With Mission Impossible: Fallout alighting the blockbuster sky with the best Hollywood action since Mad Max: Fury Road, I decided to visit the birthing pains of a franchise that began as something quite a bit different.
Set against the doldrums of 21st century blockbuster cinema, it’s bracingly refreshing how obviously personal the quintessentially ‘90s Mission Impossible is to its director Brian De Palma. Refreshing, sometimes, because there’s little else about the film that truly interrupts the corporate cinematic impulse and casts it adrift in fascinatingly idiosyncratic directions. In other words, Mission Impossible is often more notable for how De Palma-esque it is, not because it is an especially thoughtful De Palma film, blockbuster film, or anything film. Still, it isn’t for lack of trying, and at its best, Mission Impossible is self-evidently marked as an attempt by De Palma to bend the blockbuster machine to his idiom. Or to test Hollywood’s tensile strength and mark it for deletion. Or simply for De Palma to retain what little of his personal and stylistic (in)sanity that he can while selling his soul to the powers that be. For the most part though, Mission Impossible unevenly splits its role as an acid-tongued attempt to draw-and-quarter the action genre, Verhoeven-style, and to more simplistically but not un-valuably spruce up a boilerplate action pic with sprinkles of consummately restless De Palma flavor.
While most Bond films cast their opening sequences as equal parts tease and primer, Mission Impossible does at least begin already charting its own waters by proposing that its intro is more an accidental climax, as though another film’s conclusion was teasingly excised, soured so that everyone fails, and let loose in this film’s narrative terra firma before we even know on what kind of ground we stand. In that aforementioned intro, a unit of the fictitious but franchise-spanning government agency known as the IMF headed by Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) and consisting of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), Claire (Emmanuelle Beart), who is married to Phelps, Sarah Davies (Kristin Scott Thomas), and Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez), attempt to locate a list containing the identities of every undercover IMF operative. Within 25 minutes, all except Hunt are dead, and as the last living soul, his name is the likeliest culprit. While later Mission Impossible films undoubtedly strip-mine social instability for narrative twists and turns, the introduction of this film evokes how De Palma’s film genuinely explores uncertainty as a theme.
Setting off a chain of personal experiments that marked Mission Impossible as an abnormally mutable blockbuster franchise for the personal proclivities – or at least wheelhouses – of its directors, Mission Impossible is not only a singularly prodigious sensorium of De Palma-esque canted angles and baroque frames but a truly frustrated library for his thematic compulsions and personal vexations. Specifically, De Palma’s florid Continental stylistics and ice-cold attitude are diametrically opposed – in the blockbuster world at least – to the hard-wired, hot-wired momentum of the latter films in the franchise. It’s a more frigid thing then, its desire to entertain always self-consciously undermined by its apparent inclination to question its audience.
And at points, these questions truly alight, especially when Mission Impossible positions itself as something less, and thus more, than a typically propulsive Blockbuster explosion of pure motion. In its more fascinating moments, De Palma reconfigures Hollywood cinema and US intelligence alike not as clearly-motivated pistons with logical purposes but, rather, paranoiac funhouses, chickens with their head cut off, lop-sided modern improbabilities that launder their own confusion and ineptness with a façade of laser-tight precision. Crucially, I mean by this that Mission Impossible, in quintessentially De Palma-esque fashion, both fetishizes its own precision and befouls it. It surreptitiously flagellates itself with its own lack of coherence and its narrative incredulity, both masking and announcing, in bold camera swishes and fervid angles, its own leaps in logic, not unlike a more streamlined version of JFK with, unfortunately, all of that film’s truly wily and destabilizing impulses hemmed-in and cut-back.
Most famously, the film plays its auto-critical hand in its (in)famous late-picture twist which effectively recasts the heroes of the Cold War as aimless, stray mercenaries with no moral compass today (perhaps suggesting that any moral compass to the Cold War was strictly constructed, and that the real morality of the mid-century cannot be fixed at all, let alone positioned along any binary capitalist-totalitarian poles). But the far more stylistically audacious and effective gambits have less to do with the meta-textual intrigue of stapling the name of the TV show’s hero over this film’s villain. Rather, the film’s sharpest tacks reflect the cunning of De Palma’s stylistic craft. Not to mention the perhaps conspicuously anti-crafted screenplay which needlessly ropes itself up in convolutions in a crazed suggestion – intentional or unintentional – of the depths of double-dealing complication Cold War and post-Cold War narratives will lower themselves to in order to keep themselves busy and run circles around the everyday public. In a premonition of Atomic Blonde, reading the baroquely over-complicated screenplay generously suggests that seemingly natural or routine exercises must be mired in conceptual double-speak and a centrifugal, circular string of switch-backs simply to convince to the participants, i.e. the US intelligence community, that what they are doing is sufficiently important.
In this frame, the film consciously explores, rather than accidentally embodying, just how badly mismanaged and arbitrary Cold War morality sometimes was, not to mention how narcissistic an insular intelligence community’s compulsion to continue creating internal enemies can be in lieu of any clearly defined national enemy. It suggests, in other words, a world where narrative complication was conspicuously constructed as a sort of time-consuming game to erect a façade of densely-arrayed purpose, to lacquer egotistical and self-fulfilling affairs with the illusion that all these intelligence operatives were truly accomplishing anything rather than simply twisting an impossible-to-follow narrative tangle merely to convince people that there remain wires in need of uncrossing.
