Mission Impossible (Special Collector's Edition) Review

Given the general mediocrity of most TV to Film transitions, it's quite a compliment to say that Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible is not only not all that bad, but actually very good. It's got some great suspense scenes, a degree of wit in the screenplay and, unusually, a proper plot. Hardly classic De Palma, but compared to the unholy mess of MI2, it's looking better all the time.

The plot was labelled as confusing by some people, but it's actually rather elementary compared to your average John Le Carre spy story. The IMF team congregate in Prague, under the leadership of veteran Jim Phelps (Voight). The key IMF agent appears to be Ethan Hunt (Cruise), all teeth and trousers and irritating grin. When first seen, Ethan is pretending to be a KGB interrogator, wearing the least convincing disguise in cinema since Sleuth, and the beautiful Claire (wife of Jim) Phelps (Beart) is pretending to be dead. This theme of deception is the main thread of the film, which has a classic spy story plot - the opening mission in Prague turns out to be an elaborate mole hunt on the part of the CIA, who have been informed by an infamous gun runner, Max, that they have a traitor right in the middle of the IMF force. The deception goes wrong, however, when Phelps's IMF team are horribly killed, with the exception of Ethan and Claire. The CIA therefore think that Ethan must be the mole, but we realise, not very surprisingly, that he's been set up. Ethan is determined, not only to avoid the CIA head-hunters, but also discover who has set him up.

So begins a game of cat and mouse between Ethan and the CIA, involving a spectacular break-in to a sealed vault in the middle of CIA headquarters in Langley, and a witty meeting with the mysterious Max, who turns out to be a delightfully amused Vanessa Redgrave - adding a much needed edge of elegant sophistication to the film.

Cruise already shows the annoying habit of trying to dominate every scene, which is the principle fault that floored the sequel, but thankfully he hooks up with two great scene-stealers, Jean Reno and Ving Rhames, as associates in his quest. Rhames in particular has the ability to dominate every scene in which he appears with the slightest change in expression. Henry Czerny, as Kitteridge, CIA heavyweight (named in tribute to Norman Mailer's CIA epic "Harlot's Ghost"), has a nice line in slimy villainy, but doesn't have much to do. As for Cruise's scenes with Vanessa Redgrave, he's so far out of his depth that it's like watching a spider toying with a fly - you feel she could devour him so easily that she finds it very funny that she's asked to do so little.
However, the real star of the film turns out, unsurprisingly, to be the direction. This kind of project may not be remotely personal but it gives De Palma the chance to go crazy with the stylistics without risking the charge of style over substance – a popcorn movie such as this isn’t meant to have any substance so the more style, the better. He indulges many of his favourite techniques; split screen, screens within screens, insanely askew angles, extreme close-ups, slow motion violence, rhythmic editing, huge amounts of fast intercutting, cruelly casual deaths of apparently major characters which the hero is helpless to prevent, self-consciously ridiculous plotting and suspense scenes extended as far as they can possibly go and then taken a little bit further so they become genuinely witty. The opening, during which Ethan Hunt’s team is killed, is perhaps overloaded with crane shots but it’s a marvellous annunciation of directorial presence. In De Palma’s hands, even the expository scenes between two characters have plenty to look at and the sequence where Cruise plays off Vanessa Redgrave is beautifully handled. However, the highlight is the break-in to CIA headquarters; a genuine example of knife-edge tension that depends as much on Paul Hirsch's brilliant editing as much as the second unit stunts.

After only a few years, this has become an iconic scene and it’s influenced many action movies which followed. In comparison to this, surely a classic set-piece, the final helicopter/train interface is a bit of a disappointment. It begins beautifully with a brilliant camera/CGI swoop down to a train window but then gets a bit silly when the helicopter follows the TGV into the Channel Tunnel. It's funny, but not all that exciting compared to the earlier set-pieces which have a much stronger sense of danger. But then De Palma’s action sequences have always had a strong comedy element and he seems quite happy to go for audience laughter when he can get it. It also ends on such a satisfying hair-trigger escape from certain death that the audience is guaranteed to go home happy.

Let’s be honest, though. This isn’t first-rate De Palma. He’s a visionary director whose best films fuse the personal and the commercial with a visual élan that is quite unique. When you watch a film such as Blow Out or Dressed To Kill, you’re watching a whole sensibility put on the screen where images and ideas have coalesced into something which couldn’t have come from anyone else. In this respect, he’s in the tradition of Ford, Hawks, Renoir and, yes, Hitchcock. It’s the latter who has dogged his career, sometimes understandably so, but when you look at De Palma’s films as a whole you can see that he’s far more in the tradition of Bunuel, Antonioni and Godard than the Master of Suspense.

What we’re seeing in Mission: Impossible is De Palma the commercial director and while it’s fun, it’s not the satisfying meal that you get from one of his more personal films. In some respects, it’s a bit sloppy – the narrative isn’t especially convincing, relying on coincidence and a couple of very abrupt character changes which aren’t adequately explained. The screenplay is quite well constructed but the dialogue, despite coming from three of Hollywood’s hottest screenwriters, is often merely functional. Emmanuelle Beart has hardly anything to do apart from look pretty - she doesn't even have a token nude love scene with Cruise, this being a family film- and Jon Voight's strong presence is wasted in a relatively small role, although it’s obvious why such a powerful actor was cast. But let’s not be too churlish, Mission: Impossible is made a crack team of technicians – De Palma, Hirsch, DP Stephen H. Burum, production designer Norman Reynolds. It’s brimming with style and confidence, and is well paced, coming in at a tight 110 minutes. In other words, it does well what it sets out to do and has the good sense to get off the stage before outstaying its welcome. The first sequel didn’t have any of these virtues and it remains to be seen whether MI:III can recover some of the fun of the first instalment.

