26 July 2018 4915 Views

Throwback Thursday Viral Vault : James Murphy looks back and chooses to accept the FIRST and arguably BEST Mission : Impossible (1996)

by James Murphy


TBT/M:I-1/1996/JJPM / @JOB 3:14/ ‘RED LIGHT! GREEN LIGHT!’. 


Yep. FALLOUT has received universal praise, and yet again features some magnificent stunts and set pieces.  Should do good Box Office. And at the centre, quite literally, of all that action? Tom Cruise, as Producer /leading man. He truly invests in these films: personally, financially, creatively and physically. Let’s look back at the first and for many, the best MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE (1996).

I like the film for sentimental reasons. Saw it post GCSE, pre A Level (UK stage examinations on road to University; coinciding with teenage rites of passage). I remember not being impressed first time. I had monitored its development and the trade papers had definitely portrayed the project as something being honed and crafted to give Tom Cruise a vehicle and cash in on nostalgia for the show, its imagery and theme tune. That probably was not fair in retrospect. But I also wanted and expected The Untouchables, mark 2 from Director, Brian DePalma as Mission:Impossible was set to be his second TV show adapted to film.

So I was just peeved on first viewing in the Cinema that I was not getting lots of cerebral dialogue and speeches and character parts amidst the action.  I’d also watched Cruise in the preceding few years tending to  be gifted with dense, talky, literate scripts (The Firm, A Few Good Men). So I missed that here as it is, essentially, a 2 hour chase movie. And yet? The substance was THERE. It’s not obvious. But it is THERE. And I remained curious to watch and re-watch. Deep down, I knew there was a genius quality to Mission:Impossible. Like many lifelong love stories, it started, reluctantly, and grew in passion and power.

I learned to love it on video. I remember renting the film and phoning a girl, after the tape had finished (logic would dictate you ask her round TO watch it? Accept the mission? Nope..Can I procrastinate and think about it first? James, James..oh well..).I then repeated that process like ritual, 3 years later, when they aired the film on terrestrial television for Christmas. 20 years on? I hope /suspect said girl to be very happy, married, babied and heading some business empire somewhere.  Times change. But a new Mission movie is in the cinemas now. Movies punctuate  years like seasonal staples and one can grow and age WITH a series. Cruise gets this, I suspect. Hence, he does not age like the rest of us. Special powers, special boy, special work.

Cue Kafkaesque DUTCH ANGLE!

Back on topic..

1996’s Mission:Impossible is  of its time. Note 90s aesthetic of action star: buzz cut hair, toight vest. Check the awe at (then) new tech such as mobile phones, laptops and so on. At the same time, this is an implicit period piece. Owes some details to the titular tv series (but not much); a slight whiff of the 60s, 80s, even right back into pulp imagery of the 30s about this. Inexplicably they keep the name ‘Jim Phelps’ for one character, yet totally misunderstand the tv series’ continuity regarding said.I do sense some thematic tributes to conspiracy thrillers of the 70s, too. Robert Redford /Warren Beatty could have made something LIKE this back then, circa Three Days of the Condor /Parallax View. Redford was even offered Jon Voight’s role in Mission:Impossible, almost 20 years before he succumbed and made Captain America: Winter Soldier (revered and competent but overrated imho).

Idea was to harness tv show imagery, theme tune, nostalgia, etc whilst building a new brand, which indeed, they did and beautifully so. This movie is therefore timeless as well as of its time: a quality in part, accentuated by the use of Pinewood studios locations as a bridge between the genuinely beautiful shots of London and Prague. See also: Batman from 1989 (another franchise launcher with nostalgic memory fused to edgy updated aesthetic morality).


The whole thing is a paradox and the word is called out, explicitly in the script. A Cold War thriller with no cold war. A high stakes mission with no actual mission parameters set. High body count at start yet mercifully and distinctly free from actual violence for the most part. Plot is founded on and emerges from a misunderstanding and a simulation, with the conclusion itself based on stagecraft and taking charge of consequence at a remove whilst still being a part of ‘action’, somehow.

There is of course a hard edged realism to much of the action but also imagination and leaps of logic of an almost supernatural subtext. Notice the Bible and its Book of Job as keys to the McGuffin: itself a kind of Holy Grail and poison chalice at once that would baffle even Indiana Jones (another Paramount property that aged well and develops as a series, via balancing the light and the dark).

De Palma’s direction on Mission:Impossible maintains great atmospherics and sense of paranoia. There are close-ups of blood being washed off hands or staying on a floppy disk: touching on the horror genre, without ever going TOO far into the gratuitous or adult. Indeed, there is an almost child-like innocence and curiosity about the film; perhaps in line with Cruise’s own (then) younger worldview?  Upbeat tone and pace, despite the nominally shocking premise for the hero.

