Ten years later, fans of the suspenseful “Mission: Impossible” TV series starring Peter Graves as Jim Phelps must still be smarting over Brian De Palma’s putative adaptation. Not only does Mission: Impossible substitute over-the-top espionage action heroics more inspired by James Bond than the nominal source material, but a late-breaking plot twist involving Phelps (here played by Jon Voight after Graves refused to reprise the role) undermines the whole world of the TV series and the basic concept of the character.
As he did with The Untouchables, in Mission: Impossible De Palma borrows the marquee value of an earlier franchise as a pretext for a series of loosely strung-together set pieces, highlighted by a single dazzling sequence that’s better than the rest of the movie put together.
In The Untouchables, the one great scene is the train station shootout with the Odessa Steps homage (a runaway baby carriage tumbling down a flight of stairs, a nod to a frequently borrowed image from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film The Battleship Potemkin). In Mission: Impossible, it’s the CIA break‑in, with Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) suspended from the ceiling in an ultra-secure CIA computer room.
The scene is riveting, lingering in the imagination long after details of the plot have faded (to the extent that they were ever clear in the first place). The break-in must be conducted in absolute silence; Hunt must avoid even the slightest contact with the floor — and he must complete his mission and get away before the room’s rightful occupant returns. This premise plays to all De Palma’s strengths — and to Cruise’s as well.
De Palma has a choppy, episodic sense of story, and he crafts individual scenes rather than telling a single unified story. Unfortunately, the first act gets the film and the entire franchise off on the wrong foot as it assembles a likable Impossible Missions Force team including Kristen Scott Thomas and Emilio Estevez — then unceremoniously kills them off. The casualty list even includes Phelps himself, though (spoiler warning) we later learn that Phelps is not only alive but is actually the assassin, having gone rogue. (Take that, “MI” fans!)
Soon after, Hunt finds himself suspected of being the rogue agent that, unbeknownst to him, was the real target of the operation in which his team members died. His only remaining ally is Phelps’ ostensible widow Claire (Emmanuelle Béart), though of course Claire is really in cahoots with her supposedly dead husband. Going on the run, Hunt and Claire recruit a pair of “disavowed” agents (Ving Rhames and Jean Reno), ostensibly to identify the real mole, though Claire is still after the original target of Phelps’ treason: the “NOC list,” a comprehensive list of undercover agents working in eastern Europe, which Phelps wants to sell to an arms dealer named “Max” (Vanessa Redgrave).
All right, that much makes sense, I guess. Things get fuzzy, though, when we learn that the NOC list is really composed of two separate files: the first lists only the spies’ code names, while the second “matches the code names to the real names.” Does this mean the second file includes both the code names and the real names? If so, how is the “second” file not the complete list?
Even if the “matching” does require both lists, why would the bad guys go after the first list at all? The idea seems to be that the agents are as good as dead if the list gets out, and you don’t need to know an agent’s code name to assassinate him. On the other hand, even the agent’s real name might not be the one critical piece of information if, as seems overwhelmingly likely, he’s operating under an alias. Yet the question of NOC list aliases is never raised, even though we see in the first act that Hunt’s team uses aliases!
Also, what exactly is the point of the wounded seductiveness with which Claire entices Ethan? How is it supposed to help Phelps’s plan that his wife sleeps with his enemy? “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, Ethan,” he gloats toward the climax, as if spies who break the commandments hazard their mission as well as their souls. Whatever.
Incidentally, this scenario is reversed in Mission: Impossible II, John Woo’s nastily sadistic and misogynistic sequel, with Hunt sending a girl he is sleeping with to seduce her old lover for utilitarian purposes. The third film, Mission: Impossible III, takes yet another stab at getting at Hunt through a woman, in this case his fiancée.
Another thing all three films have in common: There’s always a rogue IMF agent (and Hunt always has to go rogue to defeat him). Neither of these recurring plot points is a particular strength in the original — on the contrary, they both seem rather dubious choices here — but for some reason the series keeps coming back to them.
At this point, I don’t think the world needs a Mission: Impossible IV. If the series does continue, though, I hope the IMF eventually finds other threats to battle besides its own mistakes, and that the filmmakers make room for a leading lady who is something other than an emotional liability for the hero.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.