Mission: Impossible

(Brian De Palma, USA, 1996)


How on earth can anyone be cool about this film of the old television series Mission: Impossible? I have rarely been so thrilled and bowled over by a movie. Friends have told me that when I watch certain movies – action movies in particular – I tend to treat the screen like a three-dimensional space: I draw away and flinch when something is hurled at me, and I lean in for a closer examination of obscure visual clues. I think that this phantom three-dimensionality of a film for me is one very reliable indication of how good it – or at least how involving – it is. And that merry 3-D effect was in force right from the word go of Mission: Impossible.


Everyone knows that Mission: Impossible is essentially a star vehicle for Tom Cruise – he had a hand in producing it as well as acting in it, and I imagine he may have had a lot of input into the script and other creative levels of the project. Like Al Pacino, Richard Gere and Meryl Streep, Cruise has become one of those actor-auteurs with a firm hand on the creative control buttons. Suspecting this, I went along to Mission: Impossible pretty much expecting to see a fairly impersonal action spectacular, all plot and special effect mechanics and maybe not much more. Of course, there are good mechanical, impersonal action films – Speed (1994) was one. But, when push comes to shove, I’ll always prefer something like the Hong Kong action film Hard Boiled (1992), because there the director – the great John Woo – really does infuse the film with the mark of his own stylistic élan and personal obsessions.


Mission: Impossible has a great director at the helm, too: Brian De Palma. But I didn’t really expect that this was going to be ‘a Brian De Palma film’ in that lofty, customised sense. How wrong I was, because the film is an incredible triumph for De Palma, one of the pinnacles of his career. He was a great choice for this project: the typical Mission: Impossible material takes him back to a place where he was in the 1970s, when he was doing films like Sisters (1973) and Dressed to Kill (1980) or, in the ‘80s, Body Double (1984).


But before we get into De Palma and his signature style, I should outline just what the typical Mission: Impossible elements are in this big screen rendition of the television series. Mission: Impossible stories have always presented a rather compelling mixture of two different action-ideas (as Gilles Deleuze might have called them). On the one hand, they are a bit like heist stories. The M: I team of crack experts has to infiltrate some secret, guarded place, get inside, grab the microfilm or whatever, and then get the hell out. These brilliant men and women happen to be on the side of the law, but their gestures resemble those of the master cat burglars, jewel thieves and safe crackers that we’ve seen in hundreds of films.


But the other thing that the M: I team had going for it, the second action-idea of the television series, is that they are masters of disguise, performance and simulation. They fake not only identities, but also places, situations, intrigues and events. Don’t forget that the television series of Mission: Impossible first enthralled people in a period when the SF stories of Phillip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard were conjuring the giddy nightmare of a world in which every appearance was a deception, a con, an hallucination. And Dick himself, it turns out, once drafted a fanciful story for an episode of Mission: Impossible that was never filmed. In that plot idea, Dick referred to the “magic fakery of the fertile minds” of the M: I team.

The De Palma-Cruise take on Mission: Impossible begins in a mad flurry. Some story that we can’t really understand is hurling to its conclusion.  The tear-away sets, the disguises and, as always, the constant surveillance of this sham through cameras and microphones – all of this “magic fakery” is instantly in evidence. This is all a prologue, a high-spirited, exhibitionistic tease – but what delight De Palma takes in this display. Then, after the prologue, we settle into a new story, which we assume unconsciously will run for the rest of the film. Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and Phelps (Jon Voight) prime their crack team of operatives for a job in palatial Prague. They’ve got a shadow on a treacherous character and film him handing over some top secret information upon which the security of the new world order rests – or something like that, a lot of the details are deliberately fast and fuzzy in this movie. At this point, ten to fifteen minutes in, I was already pondering how hard it is to take a TV narrative form, that fits sixty minutes, and blow it out to feature length in a satisfying way. A lot of recent movies based on thirty-minute sitcoms (like the Addams Family films) have really foundered on this problem, this mismatch of film and TV forms. But I’m very pleased to report that the key writers David Keopp (who wrote Carlito’s Way, 1993) and Robert Towne (of Chinatown fame) – have managed to solve the problem of the TV-to-film transition with considerable élan.

