Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Beart, Ving Rhames, Jean Reno, Kristin Scott Thomas, Henry Czerny and Vanessa Redgrave
Plot: An arms dealer named Max has a mole in the IMF, sending him a list of undercover agents. The IMF believe Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is the traitor in the organisation.
The entire Mission Impossible franchise is a little forgettable these days. It has endured better than most. Even if it has its ups and downs, it does serve as a handy entry to cinema. Despite critics scowling, Tom Cruise is still a worthy contender for best action star around right now. The new director with each instalment keeps things fresh. However, compared to other great movies, Mission Impossible doesn’t quite strike as much excitement as it ought to. Is anyone still counting the days down to the fifth movie? However, looking back at the first one and I realise just how great it actually is.
Brian De Palma is a force to be reckoned with as a director. He really is the reason that this first film is so easily a powerful addition to the action genre. Every scene is dripping with tension and we are always clear on the fact that anyone could be the mole. Certain scenes consist of nothing more than Jon Voight sitting on a plane, waiting instructions, but De Palma’s silent way of purveying the scene makes it seem like a ticking time bomb. Other frames are gloriously strung together, squeezing every beat of exposition out of the single shot. Sometimes a major spoiler would be hidden in the frame, but because we are not in on the piece of information that we need to register that spoiler just yet, we have no idea we are watching a later plot development unfold before our very eyes. It makes a second viewing so much more fun. We cannot believe we didn’t see the waiter eyeing Ethan Hunt from the Embassy stairwell. The bad guy is clearly visible standing right beside Hunt in the London Underground, but we nor Ethan Hunt are aware of that. De Palma is very good at taking these cheesy premises, like spies breaking into the CIA headquarters, but filming them with such intelligence and talent that they end up becoming something truly great.
Mission Impossible films are always hung together by their mind-blowing set-pieces. De Palma starts that trend here with some moments that have become a true staple of the spy genre. Those with a vague memory of watching this ages ago will not be able to forget that one scene where Ethan Hunt has to be lowered through the ceiling to get to the computer by the pressure pad floor. That entire scene moves away from your typical action punch-up to go for a quieter, more thoughtful form of entertainment. Even when we know how the scene will play out, we still hold our breath as we watch De Palma wonderfully direct this moment. The sweat on Tom Cruise’s face, the methodical cutting to all of the chess-pieces in this heist, the absolute silence that is far louder than anything a soundtrack could come up with. Other moments are no less riveting. Mission Impossible has far more characters than you remember with a whole squad of IMF agents from the initial mission and several villains who jump from side to side, so we are never aware who is working for who. This side of Mission Impossible is damaged slightly, when De Palma sacrifices a spy ensemble to make it a Tom Cruise vehicle, but we could argue that decision helped the three sequels get off the ground. The final scene is good from an action stand-point with a breath-taking fight on top of the TGV, but it is also the smaller beats that help dial up the tension. The small interactions between Max’s thugs and the CIA. De Palma makes sure that no stone is left unturned, when it comes to building an atmosphere.
Acting-wise, Tom Cruise is on fine form. For the start of the movie, he lets Jon Voight, the veteran here, do most of the talking and it is only because of a few shock plot developments that he goes from ‘just another part of the team’ to leading man. He holds the responsibility well, getting across the constant idea of desperation, intelligence and also, a touch of arrogance, as we would expect from a man who gets to play James Bond every day of his life. Ving Rhames and Jean Reno are also memorable as the two disavowed agents, who are roped into helping Ethan take on the CIA. The characters themselves could have been mildly forgettable, a means of exposition and allowing the team element of Mission Impossible to remain intact, but the actors add a flair of personality that makes them the strong backbone of the movie. I remember not liking Emmanuelle Beart in this, when I first watched the movie, but, this time around, I found new things to dissect about the performance. Beart’s character, Claire Phelps, could be seen as a clever take on the Bond girl. She is a member of the team that logically should end up as the lead’s romance card. However, because of the material and the strange appearance of her character, she never shakes off the ‘suspect’ card. As Hunt and Claire get closer, we are unsure if her character is a traumatised woman, needed to be saved by the hero, or if she is a traitor, using Ethan Hunt’s hero complex to lure him into a trap. It makes that certain subplot much meatier and adds to the drama. Again, this is the brilliance of Brian De Palma.
Final Verdict: Mission Impossible will always be remembered for Tom Cruise, but the original proves that Brian De Palma is one of the main factors that makes this thriller so great.