Paramount // 1996 // 110 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // May 1st, 2006
Kittridge: I understand that you're very upset
Hunt: Kittridge, you've never seen me very upset.
The Mission: Impossible movies have faced a lot of flack lately, what with Tom Cruise's recent incidents with the media and a second film that (in retrospect) really didn't cut it. It's been quite a while since I've watched the first film, though I did at one point have the original letterboxed DVD release. Despite common complaints about the labyrinthine plot, I found it to be an enjoyable trip down memory lane, and the disc is a decent upgrade.
Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise, Rain Man) is part of the elite Impossible Mission Force, called in to stop a spy who is stealing a list of secret agents stationed throughout Europe. If the list gets out, their covers will be blown and many will die. When things go south and most of the team dies, Ethan learns that the operation was really a mole hunt, and that he has been framed. He grabs Claire (Emmanuelle Beart, 8 Women), the only other member of his team who survived, and sets off on his own. But can one man be strong enough to fight the CIA and the arms dealer behind the robbery?
Okay, let's get this out of the way first. Mission: Impossible isn't that hard to follow. It does twist and turn a lot, but it's a spy thriller -- that's the whole point. For an audience that is actually willing to pay attention, it does genuinely make sense, and it's a pretty fun ride in the process. It's an action film created by a thriller director, so it uses subtlety and tension instead of eye candy and dazzle. If what you want is a story a monkey can understand and wall-to-wall thrills, perhaps the sequel would be a better choice. The original Mission: Impossible is an unusual beast: a blockbuster with the heart of a spy drama and the brain of a thriller.
I have a theory that the best action movies are created by directors who are experts in other genres. There have been a number of examples of this phenomenon. The Spider-man movies are some of the best action films ever made, with horror director Sam Raimi at the helm. Peter Jackson, another director of low-budget horror, rose to the occasion and delivered The Lord of the Rings. I think one of the reasons that the first Mission: Impossible works so well is the uncharacteristic direction from veteran thriller director Brian De Palma. By bringing on a man famous for brain twisters like Dressed to Kill and Blow Out, Paramount was not asking for a generic action thriller, and they didn't get one. De Palma brought his thriller mentality to the set of an action movie, and created something both fascinating and unique.
Spy movies took a big hit after the cold war. After all, spies thrive when there is a major enemy to infiltrate, blow up, and steal secrets from. When it came time to update a classic cold war series, Mission: Impossible asked a pertinent question: What do you do when a major shift in the geo-political landscape leaves hundreds of highly trained secret agents with nothing to do? The answer, of course, is watch your back. Of course, Mission: Impossible doesn't deal with the issues as impressively as films like Ronin, but it at least does more than fabricate some evil nation so that we can cheer on the good guys without any guilt. In this film, it's very hard to figure out exactly who the good and evil characters are, if that distinction matters at all.
Of course, not many people are watching Mission: Impossible for the story, or for a realistic picture of contemporary spy life. Most people come to the franchise looking for wildly difficult missions, barely pulled off through clever spy antics. This film has two great sequences, both tightly choreographed and filmed. The first is the infiltration of the CIA headquarters, which is one of the best suspense sequences of all time. Many films since have tried to capture the same white-knuckle heist feel, but few have succeeded. The other is the train sequence at the end, which features a lot of excitement and enough twists to twist our heads around one more time.
When this new special edition first came out, I heard nightmare reports that Paramount had simply blown up the old letterboxed transfer to anamorphic, which usually just makes movies uglier. I am happy to report that the video transfer isn't that bad. In fact, it's not bad at all. It has a reasonable level of detail and has been cleaned up. The colors have obviously not been balanced properly and it isn't the kind of complete overhaul that some other studios often deliver, but it's a long way from being ugly. The sound seems to be the same as on the original release. It's a perfectly acceptable 5.1 track. As expected, many of the extras are designed to hype up the third film. There are a few featurettes, with a lot of self-congratulation for a job well done, but most of the footage looks pieced together from former interviews and special features. The other featurettes are all designed to celebrate Tom Cruise, perhaps a last ditch attempt to rescue his public image. There is a fun little featurette that walks through the International Spy Museum, though it's not as informative as it could be. It's a fairly strong collection of extras, though none of it feels very original.
I do have a few complaints. First, I'm annoyed that De Palma chose to show so much of the film during the opening credits. It doesn't show enough to ruin the film for first time viewers, but it is an effective reminder for people who haven't seen the film for a few years. The film does also have just a few too many twists and not quite enough action sequences. I appreciate a Hollywood blockbuster that errs on the side of brains for once, but a bit more balance would have been appreciated. There are a few plot holes and some moments of serious implausibility, but what are we to expect from a film that calls itself Mission: Impossible? Like so many other films, it works if you just kick back and have a good time.
After so many recent stabs at the Mission: Impossible franchise, I feel the need to defend the original film. It doesn't transcend the genre, but it is a fine example of slick, suspenseful escapism. A strong cast, witty dialogue, and great action sequences make a trip back to Mission: Impossible worthwile, and this disc is a cheap way to do it. In fact, with a free ticket to the third film in theater (which also looks promising thanks to J.J. Abrams' presence at the helm), it's well worth picking up.
Let them have their fun. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Mission: Remarkable -- Retrospective
* Production Featurettes
* Mission: International Spy Museums
* Excellence in Film and Generation: Cruise -- Tribute Montages