Mission Impossible doesn’t really hold up. I hate to say it because I really enjoy most of the franchise but the 1996 movie doesn’t hold up 22 years later. Watching Mission Impossible with modern eyes, the flaws stand out from Cruise’s desperate performance, Jon Voight’s lazy performance and the underwritten female characters stand apart from the lesser good things about the movie.
Ethan Hunt is an agent of the Impossible Mission Force, a branch of the CIA that specializes in the kind of espionage of the most impossible nature. Hunt works under veteran agent Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) alongside a team that includes Jack (Emilio Estevez), Sarah (Kristen Scott Thomas), and Claire (Emmanuelle Beart). Claire is Jim’s wife though quickly see that she and Ethan appear to have eyes for each other.
A digression, the chemistry between Cruise and Beart has heat from time to time but the great disappointment of the movie is how little is done to exploit that chemistry. Brian DePalma is one of the great sleaze directors of all time and for him to allow the Ethan-Claire relationship to be so innocent to the point of being cookie-cutter, ala dozens of similar movie relationships, indicates how little this is really a Brian DePalma movie.
On a mission in Prague attempting to prevent a Russian spy from stealing a list of the real identities of IMF agents worldwide, everyone on Hunt’s team is murdered and he is framed for their deaths. On the run, Ethan is surprised and notably suspicious, to find Claire had survived despite having been in a car that later exploded. Nevertheless, he trusts her to be part of his mission to find the person who framed him.
Mission Impossible was directed by Brian DePalma who appears to have been hired for his name value and not his style. Mission Impossible contains almost none of the classic DePalma style of sexy, weird, chaos. Sure, some of DePalma’s output is deeply problematic through the lens of history but you can’t argue that he was boring except when he directed Mission Impossible.
Compared to movies like Snake Eyes or Carrie, the action tropes of Mission Impossible or dull.
It’s hard not to assume that Mission Impossible is boring because of Tom Cruise. I say this as a fan of Tom Cruise. I am genuinely someone who believes Cruise is a fine actor. However, the deep, almost fetishistic control Cruise has over his onscreen persona can keep him from being fun. The actor assiduously avoids anything controversial, he plays it safe especially here in the wake of his first real failure, his much mocked performance in Interview with the Vampire.
Mission Impossible is such a rigidly paced action movie that even that classic Tom Cruise twinkle in the eye and million dollar smile are toned down and held back in favor of a stoic, dare I say, charisma dimmed performance. I get that Ethan Hunt is supposed to be a rigid, by the book hero but we go to the movies to see stars and big personalities and while his willingness to let the action do the talking is nice, I’d rather he have some personality while he’s action-ing.
It’s especially egregious because I expect so much more from both Cruise and Brian DePalma. DePalma has an eye for idiosyncrasy and had he been allowed to find the idiosyncrasies of Ethan Hunt and exploit them and had there been anything even remotely controversial about the character, perhaps the movie would hold up over time. Instead, looking back at the original, it’s a wonder this franchise is still around.
Thankfully, the franchise picks up the personality in the other movies, especially when they allow John Woo to make the film franchise his own. Here however, Brian DePalma is wasted and the film is shockingly by the numbers. Cruise is sweaty and desperate throughout, rarely allowing Ethan to have a personality beyond his remarkable competence and impressive physicality. Kristen Scott Thomas and Emilio Estevez are killed off and Emmanuelle Beart is left with far too much of the dramatic heavy lifting.
The one thing that stands out as genuinely inspired in Mission Impossible ‘96 is the casting Vanessa Redgrave as the big bad. The veteran actress is the one person in the film who is genuinely having fun. Redgrave sinks her teeth into the role and in her brief screen time the film is as fun as she is. The rest of the movie however, is just dour. Jon Voight especially is miscast as Jim Phelps.
Oddly the only even remotely controversial thing about Mission Impossible, and mind you I am not asking for the film to be outre in a violent or transgressive way, just have some personality. The only controversy the film courted was in the portrayal of Jim Phelps. Phelps was one of the main characters of the beloved TV series Mission Impossible and the twists and turns of his plot angered fans who held a love for Peter Graves’ stoic, reliable performance.
Even the famed train sequence that closes Mission Impossible appears less impressive though the frame of history. In wrestling terms, Mission Impossible is what is called a Spot Fest, a match centered on the biggest moves the competitors are capable of. The series focuses heavily on topping one big action spot after another and what’s happened in the more modern sequels has rendered the helicopter spot from the original film not unlike the Hulk Hogan leg-drop, a move that was once iconic and now seems rather silly next to a 5 Star Frog Splash.
If only Mission Impossible had half the personality of a wrestling match, perhaps it wouldn’t be so unremarkable.