By Steve Biodrowski
This exciting, polished thriller was unjustly written off as just a summer action movie, but it is really a convoluted high-tech spy film that builds suspense from a sense of isolation and paranoia. Director Brian DePalma's stock in trade has never been the misogyny of which he is accused; rather, it is the portrayal of gifted prodigies who are abused instead of nurtured by a corrupt, indifferent system. Working with writers David Koepp and Robert Towne, DePalma manages to infuse this element into this story, turning what could have been a faceless studio flick into an underrated auteur piece.
Unfortunately, because of the its star, its release date, and its television pedigree, the film's strengths were overlooked by critics, who gave MISSION IMPOSSIBLE a lukewarm reception when it was released in May of 1996. If we are to believe everything we read at the time, this is nothing but a typical roller-coaster summer movie, with little plot and an excess of action. Nevertheless, anyone who actually bothers to watch the film can see that it is actually quite different.
What's most notable is the almost complete absence of action. There's an early sequence in which the IMF team's plan goes horribly awry; midway, there is an incredible suspense set piece when Tom Cruise, now a rogue agent, breaks into his own former headquarters; and of course, there is the memorably stunning CGI train sequence at the climax.
The rest of the movie, however, sustains itself entirely on its shadowy conspiracy plot – a fact that went mostly unnoted in the press. Certainly, as some suggested, characterizations are given short shift; but considering the movie's length, one has to wonder about the viability of another half‑hour of screen time devoted to delineating the finer points of personality. (Would the critics really have enjoyed a film that ran three hours long, or would that have simply provided them with different ammunition to attack the film for indulging in excessive length?)
Actually, there is really only one overall flaw in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, which clearly derives from Cruise's status as producer: whereas the TV show featured the teamwork of an ensemble, the feature almost immediately kills off the team so that the rest of the plot can focus almost solely on Cruise.
Aside from this problem, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE is not the impersonal studio product one might have expected. Interestingly enough for fans of director Brian DePalma, this really does fit in with his previous oeuvre. DePalma's films, whether or not he wrote them, have often featured creative and talented young people who were betrayed by their parental authority figures, which forced the youthful heroes to turn the tables on their oppressors, often with violent results (think of THE FURY).
Certainly this holds true with the film's version of Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), who in a wonderfully subversive twist turns out to be a traitorous double agent. This touch so perfectly reflects the realities of espionage during the film's era (as personified by Aldrich Ames) that only someone hopelessly addicted to the nostalgic appeal of the show would object (indeed, some have, including actor Peter Graves, who played the role in the series). However, instead of being disappointed by this assault on orthodoxy, we should applaud the film's nerve and appreciate the fact that instead of doing a bloated Bond pastiche, DePalma and scripters Koepp and Town elected to take an approach that has more in common with THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD. Actually, when you stop to think about it, it is amazing that this dark, plot‑heavy paranoid thriller managed to pass itself off as a dumb action-adventure flick and thus managed to become a summer blockbuster.
Cruise, by the way, is really no better in the critical fave JERRY MAGUIRE that earned him big reviews at year's end; in fact, his self-confident image works at least as well here, where it is not stretched to sentimental extremes..