Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Film Appreciation - 20 Years of Impossible Missions

Cody Hamman accepts the mission of showing some Film Appreciation for 1996's Mission: Impossible.

Having been born in the early 1980s, I missed out on the peak years of popularity for the 1966 - '73 television series Mission: Impossible, and even though I watched a lot of older TV shows while I was growing up, I never crossed paths with an episode of that spy series. I don't think I even caught an episode of the 1988 - '90 revival series. I had heard of the show, sure, but never watched any of it. But in 1996, Mission: Impossible got the Hollywood blockbuster treatment and the '96 film became my first real exposure to the concept.

Mission: Impossible was a box office success (clearly, it sparked a franchise), but when it was playing in theatres I mostly heard complaints about it. Complaints from critics, from audience members who said the story was too confusing, and from cast members of the original show - one of whom even called the movie an abomination because of how it handled the one returning character from the TV series.

I didn't catch M:I at the theatre during the summer of 1996, but I did make sure to rent it as soon as it hit VHS that fall, just weeks before the release of Jerry Maguire would start to boost my fandom of Tom Cruise to a new level. I've always been a fan of his, his movies got a lot of play in my household, but it was in the latter years of the '90s that I became a full-fledged Cruise fan. My early reactions to M:I were sort of middle-of-the-road; I thought it was enjoyable and watched it multiple times, but I was also one of the viewers that got lost by the story. Cut me a little slack, I was only 12 / 13 when I was watching this for the first time.

As years went on, I came to appreciate Mission: Impossible more. Having no true allegiance to the series it was based on, it doesn't bother that it may stray from the style of the source material a bit, and years later I feel that the fifth installment in the film franchise, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, made up for the biggest complaint fans of the series had about the first film. I'll get to that later in the article.

Mission: Impossible '96 came from a powerhouse creative team, headed up by master of suspense director Brian De Palma (Carrie). The screenplay was crafted by David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Spider-Man, Panic Room) and Robert Towne (Chinatown) from a story by Koepp and Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) that was spun out of a script that was written by American Graffiti / Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom scribes Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz - who did not receive credit on the finished film.

The story appears to pick up years after the events of the TV show, with the Impossible Missions Force still up and running and IMF team leader Jim Phelps still working in the field and assembling teams. On the show, Phelps was played by Peter Graves, but here the role is filled by Jon Voight. IMF director Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny) offers Phelps a new mission on a tape that self-destructs after being played: if Phelps chooses to accept the mission, he'll need to put together a team that will be able to infiltrate a party at the American embassy in Prague and thwart the theft of a CIA Non-Official Cover (NOC) list by a staff member there. Anyone with this list will have the code names and true names of every deep cover agent working in Eastern Europe, so it is imperative that the IMF team not let the NOC list get into the wrong hands.

The mission goes disastrously wrong. Tech guy Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez); Sarah Davies (Kristin Scott Thomas), who has been undercover at the embassy; surveillance specialist Hannah Williams (Ingeborga Dapkunaite), they're all killed by unseen assassins who seem to be monitoring the team. Phelps himself is shot and falls off a bridge. The car that Phelps's wife Claire (Emmanuelle Béart) was supposed to drive them in is blown up. At first it appears that master of disguise Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is the sole survivor, but Claire - who Ethan clearly harbors a crush on - will eventually show up at their designated meeting spot as well. That's only after Ethan is informed that the deaths of his teammates were even more tragic than he thought, because they were completely pointless.

The NOC list was never in jeopardy, Ethan is informed by Kittridge. The mission was a mole hunt, intended to reveal the identity of a traitor within IMF who has been making shady deals for two years. Since Ethan seems to be the only survivor, he's also the prime suspect, and another IMF team is in Prague to take him into custody.

Luckily for Ethan, Kittridge chose a very odd location for their meeting. A restaurant that is literally inside a large aquarium - the walls, the ceiling, it's all full of water and fish. So Ethan puts to use a gadget supplied to him by the late Jack, exploding bubble gum, blasts open a wall, and runs out of the restaurant while the place floods. This gum is up there with some of the silliest gadgets ever given to Ethan Hunt's fellow spy James Bond, but it plays an important part in the film and makes this restaurant scene one of the most memorable. Also one of the most memorable things about the film is an exchange of dialogue between Kittridge and Ethan in that restaurant, Kittridge saying, "I can understand you're very upset." Ethan replying, "Kittridge, you've never seen me very upset."