Once again, De Palma’s directional speed is the key – and also a kind of apocalyptic disintegration of the initial plot and its given elements, a spectacle of disintegration that you find in several of the greatest and most daring action films. Once in Prague, we are plunged into an incredible multiplicity of intrigues and points-of-view. Everybody seems to be monitoring and watching everybody else at a party scene that reminded me of a famous passage in Hitchcock’s Nortorious (1946). And there are already uncanny little signs and clues flicking past at the edge of the mobile film frame about other, as yet unknown presences and operatives hanging around this entire manoeuvre – De Palma has always been fantastic at inserting these uncanny, disquieting little glimpses of things you’re not even sure you saw (or heard) correctly – and as it turns out, our heroes can never be too sure either.

Suddenly, we’re out in the misty streets of Prague – and everything is going terribly wrong. The central characters, the members of the Mission: Impossible team begin dying before our eyes (or just out of eyesight), one by one. Remember, this is still only about thirty minutes into the film! So then we are off into a completely new plot. It’s film noir-style story of mole-like detection and subversion from within the espionage system. Hunt and Claire (Emmanuelle Béart) collect a new band of comrades, a new team of fakers and tough guys; with them, Hunt tries to outwit the very system of which he is now a prisoner.


I’ve suggested that Mission: Impossible takes De Palma back to the kind of games he loved to play with great relish and excess in the ‘70s, before he mellowed out and became a little more classical in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Back in the ‘70s De Palma used to talk a lot about the Hitchcockian ideal of pure film, of putting the spectators through a kinetic roller coaster ride. I’ve never thought that De Palma is just a pale imitation of Hitchcock; I believe he gives a genuinely modern and modernist twist to the structures that Hitchcock laid down. So in Mission: Impossible we have a homage to the famous plot trick from Psycho (1960) – that disconcerting trick of killing Janet Leigh a little way in and completely switching to another narrative track. And what happens after that in De Palma’s film is occasionally a little like Hitchcock when he was at his most fantastic and outlandish. There are games with comparing those differing, multiple points-of-view on a single event, points-of-view which De Palma just loves to proliferate. There are moments of pure dream and hallucination. There are reversals and revelations that depend upon the crux of identity – fake, disguised identity or mistaken identity.


There’s an amazing scene at the delirious height of Mission: Impossible where Phelps pops up very unexpectedly; he confronts a startled and paranoid Hunt, and starts narrating to him what really happened that misty night in Prague. But what he’s saying is at complete variance with the operatic mental images that are simultaneously flashing up on screen, images we certainly have not seen before. They’re mental images, one presumes, but in whose mind – Phelps, who is reviewing the secret truth, or Hunt, who is spinning a new paranoid interpretation? This key scene is really a lot closer to the narrative delirium of Dario Argento’s Italian horror-thrillers than anything in Hitchcock. And it’s a cinematic delirium that I truly love.


De Palma is one of those filmmakers who, in his most frenetic moods, can drive and strain conventional narrative cinema until it almost cracks apart. This is a very modern mission that I respond extremely warmly to. In the ‘70s, De Palma seemed to be working from two closely related intuitions. The first was to do with storytelling itself – an idea that every fiction was essentially artificial, a construction – so why not play up the hokeyness, the games of chance and coincidence, the prolonged and misleading dream sequences? This approach to narrative has never really found favour in mainstream film culture – it’s actually more like an avant-garde idea; but I like it exactly because it offers some shot-gun wedding of popular elements (spectacle and performance, thrills and play) married with an intensely formalist, experimental attitude to the putting together of images and sounds. Certainly in Europe – if not in America or Australia – De Palma is essentially embraced as an experimental and exploratory popular artist.