The Disc

This ‘Special Collector’s Edition’ offers a new transfer of the film which is a considerable improvement upon the non-anamorphic R1 release but is otherwise something of a disappointment.

The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is generally very good and sometimes excellent. It’s suitably detailed with rich colours and has the lush look suitable for a recent Hollywood blockbuster. It has been criticised for being excessively soft but I didn't find this a major problem. However, the whites occasionally have rather blurry, unsightly edges. Artifacting isn’t a problem and there’s no excessive grain visible. Generally, this looks very nice and, to my eyes, better than the anamorphic R2 release.

The 5.1 soundtrack is exceptionally good with involving use of the surrounds which is created through clever use of the pounding music score. The action sequence at the end sounds suitably spectacular and there’s some particularly ingenious use of directional sound during the opening sequences and the famous heist scene.

Reportedly, Mr Cruise and Mr De Palma didn’t see eye to eye on the filming of Mission: Impossible and one assumes that Cruise wasn’t quite willing at this point to use his muscle as producer to overrule his director – which is what he appears to have done on the sequel. Consequently, it’s no surprise that De Palma is sidelined on the extras in favour of a lot about Tom Cruise.

“Mission Remarkable – 40 Years of Creating the Impossible” is eleven minutes all about the films rather than the TV series and is EPK nonsense, mixing new interviews with some archive stuff from 1996 and 2000. Fans will appreciate the opportunity to see a small amount of behind-the-scenes material from the upcoming third instalment. “Explosive Exploits”, running about five minutes, features some information about the set-pieces with everyone present contriving to praise Tom – including, alas, Tom. Brian De Palma is allowed a few brief comments but there’s obvious coolness between him and his star. “International Spy Museum” is about the, err, International Spy Museum based in Washington DC. It’s quite interesting and shows the surprising accuracy with which Mission: Impossible represents the real-life spy game. This runs approximately six minutes while the eight minutes of “Spies Among Us” is basically historical stuff about the naughty and, indeed, rather appalling things American secret agents have done around the world during the past forty years. What isn’t dwelt upon is the incompetence of the various agencies, notably their continuing failure over the course of thirty years to get rid of Castro despite numerous attempts. “Catching The Train” looks at the making of the final set-piece and is quite informative despite a measly three minute running time.

Also on the disc are a small photo gallery of stills from the film, three trailers – teasers for the first and third films and a full trailer for Mission: Impossible - and a generous selection of TV Spots. In addition, there are nicely laid out agent profiles for the MI team.

Finally, we come to the most irksome of the special features; a kind of mini-tribute to Tom Cruise. Now, I am quite willing to accept that Mr Cruise is a resourceful and skilled actor who has used his star power to bring attention to some worthy projects – notably Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. He’s given extremely good performances in films such as Jerry Maguire, Collateral and Born On The Fourth Of July while he has sufficient presence and charisma to anchor a blockbuster like A Few Good Men. As a producer, he has made some entertaining and popular movies, some of which have had genuine artistic merit – although this has come more from a canny choice of director than any obvious producer input. None of this, however, makes one inclined to suggest that Tom Cruise is a great filmmaker or a great actor and the idea of him receiving an award for excellence in filmmaking is surely enough to bring even the most indulgent film lover out in a rash. But that’s exactly what happens here as we see him receive the BAFTA/LA Stanley Kubrick Award For Excellence In Film – a name which in itself deserves an award for most unwieldy award title. His speech witters on about the power of film to affect change in the world – which may be true but makes it hard not to think about Days of Thunder. The clips montage is set to ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ which does at least deserve a not for sheer nerve.

The other prize – an MTV ‘Generation’ award – does at least make sense, although his acceptance speech is no less smug. Katie Holmes in presenting the award calls him “an extraordinary artist“, which could, I guess be seen as a pre-conjugal duty. Apparently the films he’s made have made his “dreams a reality” which is nice but does he really need to describe himself as an artist? He then gets very camp; “If I’ve been able to entertain you at all, OK, then I thank you for allowing me to do so.” You almost expect him to launch into a song from ‘Gypsy’ and I was irresistibly reminded of Billy Connolly’s formulation, “If you’ve enjoyed me half as much as I’ve enjoyed you, then I’ve enjoyed you twice as much as you’ve enjoyed me!” Before this feast of ego, we get a three minute montage of clips from a variety of Cruise performances including the inevitable Top Gun, although I’m a little puzzled at the appearance of ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ on the music track.

There are a rather measly 13 chapter stops and both the film and the featurettes have optional subtitles.

It’s probably worth upgrading to this SCE for the somewhat improved transfer but otherwise, it strikes me as something of a missed opportunity. I had hoped for a substantial making-of documentary but what we get is superficial promotional fluff and a lot of worshipping at the Cruise shrine.

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