Not intending to go to prison for something he didn't do, Ethan goes on the run with Claire, who thankfully outside of her vehicle when it went up in flames, and seeks to clear their names.

As all this story becomes clear, the film began to lose dedicated fans of the original series and some of its cast members. This was all unprecedented - an IMF team getting wiped out and whittled down to just a couple members, series star Jim Phelps apparently being killed off. I have to say, though, that an IMF team being massacred in the field is certainly an event big enough to warrant being a movie rather than an episode.

And Ethan and Claire do proceed to assemble their own team for a mission. A team of agents who have been disavowed by IMF, just like Ethan and Claire have been now. With the aid of tech guy Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), who will go on to be in every subsequent Mission: Impossible movie with Cruise, and Franz Krieger (Jean Reno), a helicopter pilot who is prone to violence, Ethan sets out to do exactly what he has been accused of doing so he can draw out the real traitor. He makes a deal with the arms dealer the traitor is working with, Vanessa Redgrave as a woman called Max, and plans a heist to steal the NOC list. And this heist isn't nearly as simple as a theft from an embassy in Prague. The NOC list is actually housed on a computer in a highly secure right inside CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

With the heist sequence alone, this movie lives up to its title, whether it's faithful to the source show or not. This is an impossible mission, which Ethan and his cohorts pulling off the theft in one of the most iconic sequences of the '90s. Twenty years later, this looks incredibly quaint, but at the time - thanks to way De Palma and cinematographer Steven H. Burum shot this sequence and the way Paul Hirsch edited it together - this was sensational stuff. Ethan trying to steal the list while suspended from the ceiling of a room with temperature sensors, sound sensors, and a pressure-detecting floor so sensitive that even a drop of sweat would set off the alarm... There are bigger action moments, but this scene of suspense is what really impressed the audience. It's not even entirely original, De Palma lifted the concept from a 1964 heist film called Topkapi - but then he directed the hell out of it.

The M:I franchise has gone to be a "director's showcase" series, with each film so far having been directed by a different filmmaker, each of whom took their own approach to the material and brought the stories to the screen with their own style. De Palma definitely put his stamp on this movie, crafting a suspenseful spy thriller and throwing in touches of unnerving oddness - like when Ethan imagines a bloody, dying Jim Phelps walking toward him and asking for help. This moment throws you off for the scene later when Phelps really does show up again.

There are a lot of twists and turns and double crosses in Mission: Impossible, and one of the twists went over even worse with fans than the apparent death of Jim Phelps. It comes at the end, when Phelps is revealed to be the traitor Kittridge has been after all along. This man who viewers watched be a hero for over 150 episodes of television, now a traitor who's complicit in the deaths of his team. Phelps gives a vague explanation for his turn, something about feeling obsolete in the modern age, but this is, understandably, not enough to make up for the film ruining the character's good name.

This is where Rogue Nation helps. Although it had long been assumed that the film series is some kind of continuation of the TV show, in Rogue Nation an enemy organization called The Syndicate is introduced. In that story, it's the first time The Syndicate has ever operated... but The Syndicate was a regular threat on the TV show. As of Rogue Nation, the films have officially separated themselves from the continuity of the show, and therefore the Jim Phelps played by Jon Voight in this film was not actually the same Jim Phelps played by Peter Graves in the series. They just have the same name, and this Phelps is just a one-off villain.

It may tear down (a version of) Jim Phelps, but at the same time it builds up Ethan Hunt as a new heroic star of the spy film sub-genre. He isn't the most fascinating character as presented here, but Cruise is charismatic in the role and the ordeal the story puts him through is effective at putting you on Ethan's side. He proves to be smart and capable, although maybe a little too cocky, and a character worth following. For this film and several to come after.

I didn't quite understand Mission: Impossible when it first came out, but now I can follow the story and make sense of what the characters are supposed to be doing. I wasn't exactly blown away by it at first, but now it has become one of my favorite and most watched movies. A lot of those viewings came in the spring of 2002, when I was watching this movie, Mission: Impossible II, Vanilla Sky, and Richard Linklater's films Tape and Waking Life over and over as I crammed and scrambled to finish my schoolwork before graduating from high school. Those movies guided me through that crazy time, and I am very appreciative of each of them because of that.

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