Mission Impossible: Unmasking a Traitor


When I stepped out of the theater with my buddies eleven years ago after watching Mission: Impossible, I was as enthusiastic as any twenty-year-old can be about a movie. In fact, I praised this film to the degree that my mates felt compelled to point out that they thought I was making too big a deal out of it. I was, but when I watched the DVD a few nights ago I realized that I wasn’t far off. This film is grossly underappreciated.

When Tom Cruise and producer Paula Wagner set up shop at Warner, they realized that the studio owned the rights to the classic TV show Mission: Impossible and got excited about making a movie based on it. Hiring Brian De Palma to direct it was a safe choice; he was after all the guy who made the astonishing film version of another TV show, The Untouchables. Two talented screenwriters (including veteran Robert Towne) wrote a script that some thought was too convoluted and which arouse the ire of die-hard fans of the show because (here comes a spoiler!) it made a villain out of the only person to also appear on the show, perennial good guy Jim Phelps (Jon Voight).

The movie starts in Prague where members of the IMF, a special intelligence task force, are set to expose a traitor who intends to steal the NOC list, which contains information on IMF’s all agents and their secret identities. But the mission goes awry and every member of the team except for Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is murdered. Ethan realizes that his superiors think he is the traitor, leading him to go on the lam. It turns out that another member of the team, Jim Phelp’s wife Claire (Emmanuelle Béart), survived and together they find that the mole, who in Internet conversations referred to himself as Job, was in touch with someone called “Max” who wanted to buy the stolen NOC list.

Ethan contacts Max (Vanessa Redgrave) and offers to deliver the real NOC list, hoping to learn the mole’s identity. She promises to deliver Job to Ethan; all he has to do now is steal the NOC list from CIA headquarters in Langley.

A very Hitchcockian hero
Some fans complained of the film’s focus on one agent rather than a whole team, but Cruise holds it together as a very Hitchcockian hero. Director De Palma builds several sequences in the fashion that has made him famous; they are complex, stylish and require complete attention from the audience because things may not be what they seem. There’s a sequence I love where De Palma gets to show what a fine filmmaker he is – but I can’t tell you without revealing spoilers. Jim Phelps has just reappeared and starts telling Ethan what happened that night in Prague; of course he doesn’t know that Ethan has already understood that he is the mole. As Ethan pretends to listen to him, De Palma shows us him figuring out in his mind how Phelps must have orchestrated the murders of the other team members. A perfect example of how film as a medium is best used.

Then there’s the two masterful set pieces that really had people talking. The elaborate yet discreet Langley heist is classic De Palma (the falling knife is a wonderful idea) and the concluding fight and chase involving a helicopter and a TGV train is sheer brilliance; it looks like it could be done even though we know it couldn’t, which truly is a compliment to the special effects crew.

U2 members Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen wrote a special version of Lalo Schifrin’s theme for the TV show, which is played during the end credits. An explosive piece of music, it ends the film on a high note and sends audiences out longing to accept another mission.

Mission: Impossible 1996-U.S. 110 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Tom Cruise, Paula Wagner. Directed by Brian De Palma. Screenplay: David Koepp, Robert Towne. Cinematography: Stephen H. Burum. Music: Danny Elfman. Makeup: Rob Bottin, and others. Cast: Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Jon Voight (Jim Phelps), Emmanuelle Béart (Claire Phelps), Henry Czerny, Jean Reno, Ving Rhames… Kristin Scott Thomas, Vanessa Redgrave. Cameo: Emilio Estevez.

Trivia: The TV series ran from 1966-1973 and 1988-1990. Peter Graves, who played Phelps on the show, allegedly declined an offer to reprise the role. Juliette Binoche was allegedly considered for the part of Claire. Followed by five sequels, starting with Mission: Impossible II (2000).

Last word: “It becomes personal because I’d created the initial storyline with Steve Zaillian. There were many screenplays before, and I took it in a direction that appealed to me. So it’s very much a story that I wanted to tell. You weren’t just handed a script and told, ‘figure out how to direct this.’ We created the whole ‘Mission: Impossible’ scenario. It took us many months. So it’s very different than, you know, directing something that’s been pretty much worked out and the script that you accept to do.” (De Palma, De Palma a la Mod)


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