Mission: Impossible (1996)

Back in the day people didn’t go for this whole hyper-realism action stuff. They wanted sleek and sexy action films with James Bond gadgets and the likes. Realism was for real life and the war pictures, the action genre was that place of gadgets, guns and the likes. Mission: Impossible serves to that desire but I’m not sure how it became so popular, I’m not sure what made this so different and fresh and I’m really not sure why I keep watching this film.

The plot certainly has its share of intrigue as superspy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and a team led by Jim Phelps (John Voight) infiltrates a dinner party to recover a list stolen from Langley that contains all the NOC (Non-Offical Cover) list of every U.S. Agent in Europe. The mission goes south, the team is systematically killed off, Ethan is the only survivor and Langley believes he set up his team. He goes on the run to find the real double-crosser which will require some rather bold tactics.

The real staying power of the film are the well crafted set-pieces. Even to this day the action sequences are suspenseful and exciting. In easily the best sequence of the film Ethan Hunt must hack into a computer set inside a state of the art secure room, a rise in temperature, an audible sound or a single drop of water on the floor will set off the alarm. Even more tense is that the person who works in this room is making his way there. As all these potential moments for failure emerge we sit on the edge of our seats, holding our breath along with the characters, wincing with each slight sound.

And after experiencing a slew of chaotic, rapid-fire action pieces with insane editing in other films, it’s nice to watch a film that is fairly straightforward in its presentation. Yes, there’s a flashy intro sequence with a ton of cuts but once it gets past that director Brian DePalma takes a simple approach. This isn’t to say the camerawork is bland, in fact I found it quite effective on several occasions and it’s probably one of the better uses of a tilted camera shot I’ve seen in a while.

What’s not so effective is Tom Cruise’s performance.  I’ve never got how such a bland, uncharismatic performer could land so many lead roles. He’s passable here as he doesn’t ever have to sell us any cheap emotions but he also constantly gets these smug looks that make me want to punch him in the face. The rest of the cast is certainly better. It’s cool to see our good friend Jean Reno from The Professional and Ving Rhames is someone I always enjoy watching. John Voight masquerades as Christopher Walken again, or maybe I just can’t tell old men apart, and he’s effective at pulling off his role.

But the problem with these performances, and the entire film, are that none of them are brilliant. I don’t expect great things from every film but I at least expect big budget films to aim high. Here there’s a lot that is done competently but never excellently. I don’t have technical issues with the film and most of the performances are solid it just never goes that extra mile to reach something great. Yes, it’s solid but there are many other action flicks that are more ambitious, exhilarating and exciting than this one.

Maybe I lied a bit as I do believe this film has a huge fatal flaw: questions. By the end of this film I have so many questions about so many things. Why did a character do that? What’s his motivation? How is the first mission of the film supposed to make any sense? Why does Ethan hide in the first place the agency would look and then why does the agency never look there? I don’t mind a film having some unanswered questions by the end but it seems most of the ambiguity here just makes the film farfetched and implausible.

Mission: Impossible is perhaps the greatest barometer of average. It’s solid but never great. It’s fulfilling on some level as long as you can hold back the slew of questions and enjoy it from moment to moment. I certainly think this is the best of the series but still wouldn’t rave over it. It’s one of those films that you might watch for a bit if you catch it on television but nothing that demands going your way to check out.

© 2009 James Blake Ewing