Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film reviews – the Mission: Impossible franchise

In advance of the release of Mission Impossible: Fallout, here’s what I’ve said about the series to date …

Mission: Impossible (1996) – originally published in the Hampstead and Highgate Express.

One criticism that can’t be leveled at Mission: Impossible is that it’s just a mindless action film.  Winding between the bursts of amazing stuntwork glimpsed in the trailer is a plot as devious, complex and initially impenetrable as anything seen in the cinema since The Sting.

Though producer-star Tom Cruise naturally dominates the film, occasionally disguising himself as supporting characters to allow even more chances to upstage others, there are dozens of players with several different identities and agendas apiece to keep track of.  Not to mention an underlying cynicism that not so much updates the 1960s TV spy series the film is based on as deconstructs its politics in the light of the end of the Cold War, risking alienation of long-time fans (like me) by rather mean-spiritedly pulling the rug out from a beloved character and premise.  When you’re required every ten minutes to reassess everything you’ve seen, the final answer seems hardly more definitive than any of the false leads you’ve been given along the way.

The original Mission: Impossible was far less camp than contemporaries like The Avengers or The Man From UNCLE, playing down any relationships between the regular cast and concentrating instead on labyrinthine confidence tricks.  Peter Graves, Martin Landau, Barbara Bain and the others – including Greg Morris, who spent most of his time crawling through ventilation shafts, and Peter Lupus, who did the heavy lifting – had names but, uniquely in the history of popular television, no characters.  Each week, for each impossible mission, the regulars would pretend to be a new set of stooges, never allowing us more than a glimpse of the people they were underneath the false faces.

Of course, with merely two hours of one-off movie, this approach isn’t going to work.  Cruise, as undercover supercool ‘Ethan Hunt’, is roughly cast in the old Landau role, with Jon Voigt replacing Graves – whose style has been too devalued by Airplane! to take part in such a ‘serious’ exercise as this – in the role of Impossible Mission Force top man ‘Jim Phelps’.  From the very first, with Phelps’s own wife (an unlikely Emmanuelle Beart) on his team, and some sexual banter between British ice queen Kristin Scott-Thomas and unbilled computer expert Emilio Estevez, these people are emotional in a way the old cast never were.

This is at once refreshing and misleading because a lot of the cast get killed in the first twenty minutes, reducing the possibility that anyone will challenge Cruise’s command of screen centre and setting Ethan Hunt on a mission of vengeance to expose the traitor who has set up the IMF for a multiple double-cross in Prague.  However, it also means that the film has to stop dead after its first few set-pieces (entrapment at an embassy, an explosion in an aquarium) to haul in a whole new set of characters.  Hulking Jean Reno from Leon and solid Ving Rhames from Pulp Fiction are maybe untrustworthy covert types (who have, in the jargon of the old show, been ‘disavowed’), and Vanessa Redgrave (no less) shows up as a computer-hacking arms dealer.

One this narrative hump is over with, the film has a lot more betrayals and revelations in store, but only two major ‘impossible’ scenes, both of which are cracking.  First, Cruise and company have to break into CIA HQ and download a crucial computer file from an amazingly secure work station positioned in a 2001-ish chamber where a drop of sweat on the floor will set off an alarm.  Of course, computer users will wonder why such a system is equipped in the first place with a slot suitable for inserting diskettes onto which such information can be copied, but you have to go along with it.  Here, you see why Brian De Palma is in such demand as a hired gun director on suspense movies – the orchestration of perils (a rat turning up at the wrong moment, an inconvenient sneeze) is outstanding, and you’ll share a collective sigh of relief when the trick is pulled off.

