Welcome to Fistful of Features, a celebration of film preservation through physical media and the discussion of cinematic treasures to maintain their relevance in the cultural lexicon. This time we’ll be looking at the 25th anniversary of the first foray into what has become the Mission: Impossible franchise with Brian De Palma’s slick and entertaining entry that started it all.
Our introduction to IMF Agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) all begins with a botched mission in Prague that leaves the majority of his team murdered in cold blood and their identities linked to their operations are stolen, all of which he is framed for. Cruise immediately leaves his impression compliments of his trademark charm and bold charisma and, despite not being in the picture long, an uncredited Emilio Estevez manages to do the same. The inciting incident is fine-tuned to an exotic backdrop and the lurid offset of Stephen H. Burum’s frenetic cinematography.
In the wake of this intriguing set-up, we are guided along a disjointed adventure without much harm thanks to director Brian De Palma’s elaborate skill of distracting us from the story like a magician with enough smoke and mirrors in his arsenal to make his entire audience disappear. If nothing else, De Palma deserves credit for the semblance in his ostentatious direction that detracts from the onerous path David deKoepp (The Paper) and Robert Towne’s Frankenstein screenplay attempts to lead us.
After going through the hands of Sydney Pollack, Steven Zaillian (Awakenings), and many others, it’s no wonder their noble attempts at reconstructing this disillusioned yarn into something more comprehensible was destined to fail, especially when all of the executive meddling forces the structure into a rhythm that’s supposed to continually surprise its audience. But by ignoring the foundations laid by De Palma’s hero Alfred Hitchcock, they only manage to confuse them. The box office for this film was so strong that despite these common criticisms, they still brought back Towne to work on the sequel which, unfortunately, wasn’t in John Woo’s power to salvage into anything particularly memorable, flying doves aside.
One thing extremely noticeable upon this revisit was the shameless Apple product placement in this film that’s not only borderline distracting, but is probably one of the most least subtle examples of corporate shilling in that decade. That being said, the promising blueprint of what would become an exciting franchise that will rival James Bond are visible thanks to De Palma and Cruise both bringing their A game despite major obstacles from the script and interference from the studio. The train sequence is a great one that would become the first of a traditional awe-inspiring set piece for each entry to outdo as the franchise moved along. Between the daring stunt work from Cruise, the daredevil creative choices from De Palma, and stunning visual aid courtesy of ILM, it still holds up remarkably well.
De Palma does an impressive job at constantly keeping us in the moment, and the momentum is kept at such a brisk pace that we don’t have much time to examine the puzzling aspects of the story and just go along for the ride. Credit also needs to be given to John Voight and Vanessa Redgrave for displaying bravura showmanship despite the lack of depth to their characters. Ving Thames’s debut is noteworthy, as well, and this inspired casting decision has paid off tremendously in later installments.
Overall Mission: Impossible is a fun time capsule with Grammy-nominated theme music compliments of Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton of U2 fame, and is the rare instance of beginning a franchise that has continued to improve and hasn’t yet worn out its welcome.
Available on Blu-ray and digital beginning May 18th, 2021.
For more information, head to Paramount Pictures’s official Mission: Impossible website.