DePalma does channel Hitchcock here whilst making it his own. Notice that for all the consequence free escapism, this IS  a film with real stakes. If Ethan Hunt is captured? He is dead and disgraced. Career. Reputation. Family. Mortality. ALL on the table. So his gamble with stealing secret information from his own side / Faustian pacts, a necessary step that sets up the film without too much contrivance, despite criticisms to the contrary. Plot is clearer and simpler than many believe. Indeed, I’d cite it as essential script study for all film writers in waiting. Every scene has something to say in a meta way about cinema, whilst existing as a self contained thriller and never breaking the 4th wall.

Some fantastic and distinctive set pieces: the Prague chase; Restaurant explosion; the CIA Heist (Kubrick meets Star Wars); the Train. Great use of sound design and editing, throughout.

And Waterloo Station (also seen in future years in franchises: Bourne Ultimatum and Mission Impossibles’ own Rogue Nation) a character in itself:.

Tom Cruise, as always, in love with London. They should give him an honorary knighthood for his services. He is second only to Richard Curtis and the rom-com brigade for the visual odes to our Brits’ beloved capital.


There are thematic layers hidden away like data in a secret vault but DePalma manages to sneak in some hints (foreshadowing fates in a brutal opening; a love triangle between the Voight /Cruise/Beart characters in the past?). And for all its high class and money glossy escapism (TGV first class, naturally!), there ARE references, albeit briefly, to dying parents, bankruptcy and a military intelligence establishment that has lost its way post Cold War yet pre 9/11. The film is set in that mid 90s, Clinton/Blair third way era calm before the storm.

Speaking of transitions and styles of leader? One could argue that the rumoured creative clashes between Cruise and DePalma actually brought out the A + Game in BOTH parties. The conflicting agendas fused in such a way that the film’s own clash of genres and tones and purposes, as well as its own, inner motif of two military intel teams competing against each other..just..works. Against the odds, backs to wall = mission, accomplished?

It is apt that the mentors here are also villains; yet thereby bring out the best in the heroes. Much needed, because Cruise’s ‘Ethan Hunt’ is simply a device, an avatar, for this series to progress. Even the name sounds like they just picked it at random. Why not just call Cruise’s character ‘Jim Phelps’ from the tv series counterpart and call the thing a reboot? Or better still: Tom Cruise is…Tom Cruise?! Yes he can act and should have Oscars to that effect (American Made: HELLO? You. woz. ROBBED!). But here? It’s HIM. Still is, in the franchise years later. Just call it out. 😉 But they had their reasons and it stands on its own terms, despite intersection / overlap with some other (then) in vogue franchise properties /aesthetics.

The film owes much to James Bond, then resurgent post GoldenEye (whose first draft script features a mentor gone bad and a chase aboard and atop a EuroStar train: go figure..). And whilst Tom Cruise does not rock a tux like Pierce Brosnan or Daniel Craig, he DOES look good in a suit and in his combat gear. As stated earlier, this is of its time, when Bond was coming back into vogue, but via other properties: see also True Lies (1994: has a similar embassy ball scene to the Mission:Impossible counterpart).

Things would come full circle with 2006’s Casino Royale echoing certain visuals from this film and 2011’s Ghost Protocol functioning as a kind of Roger Moore /Pierce Brosnan ticking nuclear clock thrill-ride? The comparisons need not be direct. If I read ONE more article saying ‘why can’t Bond now be more like Mission:Impossible’ (equally, one could question why we know NOTHING of Ethan Hunt’s favourite drinks /food/clothes etc after now SIX films?). Spy series can co-exist; ditto for Bourne, Fast and Furious, Jack Ryan..





THE FIRM, Gene Hackman, Tom Cruise, 1993; 3 years later it’s Cruise with another mentor/antagonist in Jon Voight for Mission:Impossible..

This first ‘mission’ movie is also a kind of sign off on one phase of Cruise’s career via his own greatest hits. Notice the young ‘maverick’ dimension whilst still being an establishment player..Hunt is Top Gun meets Few Good Firms (interestingly the photo of Tom running from mob in ‘The Firm’ was used in a few stills for magazines announcing the news of Mission..being filmed).


His work becomes a LOT darker and more grown up, save occasional glitches, once this ‘mission’ is done. Vanilla Sky, Minority Report, Eyes Wide Shut, Collateral. From this point on? Tom has graduated to big boys’ stuff, whilst still resembling your school head of house, even now!

