuelle Beart is stunningly lovely and waifish, but just okay as an actress. Jon Voight is actually a pretty good choice as a replacement for Peter Graves, bearing a certain resemblance in his features and his manner, at least until he’s revealed as the baddie.
But that’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it? Jim Phelps a traitor? How do we cope with that?
Now, the obvious answer is to say the movies are a reboot, out of continuity with the series. After all, there are no characters in common beyond Phelps, and this Phelps is unlike the one we know — more like Dan Briggs, as I said, and that’s before he goes all smarmy and evil. So maybe we just treat this as a separate reality. After all, it’s not like the previous series had any real continuity to speak of, particularly since the revival series even remade episodes of the original. I’ve even said before that the original series may not all take place in a single reality.
But just as a thought exercise, let’s examine the question of whether this can be reconciled with the shows. Could Jim Phelps have gone rogue? Consider the final season of the revival, which I recently completed reviewing. For whatever reason, in the latter part of that season and to a lesser extent earlier on, the standard caper/heist formula of M:I gave way to a more conventional spy formula; instead of orchestrating master stratagems worked out a dozen moves in advance, Jim was just sending in his team undercover with no clear mission but to find out some information so they could then improvise a way of dealing with it. Could it be that Jim was losing his edge, growing sloppy? Maybe he got some of his team members killed (statistically speaking, Shannon Reed is the most likely candidate, given how routinely she was placed in danger), and it turned him bitter, filled him with doubts about whether he could go on. Maybe that’s why he stepped back to supervising missions remotely rather than participating directly. And maybe he grew disillusioned with the spy game and decided to get out while he could and get rich doing it.
But no… no, I really don’t think that works. Voight-Phelps’s meandering explanation about losing purpose when the Cold War ended didn’t really fit, because Jim’s IMF team took on many missions that weren’t Cold War-related, tackling organized crime and international terrorists and the like. Graves’s Jim Phelps would’ve still seen a purpose to his work with or without the Cold War. So I just can’t see it happening that way.
But of course the M:I universe gives us another alternative, because it’s full of impersonators. Voight-Phelps could be a foreign agent who took the real Phelps’s place — perhaps using a plastic-surgery dodge like Nicholas Black used in “Deadly Harvest.” Maybe this happened once Kittredge took over as IMF director from the former head (the Voice?); he didn’t know Jim well and is pretty much a lousy director anyway, so he could’ve been fooled. This creates the unpleasant possibility that the real Jim was murdered. But maybe he escaped and laid low, or maybe the enemy was holding him captive to get information from him. It’s pleasant to imagine that the mission Ethan Hunt was offered at the end of the film was the rescue of the real Jim Phelps.
(UPDATE: I’ve just come across a really interesting essay that takes the opposing view, that Voight-Phelps was the real Jim Phelps, and examines the reasons for his fall into cynicism and treachery: “The Phelps Dossier” by John A. Small. I’m not entirely convinced by it, since it glosses over the law-enforcement years of the latter two seasons and offers a version of Phelps’s life story that’s hard to reconcile with how cheerful and upbeat he was in the ’88 revival, but it’s very clever in the way it incorporates ideas from M:I continuity, the series bible, and even unfilmed revival attempts in building its narrative.)
Still, one way or the other, the story of Jim Phelps is over now. From here on out, this series is about the adventures of Ethan Hunt. Although this wasn’t a particularly impressive introduction to Hunt as a character. I can’t say much about his personality except that he gets really ticked off when his teammates get killed and he isn’t above flirting with his boss’s wife. I know he gets better later on, but this is not an impressive beginning. Frankly I’m surprised this movie even got a sequel. But it did, so there’s more to come.