Film discussion

Looking back at… Mission: Impossible

A remake of a Paramount-owned television property, directed by Brian De Palma, featuring an A-list cast, with a big budget, big action sequences, and bold music score.  That was the case in 1987 when The Untouchables was released into cinemas; and so it would be again nine years later when a remake of Mission: Impossible would explode its way into movie theatres, launching a massive flagship franchise for both its studio and its star.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 , the subsequent retirement of Gorbachev and the dismantling of the Communist regime not only after, there was a feeling that maybe the spy genre was finished. After all, when Eon Productions announced in 1994 that they were relaunching the James Bond franchise, with the release of GoldenEye set for 1995, there was an attitude of whether or not such a series, as well as the genre, would still have merit. Who was there to fight anymore?

As it is, we humans have a habit of being deeply naive. With the increasing development of technology such as laptops and cellphones through the 90s and the emergence of new enemies, the spy genre would find a new pool to play in, and it was into this new pool that a movie franchise based on famed espionage television series Mission: Impossible would emerge.

The television series, created by Bruce Geller, was one of many spy thrillers that launched itself of the back of the success of the James Bond series and the height of “Bondmania” in the mid-60s, but where others simply tried to follow the James Bond formula, Mission: Impossible instead presented a team, initially headlined by Steven Hill as Dan Briggs in the first season and then most famously by Jim Graves as Jim Phelps from season two onwards, who would use disguises, gadgets and ingenuity to stop villains, crime lords and terrorists on a weekly basis, each mission laid out most famously to Phelps via a tape recorded message that would “self-destruct in five seconds”.

Paramount’s choice of Brian De Palma to direct was a smart choice. A famed, yet controversial director of many thrillers that owed a debt to Hitchcock, the auteur had managed to acquire acclaim and controversy for his homages to the “Master of Suspense” and his ability to wring out suspense from elaborate set pieces, and had previously given Paramount a massive hit with his reinterpretation of The Untouchables, itself a television series that ran in the 60s and which, like Mission: Impossible, has been produced by Desilu, the famed production company created by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

One of the most infamous members of the “movie brat” moment from the 70s, De Palma  emerged alongside Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas and Scorsese, and had been something of the bad boy of the group due to delivering set pieces and movies that owed massive debts to other movies, but wasn’t afraid to push the envelope with material that could either be sexually explicit or incredibly violent, and had many altercations with the American ratings board, the MPAA, over scenes in movies such as Dressed to Kill, Scarface and most notoriously Body Double and its depiction of murder by phallic drill.

Amazingly, when Mission: Impossible arrived in theatres it would do so with a PG certificate, and yet it still features many of the filmmaking flourishes so synonymous with De Palma; long takes, point-of-view shots and elaborate set pieces that push the suspense to almost unbearable levels.

The film would also be the first under an exclusive production deal between studio and star. Alongside Paula Wagner, the film would be the first produced by Cruise himself under both his and Wagner’s company, C/W Productions. With the film now factored into being a vehicle for its star, the resulting film would cause some friction amongst fans and stars of the original series due to it being a showcase for Cruise instead of being an ensemble piece featuring a well-picked team working together to defeat a common foe.

In fact, somewhat controversially and ingeniously the film gives the audience a team made up of Cruise, Jon Voight as Phelps, Emmanuelle Beart, Kristen Scott Thomas and Emilio Estevez, but then proceeds to kill everyone but Cruise and Beart off in the first 30 minutes.

The biggest controversy would come due to the film’s last act twist when it’s revealed that not only did Phelps fake his death but that he was the actual traitor in the organisation all along responsible for the death of most of his team, but also setting up the central character of Ethan Hunt, played by Cruise, for the crime, something that did not go down well with Mission: Impossible purists or Jim Graves who refused to come back to play the role in such a way when approached, thus facilitating the casting of Voight.

Other issues that plagued the film behind the scenes included the firing of Alan Silvestri after he had composed at least twenty minutes of score, and subsequently being replaced by Danny Elfman, while the production began without a completed script; Willard Hyuck and Gloria Katz had done some work on the screenplay, but the final credit would be given to David Koepp and Robert Towne, the latter actually working on scenes right up to the moment before they were filmed, with a story by credit given to Steven Zaillian, while a love scene between Cruise and Beart, which appeared in both the trailer and the title sequence at the start, would be mysteriously missing when the film was released in theatres, while fans were dismayed at the fact the movie was essentially less of a Mission: Impossible remake and more of a Tom Cruise: Action Man vehicle.

It would end up being the thing to remember when walking into the subsequent franchise that would follow; this isn’t merely a Mission: Impossible series, it’s the “Tom Cruise does incredible things” series. Admittedly, it does that very well, with each subsequent entry upping the ante in terms of its leading actor doing crazy stunts.

The first film works incredibly well as a De Palma thriller, even though it does fall into the usual trap of treating his female characters awfully, something the series itself has managed to fix with the castings of Paula Patton and Rebecca Ferguson in later instalments; it has a brilliantly bold Danny Elfman score which pays tribute to Lalo Schifrin’s work from the original series while also being its own wonderful entity; the film itself is edited to precision and its set pieces, unsurprisingly, are dazzling to the extreme, with its big moments, Cruise dangling from a roof so as not to set the alarms off  the sensitive flooring of the CIA’s computer fault where the names of every agent is kept, being one of the best things to come from any movie of 1996.

In the end, the film would be a massive box office success, and while the summer of 1996 was all about Independence Day, Mission: Impossible held its own and did so very well, accumulating a box office gross of $457 million on the back of a $80 million budget, and giving Paramount a popular, flagship franchise that has become in many respects an American equivalent to the James Bond series.

It would take at least until the third movie to find a cohesive style to the series, with the plan initially being to make each movie its own entity, meaning that when Mission: Impossible 2 arrived in 2000, delayed due to Cruise’s involvement with Eyes Wide Shut, it would be handed over to John Woo and be even more of a radical departure from the television series.

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