The other central intuition that De Palma began working from in the ‘70s concerned cinematic point-of-view. In general, straight-down-the-line narrative filmmaking depends on a very clear, very singular point-of-view – the point-of-view of the hero or central character. With that character we enter the story as an audience, and we see, hear and learn more or less what that character sees and hears and learns. Now De Palma (like Hitchcock and Fritz Lang before him) takes that central matrix of vision, hearing and knowledge in a narrative and thoroughly complicates the usual model. Because he doesn’t believe in ‘well-constructed three-act drama’, he doesn’t believe in the ‘omnipotent central hero’, either. And so there are always competing points-of-view in a De Palma film, which contradict and overlap and replace each other violently, in a vertiginous whirl of narrative moves. And there is always not unity, but a splitting between seeing and hearing and knowing: like when John Travolta at the end of Blow Out (1981) can hear in his surveillance headphones the screams of his lover dying, but has no idea where to turn and look.


And this is why De Palma is so interesting as an action-film director, because what he presents is often the impossibility of action, the impossibility for a hero to act and intervene, in a scene that is so utterly and apocalyptically dispersed that it assaults his senses. But what is pain for the character can be ecstasy for us, the viewers: this sweet loss of narrative sense coupled with a generous multiplication of sensory inputs. Mission: Impossible is a film that assaults your senses – through sound as much as image – and it is ecstasy.


Mission: Impossible is perfect material for De Palma – in this renewed, youthful mood that we happily find him in here. It is perfect because the typical Mission: Impossible narrative allows a large latitude for frankly fantastic, improbable and dreamlike events to happen at any moment. On top of that, De Palma has a ball with all the technological gadgetry essential to the plot – laptop computers, micro-surveillance cameras hidden in all kinds of objects, phone taps, you name it. He gives all this technology a looseness and a personality I haven’t seen in any recent action film apart from the woefully underrated Assassins (1995), that Sylvester Stallone-Antonio Banderas beauty.


There are so many fine touches in this film – and hardly a single dead moment, except perhaps for some of the intrigue around the Claire character as some wispy femme fatale positioned between Hunt and Phelps. The performances in the film – and especially the faces – are tremendous. De Palma knows just how to shoot these faces, in enormous close-up at melodramatically skewed angles. All the characters are drawn in broad, iconic strokes – that goes for Cruise’s newly gaunt and angular looks, and also for the mighty French actor Jean Reno (The Professional, 1994). I don’t normally like to plunder press kits, but there is a story in there about the working relationship between Reno and De Palma which is worth passing on. When Reno came to De Palma for direction about his character, De Palma simply told him: “He’s French, he’s a traitor, and he smokes”. And then, next to these more steely figures, there are character actors who bring some memorable kinky little human touches to their parts – such as Vanessa Redgrave as Max, a dealer in information who takes such evident sexual delight in every move and feint and crazy plan that Hunt presents her with.


And, finally, let’s not forget the classic De Palma set-pieces. Even in his quieter efforts, like Carlito’s Way, De Palma always rewards his faithful fans with at least two stunningly choreographed and breathtakingly intricate set-pieces – like the train station shoot-out in The Untouchables (1987), the bust-up around the billiard table in Carlito’s Way, or the prom night disaster in Carrie (1976). In Mission: Impossible the finale – involving a super-fast train, a helicopter and two bodies hurled by the wind – is heart-stoppingly superb. It is exciting and dexterous, and also hilarious in that high-key, outrageous way we know from the best Hong Kong action films.


Come to think of it, that’s why I enjoyed Mission: Impossible so much – it’s like all the Hong Kong popular movies I love rolled into one.

MORE De Palma: Carlito's Way, Casualties of War, Mission to Mars, Raising Cain, Scarface, Snake Eyes

© Adrian Martin June 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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