WFTB Score: 13/20
The plot: A mission to retrieve the top secret details of agents goes wrong for several members of the Impossible Missions Force, forcing Ethan Hunt to mount his own attack on the CIA and steal secrets for himself in an effort to force the organisation’s ‘mole’ into the open. It’s a dangerous game, however, since he’s putting the names of undercover agents into the hands of weapons dealers; and even when he finds answers, he won’t necessarily like them.
Any self-respecting movie star, and any business-minded film studio, wants a successful film franchise to call their own; and since the rights to defunct TV series Mission: Impossible were lying dormant at Paramount, what better than to get little Tom Cruise involved in some Bond-style intrigue? And who better than De Palma, director of exciting, brutal dramas such as Scarface and The Untouchables, to bring the action forcefully to the screen?
Fans old enough (sorry, but it was a long time ago) to remember the TV series will be pleased to see Jon Voight reprising his role as Jim Phelps, an IMF agent in charge of capturing a chap called Golitsin as he tries to steal something called the ‘NOC list’, a computerised record of the real identities of CIA and IMF agents in Eastern Europe. Phelps’ team is comprised of computer expert Jack (Emilio Estevez), Hannah, Sarah (Kristin Scott Thomas), his wife Claire (Emmanuelle Béart) and Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), going undercover in a rubber mask as a politician. The operation initially goes to plan, but events spiral out of control, leading to the death of Jack, Hannah, Sarah and Jim.
Ethan’s grief is as nothing compared to his rage when he discovers the mission was simply a ‘molehunt’, an attempt to find the real identity of an insider at the CIA who is trading details with an arms dealer called Max (Vanessa Redgrave). Contacting Max via the new-fangled Internet, Ethan agrees to provide an even bigger NOC list for the princely sum of $10 million, on condition that the IMF contact known as ‘Job’ reveals himself. To obtain the list, he enlists the help of master hacker Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) as well as Phelps’ widow and her colleague Krieger (Jean Reno) to break into the impenetrable CIA computer room at Langley; but when the time comes to hand over the information, on a TGV speeding from London to Paris, Ethan must be prepared for uncomfortable truths about the traitor’s identity – or identities.
Were Mission: Impossible simply a Bond clone with a diminutive man in the lead role, it would have little to recommend it; but thankfully there is more than the welcome sound of Lalo Schifrin’s memorable theme tune to enjoy. Firstly, there are the face masks; while these are essentially gimmicks, they recall the invention of the TV series and are good fun (so long as they are not overused or abused: see Mission:Impossible II).
Secondly, and more importantly, there is the element of the IMF working as a team, meaning that while Ethan may be the strongest, fastest and smartest cookie, he is always vulnerable because of the ineptness (or malevolence) of those beneath him. Here the team ethic is explored to the full as Jim’s team in Prague is itself being shadowed by other CIA agents, and when Ethan gets his own people together he has to rely on Claire’s word that Krieger is reliable, his attempts to find ‘Job’ also bringing CIA boss Kittridge (Henry Czerny) to the party.The sense of a group rather than an individual working on the case really adds something, especially when the likes of Scott Thomas and Rhames are involved, and it is a shame that the sequels (especially M:I:III) concentrated almost exclusively on Ethan’s – meaning Cruise’s – exertions.
The set-up’s good, then, and so are the stunts, the central, celebrated set-piece where Ethan dangles tantalisingly above the pressure-sensitive floor of CIA headquarters’ most closely-guarded room a particular highlight. The Channel Tunnel climax is also very exciting, even if blurring of the characters and landscapes means that you’re never entirely convinced the characters are speeding along on the outside of a train. Even when the film is quieter it retains an intrigue, De Palma using interesting camera angles and locations (Liverpool Street station!) to keep us interested in the complex proceedings. However, no amount of dynamic cinematography can cover up the fact that the plot stumbles between its set-pieces, losing its shape as Ethan tries to flush ‘Job’ out via the exotic wonders of the Internet; when the motivation for all the killing is revealed as little more than dissatisfaction at the size of the bad guy’s pension (he would have got away with it too, if it weren’t for those pesky Gideons!), you have to wonder if he couldn’t just have hacked into a bank account and siphoned some money off – he can control everything else, after all.
It may be that I found this film refreshing after watching a lot of the weak quipping and lazy womanising of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond (here, the hinted-at attraction between Béart and Cruise is curiously truncated); or that the collective approach of this movie is a welcome break after watching Cruise’s self-promoting efforts in the two sequels; but I rather like Mission: Impossible. It’s not especially clever, but it delivers stylish thrills at reasonable intervals, and since that is surely all it set out to do I would suggest it’s more a case of mission: accomplished than mission: abort.