Let’s hop into a time machine for a moment, and head back to 1996. Bill Clinton was still a faithful husband, the internet was still coming into it’s own, and Tom Cruise, hot off of Interview With The Vampire and The Firm, was the biggest movie star in the world. Naturally when you have such a big star, the next step is to put them in some kind of adaptation. Cruise had his pick of the litter, but opted to bring one of his favorite television shows to life, a kitschy little espionage series by the name of Mission Impossible. The virtue of Cruise in a spy role, along with ‘Scarface’ director Brian De Palma taking on this kind of story certainly had all the makings of a perfect franchise kick-off.
The story kicks off with a covert agency called the Impossible Missions Force sending a group of operatives into Prague, lead by senior agent Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) and point-man Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). Their objective, stop a mole from within the agency from selling a list with the names of all the active IMF agents to an interested bidder. Unfortunately, the operation goes horribly wrong, and Ethan finds the majority of his team killed off before his eyes, Phelps included. Due to the mysteriously perfect execution of these assassinations, IMF now suspects Ethan of being the mole, and they will stop at nothing to hunt him down. However, Hunt won’t give up. After collecting Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Franz Krieger (Jean Reno), two disavowed agents looking for redemption, Ethan goes on a hell-bent quest to clear his name and find the shadowy figure who caused all of this.
The strongest virtue of Mission: Impossible is in its grimy, nior-like tone. This isn’t a colorful spy romp with crazy gadgets and weapons of world domination like the Pierce Brosnan Bond films it was trying to offset. It’s a story of deception and investigation above all, and in that sense it feels very reserved and old fashioned. While the narrative is certainly a winding one, with a lot of twists and turns that may come off a bit confusing, it’s never so much so that the momentum of the story is thrown off. It’s that perfect, just convoluted enough, style of storytelling that made the early spy films so fun to watch. We not only feel completely thrown into this world, but just as confused and disoriented as Ethan does when that world is flipped upside down.
Speaking of Ethan, Cruise anchors this movie wonderfully. He doesn’t quite have the screen presence that make his later runs as Hunt such a delight, but as a trade we get a fresher-faced, more vulnerable character. He hasn’t developed the thick skin that lets him become a true leader in the later films yet, but we start to see the pieces of that fall into place. Even though he never stops believing that he’ll find a solution to this mystery, he’s not an unbreakable superhero, his guilt over letting his team die driving him above all else. Meanwhile, the supporting cast is just as strong. While Voight ultimately isn’t in the movie a whole lot, he provides some solid gravitas and has solid chemistry with Cruise, with whom we get a sense there is a deeper relationship that goes mostly unspoken. Rhames and Reno make for fun chess pieces in the various action sequences, and Henry Czerny has a great time chewing up the scenery as the head of IMF.
Brian De Palma’s direction isn’t so much focussed on slam-bang action sequences as it is on extended moments of suspense. He lives in the moment before the big action beat, where all the characters slowly fall into place, leaving the audience on edge as to when the explosion will happen. Even though it takes place in an era of lesser technology, there’s a over-arching sense of paranoia that runs through every scene, with danger potentially around every corner. In fact, by far the strongest sequence of the film is a scene where Cruise infiltrates a room in the IMF base with a computer that he needs to hack in. The ground in this room cannot have a shift in weight, so he cannot let even a tear-drop come to the ground, repelling in from a vent. It’s a simply masterful heist sequence that grabs you by the lungs and does not let go. In fact, one of the only truly weak moments here is the climax, which does descend into standard action territory with Cruise hanging by the side of a train. Simply put, the current technology was simply not ready to properly put this sequence together, and it shows. While that sequence certainly puts a damper on what’s come before, it also highlights just how intelligently De Palma approached the rest of the story.
Mission: Impossible might not ever ascend into territory beyond ‘very good’, but it does exactly what it sets out to do very well, and establishes a great deal of the precedents that make this franchise so unique. De Palma was given great freedom to make a film that fit within his style and sensibility, and Cruise literally jumps at the chance to put himself in outlandishly dangerous situations. It may not be as bombastic and fun to watch as some of it’s later counterparts, but as an introduction to the IMF, consider it a mission well accomplished.