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Mission: Impossible Poster

Mission: Impossible (1996)
Directed by Brian DePalma
Written by David Keopp and Robert Towne
Starring Tom Cruise, John Voight, Emmanuelle Beart, Henry Czerny, Jean Reno, Ving Rhames, and Vanessa Redgrave
110 minutes, Rated PG-13


Full disclosure: I had considerable difficulty writing this entry.

I must have written, deleted, and re-worked this entire essay four, maybe five, times. It’s been frustrating because I really do love this movie (and every installment in the franchise so far) with all my heart, but I have found while writing about it that I don’t really have anything interesting to say. Every attempt so far to put thoughts into words has become less about the adrenaline rush of Brian DePalma’s skillful direction and more about defending myself for loving a movie that is maybe “not so good” as much as I do.

Yes. You read that right. I just said that one of my favorite movies is “not very good”.

Which is a strange thing to say, I admit, because this movie fits cleanly and completely into any criteria that I personally put in place for determining whether or not I think a movie is good. Let me clarify . . . For me, ignoring the content of a film, a movie is good if 1) I enjoyed watching it 2) I would recommend it to others, and 3) I wouldn’t balk in the slightest at watching it again. To that end, there are many movies that I enjoyed while watching, but thought about harder later, ultimately changing my mind. Such films don’t hit all three bullet points, so I don’t classify them as “good”. There is a very fine line between “good” and “enjoyable”.

With Mission: Impossible, that third bullet point is key. You can take 1 and 2 as a given because I have watched this movie at least fifty times. I saw it in the theatres when it was new three or four times. I have watched it again every time a new installment in the franchise is released. I watch it because I’m bored. I watch it because it just happens to be on cable. I’ve watched it because I’m depressed and need something comforting to occupy my mind. It’s a good movie. I like it.

And I’m clearly not the only person who does. Mission: Impossible was the third-highest box office draw by the end of 1996. Since the film’s initial release, it is estimated that the movie has brought in more than $457 million. It spawned a franchise that is estimated to have brought in more than $3 trillion. Like me, people are watching it, recommending it, and watching it again. I’m not going to pretend that only good movies become hits, but the numbers here are fairly indicative of a movie that is standing the test of time.

But I still find myself compelled to defend myself for liking it so much. The reasons for that are elusive. It’s confounding. Because even without the presented box office data, my love for the movie is a matter of opinion. We shouldn’t have to defend ourselves for having an opinion, right?

The heart of this dilemma is, I think, far deeper than just the simple question of Mission: Impossible‘s quality. I’ve created this blog to highlight movies that are important to me for whatever reason. I’ve continued with this blog because I know a lot about movies and really enjoy writing about them. Albeit of the armchair variety, I can appreciate movies as a film scholar, not just as a viewer, someone who can readily pull the best examples throughout history of whatever film element we happen to be talking about (ie., screenplay, use of lighting, sound design, editing, etc.). I can discern the differences between an important film and a good one. I can back up my opinions with articulate arguments that exceed a simple thumps up or down. For this reason, there’s a part of me that feels that readers of this blog are going to think me a big, fat phony of the worst order if I even consider mixing bubble gum like Mission: Impossible in with inarguable classics like The Last Picture Show.

Put it like this: if I told you that my two favorite movies are Citizen Kane and Hey, Dude! Where’s My Car?, I think you would be justified in questioning whether or not I have ever actually seen Citizen Kane at all. Such a comparison would make my taste in film suspect. Truth told, my feelings would not be hurt if you laughed at me and never read another word I wrote as long as you lived. I would deserve it.

znmsFREH - EditedThat might be a bad example. Clearly, Mission: Impossible is a far superior movie to Hey, Dude! Where’s My Car? , but that doesn’t mean it’s good enough to belong with these other films. Without even being nitpicky, there’s still plenty about this movie that is downright bad: The plot is convoluted and ludicrous. The story doesn’t make a lick of sense. The character’s are flat and one-note. Their development is either non-existent or a complete bastardization of the characters as they were presented in the source material. Tom Cruise spends the entire movie over acting. John Voight spends the entire movie not acting enough. The final sequence, in which Jean Reno flies a helicopter into a bullet train tunnel might be the dumbest thing that’s ever happened in any movie ever.

helicopterblade - EditedSo then why do I like it? Because it’s an adrenaline rush. From the opening credits, in which that ever-famous theme song plays over interstitial footage of an ignited fuse hurdling toward the bomb and actual footage of major plot points that we haven’t even got to yet in the narrative, all the way to the helicopter blade coming to a complete stop mere centimeters from Tom Cruise’s throat, this movie is one exciting sucker punch right after another. It grabs you immediately, and it doesn’t let go. A viewer isn’t left with much time to consider that a particular plot point left a big gaping hole in the previous one. By the time you get to the aforementioned helicopter-in-the-tunnel sequence, you don’t even care how stupid it is. It’s hard to laugh when you’re completely out of breath.