Then, after more revelations (some amazingly callous but not terribly convincing), you segue from that old mystery standby of cooping up all the suspects on a high-speed train and having hero and villain scramble over the roof into an astonishing bit of stunt magic as a helicopter flies through the Channel Tunnel, threatening a very big explosion.  Actually, though there was scattered applause at the press show for a punchline involving a helicopter rotor and Cruise’s throat, this overblown climax is less high-powered than some of the earlier set-pieces.  The Mission: Impossible style is to have a team of heroes working together by careful planning and daring improvisation, and this is how the Prague Embassy and CIA HQ scenes play, but the finale has Cruise on his own, relying on pumped-up muscles and crassly-scripted invulnerability to see him through.

With a cast of actor-zombies, the original TV series depended for its personality on editing and (especially) music.  If the new film is shaky in some of its updating, using real Eastern European locales rather than those old invented ones (‘Mr Phelps, this is Schlovsk, capital city of the Peoples’ Republic of Slavovia’), it always has those strengths to fall back on.  Lalo Schiffrin’s unforgettable theme tune, accompanied by a burning fuse and subliminal flashes of action, constantly revs up the tension.  Unlike, say, Twister or The Rock, there’s a lot going on beyond simple fireworks in Mission: Impossible, but – like the charismatic but smug Cruise – it’s a curiously unlovable and unfelt film.

Redgrave triumphs over stereotype in flirting like a predator with Cruise and Voigt makes the most of a keynote speech about the betrayal he felt as a spy when he woke up after the Cold War and found the President was running the country without his permission.  However, several other very interesting people – notably Beart and Scott-Thomas, but also Reno – could as easily be replaced by Gerry Anderson puppets for all Cruise and De Palma allow them to do.  It ends, of course, with a hook (‘your mission, should you choose to accept it …’) for a sequel, but all the loud bangs and silent betrayals have set up the Mission: Impossible premise, with little noticable irony, to self-destruct at the end of the message.

Mission Impossible II (2000)


By hiring John Woo to replace Brian De Palma, star-producer Tom Cruise clearly signaled the route this franchise-extending sequel would take: upping the action and stunt content to hyper-Bond proportions while playing down the clever plotting that was the strength of the original TV series and replacing it with a dollop of borderline-camp soap.  Cruise returns as MI agent Ethan Hunt, getting one of the film’s few surprises in the first scene as he is impersonated via one of the MI instant masks by the film’s super-villain, rogue agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) and then getting a Captain Kirk intro as he climbs a mesa with his bare hands only to be tracked down by his bosses who rocket him a pair of sunglasses which give him his mission.  The voice is played uncredited by Anthony Hopkins, who breaks tradition by showing up later in person as an M/Alexander Waverly figure to silence Hunt’s protests about the trickiness of the task with ‘this isn’t Mission: Difficult, it’s Mission: Impossible’.

For a while, it seems that scripter Robert Towne, from a story by Trek scribes Braga and Moore, is attempting a remake of Notorious as Hunt falls for svelte pro thief Nyah Nordhoff-Hall (Thandie Newton, with an odd reference to the authors of Mutiny on the Bounty in her character name) but is told to get her back together with her fiendish ex-boyfriend Ambrose to find out what he’s up to.  However, the emotional bit is swallowed after a few qualms and it’s off to Australia (the Sydney Opera House gets a lot of long shots) for an understaffed mission (returnee Ving Rhames handles the computer and token Aussie John Polson barely gets a look-in) to prevent Ambrose from making a fortune by releasing a deadly new flu virus synthesised by murdered scientist Rade Sherbedgia and investing in the company run by Brendan Gleeson which has a monopoly on the cure.

It’s a series of break-ins, chases (a great motorcycle pursuit), assaults, fights, danglings from high places and explosions with a few ridiculous plot twists (Newton doses herself with the last of the impossible virus and wanders suicidally near a cliff) and rather too many impersonations that fail to fool anyone.  It’s dumb nonsense, but Woo is still the best action man in the world: raising applause with flashes of slow motion (doves and smoke get in the way) that allow for the stars to glare at each other in the middle of intense bash-ups or shoot-outs.  As usual, there’s a suggestion that the male hero and villain are more interested in each other than the girl they’re supposed to be feuding over.  The Lalo Schifrin tune is embedded in a lot of Hans Zimmer pseudo-techno, but full marks to Woo for having those distinctive beats worked into the soundtrack as gunshots or blows to the head.  Next time, could we have one of those classic M:I stories please.

