Friday, February 18, 2011

The Greats: Mission: Impossible (1996)

I know what you're thinking. There are hundreds -- no, thousands -- of truly great movies out there. Do I really want to single out Mission: Impossible? My answer to that is a resounding yes. When a high-tech, expensive, flashy Hollywood blockbuster is working on all levels, the results can be pretty extraordinary. How often does that happen? If it provides a consistent adrenaline rush without insulting your intelligence, it can be just as rewarding as a prestige film that will go on to win multiple Oscars. When you first saw it, you probably weren't all that impressed. You were confused by it, the underwhelming sequels brought the whole franchise down, Tom Cruise is weird, etc etc. You may have your reasons. But if you actually sat down and watched this movie again, you'll realize this: when it comes to superior craftsmanship and sheer entertainment, Mission: Impossible delivers the goods.

I credit five people to the success of this film. First, the three writers -- David Koepp, Robert Towne and Steven Zaillian. These guys are pros. Look up their credits, they are heavyweights in this business. What they did here works on so many levels. They took the concept that worked successfully in television for many years and essentially glorified an episode of the series into a movie. It's got all of the same elements of the TV show. Then they made a bold move: they turned a beloved character from the series and turned him into the villain. I think this was a crucial move to spin the entire franchise into a new direction. It also provided a great, unexpected twist for first-time viewers and long-time fans.

Another smart move the writers made: they killed off the IMF team within the first 15 minutes. You don't really expect well-known actors like Emilio Estevez and Kristin Scott Thomas to die in the first act. The movie hit the ground running with these pulled-the-rug-out-from-under-you twists that are normally reserved for the final act.

Mission: Impossible is also a very dense thriller and first-time viewers may be exhausted trying to keep up with the pace of the script. It holds up very well in repeated viewings and this makes it stand out among the effects-heavy, action blockbusters we see in the multiplex every summer. Most of these kinds of movies are set pieces strung together by filler scenes where nothing essential happens. The writers made sure to include pivotal information and clues when the action is not moving. In other words: every scene counts.

The fourth key person I give credit to the film's success is the director, Brian DePalma. In fact, without him, the film probably wouldn't be as fun to look at. I love how he handles the camera. Look at the scene at the aquarium restaurant, for example. Hunt and Kittredge are sitting at a table in a room surrounded by fish tanks. DePalma uses his trademark tight close-ups and low-angle tilts. These shots set up the action that will occur a few minutes later and simultaneously ramps up the suspense. Is Kittredge to be trusted? Is there way out of here? When Hunt delivers his awesome line that I love repeating any chance I can get -- "Kittredge, you've never seen me very upset" -- the camera goes wide as the gum explosive sticks to the glass and Hunt makes his escape. It's one of the film's many masterfully staged sequences.

DePalma is also a fan of high-angle tracking shots, which is prevelant in a few key scenes in the movie. Most dramatically, he uses this technique during the famous vault break-in sequence. It's ridiculous in theory -- Hunt and his team breaking into a high-security vault at Langely -- but theory doesn't matter as long as the scene is executed well. And this scene is among the best in cinematic history.

Then there's the fantastic train sequence, which serves as the climax of the film. Surprisingly enough, most of the film is light on action and heavy on momentum and building suspense. So this ending actually releases some of that built-up tension as we watch the TGV hurdle across the countryside at lightning speed. I didn't detect any trademark DePalma stylings here, but his expertise on how to handle an action sequence is on full display. No quick cuts or jittery camera work -- you know exactly where everyone is and what is unfolding in front of you. Of course, we know it's impossible for a chopper to fly into a tunnel unscathed while tethered to a high speed train, but DePalma and effects house ILM made it look entirely convincing. It doesn't just end there -- you've got Hunt and Phelps jumping from the train to the chopper like 2 kids on a playground. It's enthralling to watch. It's the film's only effects-heavy action sequence and it works like gangbusters.

All of that said, none of this would have worked without the fifth and final key element to the film's success: the music. Danny Elfman composes a score so addictive and pulsating, the movie would be lifeless without it. First, he takes the famous theme song and ramps it up about 10 notches. Seriously, if you don't have goosebumps during the film's cold open scene which leads to the brief title sequence, you have no pulse. Throughout the film, you hear his terrific, edgy, ticking percussion and it winds you up like a clock. It completely drives the film.

Tom Cruise, an actor I greatly admire, makes a terrific action hero, but I think he's better when he stretches (i.e. Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia). He doesn't make or break this film, but he more than holds his own. The rest of the cast is strong and reliable -- Jon Voight, Ving Rhames, Jean Reno, the great Henry Czerny (so wily as Kittredge). Vanessa Redgrave has some nice scenes as the enigmatic Max. The double crosses are fun, but if you think about it, they are mostly superficial. Mission: Impossible doesn't survive on the basis of these twists and that's what makes the film hold up on repeated viewings. The entire film does not hinge on the big reveal.

So, without these writers, DePalma's direction and Elfman's score, we would have a standard, by-the-book, action-heavy update on a popular TV series. We've seen this numerous times over the years. Most of them are forgettable. Mission: Impossible is the rare summer blockbuster that lives and breathes. It gets better with every viewing, tightens its grip on you and never lets you go.

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