(a lot happened in 3 years..and 2 movies: Mission:Impossible to Eyes Wide Shut)

Mission:Imposible is  not just a Tom Cruise, film, though. Much made of ‘it’s not a team film’ and yet it IS. Jon Voight great as mentor /antagonist and that kind of part always brings out the best in Cruise who always thrives against an elder as he still would. He NEEDS a Nicholson/Hackman/Voight/Skerritt/Duvall to contrast and clash with? In any event, it’s great to see Voight back there after he’d been in Hollywood wilderness too long as an actual ‘actooor’ (he is in the pantheon of greats: Thespus, Garrick, Olivier, Brando, Pacino/DeNiro/Duvall/Nicholson, Crowe, Downey Jr..).

Jon looks like a bit like an older Val Kilmer (soon to meet Cruise in Top Gun 2 next year btw; Val was great with Jon in HEAT, also 1996) via a dash of FA Chief of the 90s, David Davies. I did tell Davies he looked a bit like Voight once, when we met at The Oxford Union. He was thrilled. His lovely family looked on; bit bemused. Bless them. Nice chap. Lovely daughters, too, both of them.

Amanda Davies: head of Sports coverage at CNN: AMAZING World Cup content and watching that was a consolation when England did not quite make the final. Oh and Jon Voight? Well, his daughter is..Angelina Jolie.

Both Dads (David, Jon) must be v proud!



Back on topic..Emmanuelle Beart beautiful and brilliant, as always; exuding a kind of louche sensuality and shrug of shoulders ‘pour quoi’ power that only a French star of her calibre can master (see also: Lea Seydoux).  Notice they did not overdose on huge star names at the time, aside from Cruise. Not for them the bloated Batman Forever/and Robin syndrome of the era (though how cool would Cruise have been as a Batman villain?).

Instead? We get a skilful selection of ‘cool’ talismans taken from then emerging properties. Vanessa Redgrave a curious, standout addition; part implied menace part seductive comedienne? Henry Czerny repeats his CIA official routine from Clear and Present Danger (1994) but in a new key..such a shame they never brought him back to this series. Actually..while there, how has Hollywood failed to pair Tom Cruise with Harrison Ford? Spielberg loves both actors and there is a pressing need to make #INDIANAJONES5..Or maybe have Harrison as the IMF founder in Mission 7? I digress, anyway..yes, back to that first ‘mission’ movie /its amazing cast..


Ving Rhames redefines the hacker in a manner never done before or since; equipping the template character with a sense of menace and impish cool cred leftover form his Pulp Fiction turn. Jean Reno was and indeed remains, one of Hollywood’s ‘go to’ hommes from French Cinema. He’d just done LEON (’94: opposite Natalie Portman and Gary Oldman). Reno is both hilarious and scary here, playing a ruthless killer who nonetheless shows signs of rash incompetence. David Schneider (who also turns up in 1997’s not dissimilar Val Kilmer spy adventure flick, The Saint) cameos as a train driver; his Alan Partridge colleague, Simon Pegg is now a ‘Mission’ regular, 20 years on..small worlds, within worlds.

Kristin Scott Thomas is onscreen all too briefly and carries the same hauteur she brought so beautifully to Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). Incidentally, ‘4 weddings’..arguably launched Hugh Grant onto the Hollywood radar, just as Tom Cruise was hitting this parallel career high. They are now enjoying renaissances. They look a BIT alike and  Grant’s 1997 film, Extreme Measures is interchangeable with Cruise’s The Firm from 1993.

Conclusion: stick Grant in Mission:7 as Ethan Hunt’s British evil twin? Just a thought. 


Mission:Impossible IS  a LOT about branding and packaging. Watch an extended advert for its own product, disguised as a ‘film’. But so what? JURASSIC PARK and certain Bond/Batman films do the same. And what BEAUTIFUL packaging? Film a visual, audible feast at its best and so it is, here.  Danny Elfman provides his best score since 1989’s Batman, whilst honouring without overusing THAT Lalo Schifrin theme tune. The poster was a great piece of artwork, falling in line with the policy of silhouette in profile of Tom Cruise and hint of exotic location but little else given away. The classic trailers still stand up as fun watches in themselves as well as instant nostalgia blasts.

So, there you have it. Mission:Impossible is at once of its time and strangely time-less.I love it and frequently re-watch. My fave of the series. Is it the best? Time will tell. Meantime..is it TOO Much to ask for a bigger, better set of Blu-Ray extra editions on this? It does warrant revisiting / repackaging, surely, as its 25th anniversary approaches in a few years? Just a thought. x

James Murphy was disavowed from the IMF for enjoying the first Mission:Impossible film too much. He is now manning a tower in Alaska, the cover story for which is an online movie mag/blog/community called ‘Movie Viral’. James can run as fast as Tom Cruise and frequently uses the Mission:Impossible soundtracks to boost his #parkrun times. The Secretary denies all knowledge. This review will self destruct. 😉 


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