Mission Impossible III (2006)

In many ways, MI-3 never matches its pre-credits hook which, unusually, isn’t an action scene.  Battered IMF op Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is chained to a Hostel-Gitmo restraint chair opposite a bound and gagged women (Michelle Monaghan) while the evil Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) does that old Olivier bit by asking after the ridiculous-sounding ‘rabbit’s foot’ (a biohazard mcguffin which is never explained) and saying he will shoot the woman in the head if he doesn’t get a satisfying answer by the time he counts to ten.  Ethan tries various answers and struggles and threatens, and Davian fires the gun – setting off the MI fuse, the percussive Lalo Shifrin score (used better here than in earlier films, though there’s still dire hip-hop to come) and a flashback to bring us up to speed on who these people are and what’s happening.  When we get back to the scene, it’s a cheat – for no good reason, Davian has killed one of his own in disguise rather than Ethan’s actual wife, whom he has captured and could easily murder.

The hook here is that Ethan has retired from fieldwork to be an instructor and is about to settle down with Julia (MM), who thinks he’s a good-looking but boring specialist in traffic problems – however, as always, there’s a former protégé (Keri Russell) in peril (captured by Davian’s goons in Germany) and Ethan is lured by his nice guy boss (Billy Crudup) into mounting a rescue mission, with series regular Luther (Ving Rhames) and new specialists Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a pilot, ad Zhen (Maggie Q), an athletic Asian babe, on the team, and nerdy Benji (Simon Pegg) doing computer stuff back home.  The rescue allows for spectacular stunts – including some hanging-from-a-chopper-in-a-wind-farm business – but the girl still dies, after dispensing some vital clues which prompt Ethan not to trust chain of command – the boss (Laurence Fishburne) is so heavily set up as a possible heavy that it just has to be Crudup who’s the traitor – and so the IMF guy sets out to go off the books and bring in Davian himself.  The plot, by director JJ Abrams (of Alias), is basically an excuse for a string of set-pieces – even the apparent heavy thread about the impossibility of having a relationship if you’re in this line of work and the yanking of the innocent heroine into her husband’s dangerous world turns out to be very thin (and Monaghan, so good in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, is wasted).

The most oldschool IMF bit finds the team kidnapping Davian from the Vatican, with a high-tech rubber mask and voice simulator allowing Hunt to pass himself off as the baddie (in this universe, Cruise and Hoffman are the same height) and everyone playing a part – but, mostly, the problem of turning an ensemble premise into a star vehicle is solved by having all these overqualified experts and support staff stay in the back of the van while Cruise handles stuff on his own (Meyers, especially, gets stuck with the Peter Lupus role).  One stunt about swinging into a Shanghai skyscraper to steal the rabbit’s foot is so spectacular that the actual theft is taken on trust – otherwise, we get a terrific assault on a Washington causeway and a dash through crowded Chinese streets and much more.  Given that Hoffman, coming off an Oscar, ought to make a great villain, it’s a shame he is given so little to work with and, indeed, turns out to be a paper tiger since Crudup is the actual mastermind.  There are nods to changing ideology – with Crudup wittering on about using the mcguffin as bait to lure all of America’s enemies into a trap and Cruise frankly torturing Hoffman by hanging him out of a plane – but yet again these are footnotes which sit ill with the heist-style action.  As in the earlier films, the sophisticated trickery of the old show is much missed.

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol (2011)


Mission Impossible Rogue Nation (2015)

NB: so far, my favourite Mission Impossible film is still Mission Impossible vs the Mob …


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