Mission Impossible 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 quite 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 headhunters, 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. Brian De Palma has his critics, but he has such a distinctive style that it shows through even in a relatively minor film such as this. We get many old favourites; 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, 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 break-in to CIA headquarters is particularly splendid, a genuine example of knife-edge tension that depends as much on Paul Hirsch's brilliant editing as much as the second unit stunts. In comparison to this, surely a classic set-piece, the final helicopter/train interface is a bit of a disappointment, beginning with a brilliant camera/CGI swoop down to a train window but then getting too silly for words 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.
The film has flaws. The narrative, despite my earlier comment, isn't particularly convincing, with a twist guaranteed to infuriate fans of the original TV series, and the dialogue 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 PG - and Jon Voight's strong presence is wasted in a relatively small role. But it's brimming with style and confidence, and is well paced, coming in at a tight 105 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.
Paramount released this film in a bare bones edition, presumably intended to cash in on the summer release of the sequel. Compared to the MI2 disc, it's hardly even a contender, but, technically speaking, it's not bad.
Picture quality is generally pleasing. It's an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer, and De Palma is one of the few contemporary directors who really knows how to use the full frame for maximum effect. The colours are splendid, full but not over-saturated, and some moments are very striking indeed. The definition is also excellent, as a look at the CIA break-in will immediately demonstrate. Sharp, clear and lots of detail. However, some of the blacks are not as deep as they could be, and there is a small amount of artifacting in some of the transitions. However, this is a very good transfer which deserves commendation.
The soundtrack is equally impressive. This is a busy Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that is always involving and sometimes spectacular. Very good on the contrasts, and, again, the break-in is beautifully rendered, with some very subtle effects. The final action scene is, of course, a highlight, with superb use of the sub. Dialogue is clear, and the music track is great, especially on the opening credits.
The rest of the disc is less impressive. We get the original theatrical trailer, in plain stereo and anamorphic 1.85:1. It looks as if it has seen better days, and is very flat compared to the film. There are a miserly 13 chapter stops, and not even a booklet in the case, just a single flimsy bit of paper with the headings on. Even the menus are dull. This disc shows a serious lack of imagination on the part of Paramount for what should have been one of their flagship R2 titles.
I wouldn't claim that Mission Impossible is a great action movie, but it's a good one. The disc looks and sounds fine, but is overpriced for what is offered.