When it comes to the spy thriller genre, one name has been synonymous in being the ultimate spy, with looks that could kill and an intellect to save the world from one maniac with the desire to take over the world, one after the other. That name is Bond, James Bond and for 3 decades, the franchise based on the novels by Ian Fleming have enjoyed a monopoly like head start on the big screen, that is until Mission: Impossible made its debut. The film version is but a continuation of the tv series of the same name created by Bruce Geller that first aired in 1966, running for 7 seasons and then made a comeback in 1988 which lasted 2 more.
Move over James, there’s a new secret agent in town to give you a run for your money who goes by the name of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). Less sex appeal and more focused on action, could a cooler name have been chosen? Most likely not but the super spies all have the cool names reserved for them exclusively. With a name like Ethan Hunt, a franchise is almost guaranteed, and the film certainly boasts a franchise appeal. Written by David Koepp and Robert Towne off a story conceived by Koepp and Steven Zaillian and directed by Brian De Palma, Mission: Impossible has all of the ingredients that makes up a spy thrillers DNA.
What can be expected from another version of a spy vs spy genre film is present here, more of the same qualities – suspense, action, a certain charm and charisma and a touch of suspended disbelief.
Featuring a plot that becomes more tedious and convoluted to keep up with as the film gets its legs underneath it, the basic premise is this, Ethan, after a mission that goes sour and his original team led by Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) is killed off, is being hunted by the CIA and IMF for being a mole. Knowing he’s innocent and not the one the Impossible Missions Force (not entirely original) should be after, Ethan goes underground to clear his name, embarking on an impossible mission of his own as the title suggests. A mission that includes breaking into CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia to steal a NOC list of all deep undercover agents names to therefore flush out the true mole who looks to profit off of this list being sold.
Even for Mr. Bond, the plot was always secondary to the actual agent tasked to save the world. Whether it’s Sean Connery or Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan, the actor has remained front and center, and Mission: Impossible is no different with Tom Cruise leading the way. Cruise commands the role, giving us a different type of agent, even doing majority of his own stunts, though the influence of Ian Flemings character can be found throughout. Writer’s David Koepp and Robert Towne even tosses in what some would consider a throwaway line, but in reality it’s the plot of Goldfinger when Hunt and other survivor of the opening mission Claire Phelps (Emmanuelle Béart) pitch breaking into CIA headquarters.
As tongue and cheek as it is, the line works as an homage to what came before and where this film can differ in the genre. Beyond that, Mission: Impossible takes itself rather seriously in establishing itself comparatively. Plot aside, Mission: Impossible features multiple highly tense missions with the main draw of the CIA break in the centerpiece that this film is built around. To break in, Hunt recruits two disavowed CIA agents, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), an expert hacker, and Franz Krieger (Jean Reno), a pilot with ulterior motives of his own.
If the mission is the main draw with De Palma constricting the tension out of every second that passes, Danny Elfman’s booming trumpet filled score along with the original theme from the series raises the pressure for the job to be completed within the time frame set out carefully by Ethan. It’s here that Cruise is at his best, carrying out a stunt with little to no room for error and executing it with ease. In this moment, there are several parameters that must be met for the mission to go smoothly. The temperature must remain at 72 degrees and the decibel level cannot be louder than a whisper.
The stunt in question will keep you on the edge of your seat for the entirety of the sequence. As the pressure mounts, the sound is cut completely to enhance the level of concentration, the adrenaline rises and a shortness of breath with every critical movement can be felt in the moment. The accomplishment as a result is that much sweeter.
Besides the actor taking center stage in a spy film, only the high-tech gadgets can steal the thunder right out from under the actors arms. Gadgets we all wish we could put to practical use if given the opportunity to get hands on them. Opening the film, Koepp and Towne’s screenplay highlights a couple of gadgets, one more prominently that has significant value throughout the film. What looks like an ordinary stick of chewing gum is camouflaged as an explosive device when mashed together. The other, an ordinary pair of glasses with a camera in the frame to catch the thief in the act of stealing the NOC list.
Last but certainty not least, a spy film is nothing without its villain, a key ingredient that pushes the protagonist to their breaking point – an antagonist that must be stopped at all costs. At face value, the screenplay sets up the IMF and Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny) as the immediate threat while the actual villain is the one to be stopped at all costs. And In a world full of spies, the villain could be anywhere, hiding in plain sight and Koepp and Towne go to great lengths to keep the secrecy until 2 and 2 can be added together. At a certain point, the film loses its edge, and the predictability factor becomes more apparent. Slick, stylish but not reinventing the wheel, Mission: Impossible has much to offer surrounding a more realistic world of spy games.
Screenplay By: David Koepp & Robert Towne
Story By: David Koepp & Steven Zaillian
Directed By: Brian De Palma
Music By: Danny Elfman
Cinematography: Stephen H. Burum
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Béart, Henry Czerny, Ving Rhames, Vanessa Redgrave, Jean Reno, Kristin Scott Thomas
Where to Watch: Paramount Plus
Edited By: Paul Hirsh
Release Date: May 22, 1996
Running Time: 1 Hour 50 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 66%
Based On: Mission: Impossible by Bruce Geller