Mission: Impossible (1996)

Though you can't take your eyes off of it, director Brian DePalma's
hotly anticipated adaptation of the classic '60's spy series is a
misfire of near-colossal proportions.  *Huge* amounts of effort and
talent are up on the screen and, yet, the movie fails to meet the
most-simple of narrative standards:  it doesn't draw us into the
characters.  Period.  Minutes pass, scenes change, but that crucial
connection never happens.  Blame the lousy pre-credits opening, for
starters.  What the hell are we supposed to make of a surveillance
expert (Emilio Estevez) watching a black-and-white video of what
appears to be a bad Russian soap opera?  Huh?  This terrible
sequence was reportedly *much* more elaborate, until the test
audiences got hold of it.  God help us.  Now, the scene runs about
five minutes and that's all the introduction we get.  Almost no
chance to identify the characters, nor assimilate the action, nor
get a feel for the film's tone.  Needless to say, the movie never
recovers from this misstep.

What we later learn is that said soap stars are really a team of
secret agents.  They work for Mr. Phelps (Jon Voight, looking very
old), a shadowy government figure who must owe Blockbuster Video
some serious bucks because all of his tapes keep self-destructing.
(The character of Mr. Phelps is one of the few elements retained
from the television series; another is composer Lalo Schifrin's
cool theme music.) The story has Mr. Phelps accompanying his IMF
team on a doomed mission to Prague, to intercept someone who's
selling the real names of secret agents.  (Said list is largely
responsible for turning the plot screws.  Would you like some fries
with your MacGuffin?)  Problems ensue, bad things happen, and the
team's point man, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), is immediately suspected
as a traitor.  Notice that I'm not telling much of the plot.  The
rest of the story has Hunt on the run, ducking his superiors while
trying to catch the real bad guys.

The whole thing is far more convoluted than I can describe here.
And the tone isn't much better.  DePalma tries be both serious and
silly and it doesn't work.  The major components of the movie are
too heavy; the handsome cast, the top production values, etc. all
but squeeze the cheese right out of the film.  So, instead of
integration, we get a study in contrasts:  fine actors like Kristin
Scott-Thomas playing straight to somebody wearing obvious old-age
make-up.  Or, those imposing international locales that are
announced to the audience in gigantic letters on title cards.  Or,
my favorite, the dramatic confrontations and the crazy angles that
capture them.  Holy tilted camera!

The camera tilts are absurdly appropriate, though, given the film's
low Believability Factor (BF).  When Cruise's character escapes
from a restaurant, for example, he blows up an aquarium that
releases enough water to supply a small city.  (BF=0.09)  And there
are *many* such goofs, gaffes, and general "head-scratchers"
scattered about.  Respectable writers David Koepp (JURASSIC PARK),
Steven Zaillan (SCHINDLER'S LIST), and Robert Towne (CHINATOWN) are
listed in the credits.  I wonder which one was responsible for that
amazing "Internet magic" that Hunt performs?  Or who thought it
believable that Hunt would retreat to a government-sponsored safe
house, after said government was now hunting *him*?  As the movie
is nearly devoid of any humor, these unintentional amusements--
like the sight of Vanessa Redgrave wearing what's either a bad wig
or a bad dye job-- provide some critically needed chuckles.  (One
*intentional* gas is the film's standout sequence, involving the
theft of a computer file from a secured room at the CIA
Headquarters.  It's vintage DePalma and *far* more exciting that
the speed-train-helicopter-into-the-Chunnel-chase finale.)

Still, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE should generate both good returns and
good word of mouth.  Working with an array of accomplished actors,
lavish locales, and cool camera tricks, DePalma has created a
convincing illusion.  He's made the quintessential Hollywood
product:  a well-produced and well-promoted thrill machine.  If
the applause at the screening that I saw is any indication, *many*
people are going to enjoy this movie and many people are going to
think that they've really *seen* something.  For the rest of the
us-- those already sensitive since that terrible TWISTER blew
through-- we can roll with what's awful and still have some fun.
After all, the director *is* Brian DePalma.  He knows how to handle
trash and turn it into something that's entirely watchable.

Grade: C-

Copyright 1996 by Michael J. Legeros

Originally posted to triangle.movies as Say Good Night, Mr. Phelps

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