Holy Hell! Mission: Impossible Turns 20

Holy Hell! Mission: Impossible Turns 20

When Mission: Impossible premiered in 1996, nobody predicted it would spawn one of Hollywood’s most enduring franchises.

When Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible premiered in 1996, nobody predicted it would spawn one of Hollywood’s most enduring franchises. Looking at the film today, it somehow seems even less likely. Birthed far before the wanton age of reboots and remakes and prequels and sequels, Mission: Impossible bears little resemblance to the subsequent blockbusters it spawned, even though it shares their box office success—it was the third-highest grossing film the year it was released and temporarily held the record for biggest opening of all time—and utter devotion to star and driving figure, Tom Cruise. But then again, because various directors have put their own personal stamp on the product, no two Mission: Impossible films really look or feel alike. That’s why Mission: Impossible is rarely discussed in relation to its sequels, even though the film, despite being a pure De Palma experience, fits among its kin just as neatly as it fits among the director’s own filmography.

The best De Palma films are metaphors for themselves. They feature stories that magnify the efforts of a protagonist to cope with an equivocal and otherwise disjointed diegesis, a conflict expressed not just through intentional narrative elisions but images that confront and alter generic form. Examples are riddled throughout Mission: Impossible, most of them centered around series hero Ethan Hunt (Cruise), who’s seen suspended by wire in a silent, sterile room, his beaded sweat a detriment to his life; clinging to a speeding train deep within the Chunnel while a helicopter flies overhead; and using chewing gum as an explosive device on not one but two occasions. Each instance illustrates De Palma’s exhilarating reflexivity—sight and sound channeled almost exclusively through Cruise, a bodily conduit of pure cinema. Think Sissy Spacek in Carrie and, to a lesser but similar degree, John Travolta in Blow Out. As the critic Emmanuel Burdeau put it in Cahiers du Cinéma, “These are bodies that are prolonged and excitedly stubborn towards their exterior.”

As soon as the film starts, Ethan is positioned as both protagonist and experiential entryway. He witnesses the slaughter of his team via a video monitor on his wristwatch—a device that sort of presages the recent emergence of wearable computers like the Apple Watch—that’s streaming the point of view of Jack (Emilio Estevez), his IMF colleague who has a small camera installed in his eyeglasses, yet another clever foretelling of 21st century body-tech fetishism—in this case, Google’s optical computer Google Glass. (Of course, these touches are also allusions to the original series’ retrofuturist fixation on technology, but they nonetheless have an eerily prescient vibe.) Later, when IMF boss Jim (Jon Voigt) appears to have been shot by an unknown assailant, Ethan—still viewing the events from a fixed location on his wrist monitor, this time witnessing the action from Jim’s point of view—sees the gun pointed directly at him (at the camera, at the audience), suggesting that he’s the actual target, a dramatic upswing emphasized by an extreme close-up of his wide eyes.

Near the conclusion, somebody that looks like Jim—who’s since been revealed as the double-crosser and the government mole that Ethan must capture—removes a prosthetic masks and reveals himself as Ethan. In this moment, we’re meant to question whether the protagonist, in his pursuit of the antagonist, might find himself internally split between hero and villain. The idea of the “split” is, of course, the essential De Palma theme. It’s been a key visual strategy throughout his career, as well as his most consistently utilized characterization. The dramatic edge presented in Mission: Impossible begins with the idea that Ethan might sleep with Jim’s wife, fellow IMF agent Claire (Emmanuelle Béart), an act of betrayal that counterbalances Jim’s betrayal of his colleagues. (By comparison, adultery and murder seem wildly disparate, but the film’s biblical connotations give these transgressions a sense of theatrical melodrama, ensuring equal moral footing.) The way the characters intersect and overlap is the film’s real “cat-and-mouse” game, not just Ethan’s dogged pursuit of Jim, which De Palma treats like a necessary evil dictated by genre expectations.

Like Carlito’s Way, which was released the previous year, Mission: Impossible partly stems from De Palma’s desire to transcend the typical Hollywood genre movie. Just as the film’s covert IMF team accepts difficult—nay, impossible—tasks, De Palma seems to treat the film like a sort of veiled operation. He begins by completely subverting audience expectations, right down to the very conventions that came readymade with the material. In the original TV show, the “unexpected” occurred with regularity. Despite the plot’s many twists and turns, success was inevitable, and the end of each episode was essentially a reset. Within the first act of De Palma’s film, the mission fails and agents die in a massive double-cross, leaving lone survivor Hunt as the falsely accused suspect. Suddenly a target, he wanders around a densely foggy Prague, and as he hesitantly plots his next move, the audience is similarly implicated, lost in a confounding narrative and completely unsure of where things are going. That’s the thing about De Palma: Once a Hitchcockian, always a Hitchcockian.

In these moments, Hunt is essentially watching the film alongside us. He sees Jim get shot on the bridge, but what he doesn’t see—what he later visualizes with the help of Jim’s confession—is Jim staging the shooting, orchestrating a set of circumstances to create images that present a narrative. To put it another way: filmmaking. Ultimately, this is what Mission: Impossible is about. It’s an introductory analysis to itself, a template that other directors have used for their own stories—films that alternately honor and reinvent or completely ignore De Palma’s urtext. That might make the film seem slight or inconsequential, but as a wellspring, Mission: Impossible is impossibly rich with ideas and emotions—emotions made rich by the wealth of ideas and possibilities. In the film’s final moments, under the guise of presenting him with a new mission, a flight attendant asks Ethan, “Would you like to watch a movie?” Four going on five sequels later, he’s still searching for the answer.

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