The Ethan Hunt Files – Mission: Impossible

For many years, the James Bond character pretty much had the super agent franchise to himself. Sure, many films would attempt to copy the Bond magic, to varying degrees of success. For the most part, however, it wasn’t until the 1990s and beyond that a number of other wildly successful franchises would take flight.

As followers of my blog are aware, I’ve been blogging and sharing my thoughts on each and every 007 adventure – all 23 of them. That series will conclude in a couple of weeks, when Skyfall is released for viewing on my couch. It’s been the best experience I’ve had so far revisiting these pictures and writing about them.

So, naturally, I will continue writing about other famous film franchises. And that begins with “The Ethan Hunt Files”, where I will cover all four entries from the Mission: Impossible series.

As you’re likely aware, there was a very popular TV show “Mission: Impossible” that ran on CBS from 1966 to 1973 (they’re on Netflix if you’re interested). As I explained when I began my Bond series, this is a movie blog. That’s what I focus on. I didn’t talk about the Ian Fleming novels that many of the 007 pictures were based on. Two reasons: this is a movie blog and I haven’t read them. Same goes here: this is a movie blog and I’ve never seen the TV series.

There’s little mystery why Paramount chose to revive Mission: Impossible for the big screen. It had high built-in name recognition. More importantly, Tom Cruise decided to make it his movie franchise. Our younger readers may not recall, but there was indeed a time when Cruise was unquestionably the biggest movie star on the planet. He had big hits in the early 80s (most notably Risky Business), but from 1986 on, Cruise began a truly remarkable run. Top Gun. The Color of Money. Rain Man. Born on the Fourth of July. Days of Thunder. A Few Good Men. The Firm. Interview with the Vampire. This list is especially notable for the amazing list of directors he worked with, from the late Tony Scott to Martin Scorsese to Oliver Stone to Rob Reiner and Sydney Pollack and more.

When Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner moved on to Mission: Impossible, it guaranteed this TV show adaptation would get a lot of attention. They also chose a very well-known director: Brian De Palma.

De Palma came up in the same era (and was buddies) with Spielberg, Scorsese, and Coppola. He’s directed such now-classics as 1976’s Carrie, 1981’s Blow Out, 1983’s Scarface, and 1987’s The Untouchables (also based on a 1960s TV program).

Robert Towne, one of the premier screenwriters in Hollywood, was enlisted to write it. Towne is the man responsible for one of the best scripts ever written – 1974’s brilliant Chinatown, as well as Shampoo, Heaven Can  Wait, and The Firm, among others. His co-writer was another hot commodity, David Koepp, screenwriter of Jurassic Park and another great De Palma film, 1993’s Carlito’s Way.

Cruise stars as Ethan Hunt, a member of the elite IMF (Impossible Missions Force – get it?), an ultra-covert branch of the CIA. The film opens with Hunt in disguise interrogating a witness with the help of his team – which includes the head of the group Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), his wife Claire (Emmanuelle Beart), techie Jack (Emilio Estevez), and agent Sarah (Kristin Scott Thomas).

After that three minute opening sequence, we get the title credits with the well-known traditional “Mission: Impossible” theme song, composed by Lalo Schifirin. I may never have seen an episode of the TV show, but I definitely know and love the theme song.

The film moves to beautiful Prague, where the IMF team is tasked with retrieving the Noc list, which contains the identities of all covert agents in the Eastern European region. The Noc list serves as the movie’s MacGuffin. For those not familiar with what a MacGuffin is, you must not have read my blog post on the second Bond picture, From Russia with Love. Shame on you. The MacGuffin is a commonly used movie term: it’s the thing that all the characters desire. It doesn’t really matter what it is. It’s what the good guys want the bad guys not to have. It’s why the plot moves along. The reason for its being gives the characters the motivation for all the fancy action sequences, etc…

Mission: Impossible shares a common theme with many 1990s action pictures, including 1995’s Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan’s first 007 entry. The agents are trying to deal with the aftermath of the Cold War and what their purpose is in this new reality. For some agents, their reaction is not positive. This holds true for the film’s main villain. Spoiler alert: It’s Ethan’s boss, Jim Phelps… we don’t discover this until late. Phelps has become disillusioned and he wants the NOC list for nefarious purposes. His wife Claire is in on the scheme, too.

The action in Prague allows Ethan to disguise himself as a Virginia Senator at a party to retrieve the MacGuffin, with other members of the team populating the soiree as well. To say the least, all does not go as planned and the majority of the IMF agents are killed, including Emilio Estevez’s character in a memorable elevator shaft decapitation. Jim Phelps also “dies”, though we discover otherwise later. The party scene is terrific, complete with the kind of first-rate cinematography and long-take shots fans of Brian De Palma have come to expect.

For a while, we think the villain might be IMF Director Kittridge. He’s played by Henry Czerny in a wonderfully over-the-top performance. When Ethan meets with Kittridge in a restaurant after the party massacre and discovers he’s being set up for what happened, it provides one of the movie’s greatest sequences. If you’ve seen it, I’ll just say “Aquarium Scene” and you probably know what I’m talking about.

There are other now-famous action sequences. When Ethan discovers he must break into CIA headquarters in Langley to get that damn MacGuffin, he enlists Ving Rhames and Jean Reno as new members of his team. They concoct an elaborate way to break in which involves repelling Ethan into a high-security area. It’s a terrific sequence, done with no music, and is a major highlight.

The finale, set on a train, is also exciting. This sequence, more than any other, demonstrates what De Palma fans already know. He is heavily influenced by the master, Alfred Hitchcock. Many of his earlier pictures, including Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, and Body Double, are direct homages to Hitch. If you want to find out for yourself, either watch those films or Google “Hitchcock and De Palma” and you’ll likely have a day’s worth of reading material. Watching the train sequence, it feels like you’re watching a big-budget action scene if Hitchcock was alive to direct it. I loved it.

Those three action set pieces are a huge part of the reason why Mission: Impossible works pretty darn well. Cruise makes a fine debut as Ethan and most of the cast are solid, with special props to Vanessa Redgrave as an arms dealer who shines in every scene she’s in.

Some of my issues are with the script. The screenwriters, as talented as they are, often seem to be pushing a little hard to make you feel that the plot is really complicated and intricate. It’s not. The film is basically about double-cross intrigue among agents that we’ve seen in many other similar pictures.

However, some of the methods deployed here by writers Towne and Koepp work. When Jim Phelps character comes back from the dead, he explains why he’s not dead and tries to convince Ethan that Kittridge is the villain. As he’s talking to Ethan, we see what’s going through Ethan’s head as he realizes it’s actually Jim and others that are responsible for the party massacre. It’s a very well-directed and written scene that takes an original approach to moving the story forward.

While there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about Mission: Impossible, the train scene, Langley scene, and aquarium scene make it a highly entertaining entry in the spy movie genre. Audiences were ready to take the Mission. Opening in the summer of 1996, Mission grossed over $450 million worldwide and was the third highest grossing domestic release of the year, with a U.S. take of $180 million (behind Independence Day and Twister). With this picture, Cruise would have his franchise and he can thank the solid contributions of De Palma and some well-thought out centerpiece action scenes for providing it.

Here are the facts:

Film: Mission: Impossible

U.S. Release Date: May 22, 1996

Director: Brian De Palma

Screenplay: David Koepp and Robert Towne

Budget: $80 million

Worldwide Box Office: $457.6 million

This blog series will return in “The Ethan Hunt Files – Mission: Impossible II”

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