“Well, you think about it, Ethan, it was inevitable. No more cold war. No more secrets you keep from yourself. Answer to no one but yourself. Then, you wake up one morning and find out the President is running the country without your permission. The son of a bitch, how dare he. Then you realize, it’s over. You are an obsolete piece of hardware, not worth upgrading, you got a lousy marriage, and 62 grand a year.”
The more things change, the more they tend to remain the same. In 1996 Paramount was nearing the end of a run of feature films that started with a 1960’s Desilu Studios television series called Star Trek. That same year the studio was beginning a run of feature films based on a 1960’s Desilu Studios television series that at one time shared an actor with Star Trek, Leonard Nimoy. That series was Mission Impossible. The show starred Peter Graves as the leader of a cold war covert government group called the IMF or Impossible Mission Force. Each week he would select from a group of series regulars after getting his mission, should he decide to accept it, from a tape recorder that always self-destructed in five seconds. The tape’s dissolving vapor would lead to the fuse being lit that started the opening credits and an iconic theme written by Lalo Schifin. It ran for seven seasons between 1966 and 1973. The series returned for a short while as another television series in the 1980’s before it vanished into post-cold-war oblivion, until Paramount and Tom Cruise decided to join forces and create a new film franchise that has lasted over 20 years and is about to release its 7th big-budget film.
Is it any surprise that Paramount wants to get you in the mood for number 7? The film has already been released in 4K, and that’s going to be the ultimate version for a while, at least. But in case you’ve been waiting for the 25th Anniversary to buy it on Blu-ray, it’s here.
Enter Brian DePalma, who 10 years earlier had made a successful film out of a 1950’s Desilu television show called The Untouchables. It certainly appeared that this film was more a product of fate than anything a Hollywood script could dream up. But DePalma would not remain with this franchise after the first film. In fact it would become somewhat of a tradition that each film would be directed by a different person, bringing a bit of a unique style to each outing. The results have certainly been rather mixed, but one thing is for certain. The box office for these films has brought some much needed cash to Paramount over the years, and that’s expected to continue.
Mission Impossible starts with a nod to the original series. We see the IMF team just finishing up one of the elaborate scams that were a trademark of the show in order to have international bad guys get a little unofficial justice. The only character from the series to return is Jim Phelps, this time played by Jon Voight. The case has a happy conclusion, and the iconic fuse is lit, and we’re treated to a modern version of the classic opening, pulse-pounding theme and all. The resemblance to the series except for a few homage moments ends here.
Jim Phelps receives a new mission on the plane ride home. There is a list of secret agent identities out there in two parts. Apparently an international bad guy is about to obtain the second part of the coded list, and that means a lot of compromised agents. He assembles his team, which includes Ethan Hunt, played by Tom Cruise. Phelps has been his mentor and is about to retire, putting the IMF team into his hands. But the last mission goes horribly wrong, and it appears Hunt is the only surviving member of the botched mission. Of course, that makes him look like the mole the agency has been trying to track down, and Hunt has been framed for the role. We finally learn what it means to be disavowed, and Hunt has to put together a team of disavowed agents in order to clear his name, find the real mole, and keep the agent list from falling into the wrong hands.
The first film of the new feature film franchise begins to establish the move from the con aspect of the show to a more furious action film genre. Cruise establishes himself as a bit of an action hero who has been insisting on doing many of each film’s signature stunts. In this one we get the first of many iconic images of Cruise as Hunt dangling from a rope rig as he enters an impenetrable vault and drops to within inches of the rigged floor, arms and legs spread-eagled in what has become an easily recognizable scene from the franchise. Hunt also hangs on to a speeding bullet train while battling and taking out a helicopter as it enters the Chunnel between England and France. These action moments have become the trademark moments of each new film as one attempts to outdo the others.
This film also introduces us to the character of Luther Stickell, played by Ving Rhames, who is the only other actor/character to appear in all of the films to date. He’s a disavowed computer hacker who helps Hunt retrieve the film’s McGuffin in the computer list of agents. Rhames is a powerful force and really the only member that can hold up to the larger-than-life performance of Cruise in these films.
Vanessa Redgrave is a particular standout as one of the film’s villains. Max is a delightful character, and she manages to go toe to toe with Cruise, delivering some of the film’s best banter and chemistry. Jon Voight is actually rather underused in most of the film, but he takes the character of Jim Phelps in a direction that did not sit very well with the big fans of the television series. It’s not a total surprise that Peter Graves reportedly turned down the chance to reprise the character in the film.
The plot of this one isn’t quite as original as one might have hoped. It’s actually a surprise that the franchise has lasted this long if you just look at the first film. The twists and turns are too much of a cheat as each twist is accompanied by someone ripping off a latex mask so that you never really know who any particular character might be. It’s based on the Martin Landau character from the series, who was good at masks and character impersonations. But this film uses it too much as a cheat so that it really isn’t possible for us to figure it out on our own. It stopped being thrilling after the first six or seven times it happened. Part of the problem here is that the script was never locked. Changes were being made as filming was progressing, and even after a scene was filmed it would be rewritten. That kind of process always suffers in the end.
The film made a respectable $180 million and ended up competing that year for box office with Cruise’s other film of the year, Jerry Maguire. It was enough to warrant a second film, but these haven’t been rushed as quickly as most film franchises tend to be. There has been an average of 3-6 years between the films, so we only have had five since 1996 with the 7th about to open. We’re finally returning to the movies and watching these things on the big screen. For now Paramount is asking you to step back all the way to HD and Blu-ray to see the first film again. That’s your mission, “should you decide to accept it”.