Mission: Impossible had one goal. It wanted to thrill the audience. And it does. It doesn’t even try to do more than that.

With that said, the choice of director here is inspired. Brian DePalma is well-known for tautly-paced and suspenseful thrillers. He has earned a critical reception of being stylistically akin to none other than Alfred Hitchcock in his use of suspense to tell a story. He rides this reputation for this movie, presenting more than one conceit stolen directly from Hitch himself. The camera is often askew; actors are either often tilted in the frame or standing partly out  of it. The camera often only allows a viewer to see what the story demands that you see right now. Tricky placement leads later in the film to an audience realizing that they didn’t see what they initially thought they saw. The script meddles effectively with audience expectations: it’s difficult to believe that Ethan Hunt is going to survive when the first twenty minutes were spent killing every character that seemed to mean anything. And then there’s the break-in at CIA headquarters at Langley, easily the most famous chain of events in the entire film.

The plot of Mission: Impossible centers around a document referred to by the CIA as “the NOC list.” This file gives not only the name of every agent who has ever been active with the CIA, but it gives detailed information about all of their possible aliases over time. For obvious reasons, this is not a document that we want getting into the hands of the enemy. But Ethan Hunt (played by Tom Cruise) is trying to clear his name after the death of every member of his team leads his organization to believe that he is a mole for a foreign government. He tasks himself with recovery of the completed NOC file, to use it as a bargaining chip against “Job”, an arms dealer believed to be the actual mole. To recover this file, Ethan and his crew must break into CIA headquarters and copy the file to a disk. The computer where the file is stored is housed in an impenetrable room. Only one person in the entire CIA has security clearance to enter this room. Air vents that could be used for entry are guarded by lasers that will sound an alarm if they are disturbed. Further, the room is rigged to register changes in temperature, decibel level, and added pressure to the floor. Clearly, Ethan can’t just walk into the room and dick with the computer.

To get the files that he needs, Ethan is forced to descend into the room from above. He cannot touch the floor. He cannot make noise. He can barely breathe. It is a wordless, silent sequence that would have made Alfred proud, a sequence made all the more pulse-pounding by how jarring the difference in tone has become. To this point, the film has been action, punching and kicking, shooting the adversary. In this sequence, Ethan’s adversary is physics and his own physiology. As he hovers in the air from a wire harness, he must be deftly aware of his own heartbeat, the need to cough. What if he begins to sweat? The entire sequence is not about what the characters do; it’s about what they cannot do. It’s original, unique, and miles above similar sequences in other films. It’s also the best scene in this film and completely worth the price of admission.
Mission-Impossible-Vault-1996-2 - Edited
My friend Matthew, an armchair film scholar in his own right, has discussed often the idea that there is a difference between his favorite movies and the movies that he believes are the best. He really loves the movie Cloud Atlas but is willing to concede that it will never top any AFI lists. I feel this way about Mission: Impossible. I am wholly aware that no entries in this franchise are ever going to be nominated for Best Picture. But I love them anyway (especially Ghost Protocol, the fourth movie in the series). I guess, as I’ve aged, I decided that life is too short to only watch the films that get 90% or more on Rotten Tomatoes. Sometimes it’s quite all right to enjoy some bubble gum if it’s bubble gum that will make you happy.

MissionImpossible is nothing if it isn’t bubble gum. But they harbor no pretensions that it’s anything but. I think a movie deserves points just for being exactly what it purports itself to be.

My mission, if I choose to accept it, especially for purposes of getting through this blog without getting hung up again for two weeks on one entry, is to stop considering the movies in this labyrinth as part of a continual whole. Stop comparing them to each other. Accept them as my favorites. Rather than trying to justify their inclusion, explain why they’re important to me. There’s no reason to be embarrassed about my taste in movies, especially since I’m sure that someone out there probably likes Hey, Dude Where’s My Car?.

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