As a study in post-Cold War ennui, then, Mission Impossible is worthwhile if hardly revelatory, unless one truly does connect the dots between the film’s critique of US intelligence and Hollywood narrative storytelling. This would require a De Palma-aficionado’s undying willingness to commit to the belief that Mission Impossible reflects some sort of blockbuster tumor in metastasis, as though the film was consciously connecting the intelligence community to Hollywood cinema’s increasingly idiotic and cynical belief that simply twisting and turning is a cover for any clear logic or purpose. I see, and have begun, the argument to that extent, but I’m not entirely sure my comments are anything more than the raving-mad ramblings of a viewer in a hostage situation with a film that simply refuses to explain itself, which exhibits not one iota of narrative sense, and which simply boasts a bad screenplay.
Admittedly, the generous reading of the film is an easier claim to make twenty-two years after its release, now that De Palma’s frustrations with conventional cinema are more openly laid bare for all to see. In light of works like Snake Eyes and The Black Dahlia, De Palma’s skepticisms – toward the assumption that films are supposed to teach you how to read them, coalesce, and wrangle some sense or theme out of what is at the end of the day a tenuous illusion of connection holding together loose electron images and sounds – are more easily legible. I’m not sure I’m willing to follow De Palma all the way there, or even that he is willing to go there in this film, since Mission Impossible, on its own increasingly equivocal and ambivalent terms absent any input from De Palma’s later films, stops short of fully clarifying its intentional incommunicability. Which is also perhaps the point. But it simply does not plunge deep enough into its own curiosities about entertainment to justify its messiness as any commentary on or exploration of incredulous narrative mechanics which tend to paper themselves over with sparkle and razzamatazz rather than truly reconcile themselves to the need to fit together.
What I am convinced of is that Mission Impossible reflects an inchoate rendering of what would flower into a remarkably self-questioning career for Cruise. By 1996, Cruise had not yet mutated into the truly cunning, dangerously self-questioning star he is today, but there are hints, admittedly more in De Palma’s framing and editing than in Cruise’s performance. For instance, I do appreciate De Palma’s modernistic point of view shots which cannily position Cruise not as an actor capable of inhabiting a character but as a blank avatar for the audience’s experience, a kind of model or man puppet, a position Cruise admittedly has more gamely fulfilled – while still expressing echoes of frustration and cunning humor that do fill-in a broad-strokes character – in the later Impossible films. In one diabolically clever moment where the film contrasts Cruise’s explanation of the story with what really happened, the film clarifies visually how little his character, and by proxy us the audience, truly knows. Here, the film suggests a kind of vigorous and unsettled ricochet by vacillating between aligning Cruise with us and opposing our perspective with his, exploring the presumed intersection between star and audience while entrapping us in the limits of our own knowledge and relationship to him.
When Ving Rhames’ Luther (the only character thus far in every MI film except Hunt) concludes the film by claiming that he will “miss being disreputable,” it’s difficult to avoid foisting his words back upon De Palma, who manages to headline a slightly disreputable blockbuster film while nonetheless clarifying how truly wonderful his more genuinely disreputable films actually are. The clever reviewer would probably claim that in orchestrating this cinematic mole-hunt, De Palma emerges as the real mole in the institutional machinations of blockbuster cinema, pretending to play by the rulebook while surreptitiously seeding Hollywood’s own demise. But Mission Impossible is hardly inhospitable to blockbuster screen logic. It’s obvious withholding of clearly legible narrative logic is hardly Tarkovskian slow cinema or avant-garde experimentation. And the cunning visual perspective shots still feel like little more than percolating teasers for De Palma’s more subversive next feature, the criminally underrated Snake Eyes, a film which is all the more clever, especially compared to any of the other late-‘90s mind-fuck films, because of how it refuses to laminate itself, Matrix-style, in any crystalline announcements of its cleverness, refusing to cower in fear at the prospect that the audience will remain unaware of what the film is really doing. Comparatively, Mission Impossible is more of a game attempt than a truly successful blockbuster entertainment or a truly inspired critique of the same.
It’s inconclusive, basically, although not without its moments. Even the final, worst, third seems cheekily to take place on a train, a phallic vehicle the film fetishistically ogles in an introductory helicopter shot, just because De Palma is supposed to fancy himself a Hitchcock commentator, and we all know Hitch had a fetish for trains. Plus, on a more basic but undeniably effective register, that famous trapeze act with Cruise sure does purr. It’s a pity how little the rest of the film follows suit, especially because it so often seems to attempt to finagle a critique of the inclination to purr out of its own failure to do so. It’s not quite there, in other words, but there’s a certain mojo to this film’s interpretation of “not quite,” and even its concerns about what reaching “there” might feel like, and what it have would to lose in order to streamline itself to reach the safe, ultimately narrow destination we’re told Hollywood cinema is supposed to arrive at.