Sunday, December 2, 2012

One Iconic Scene Does Not Justify The Lackluster Spy Film Mission: Impossible

The Good: Smart protagonist, Generally good acting
The Bad: Special effects, Obvious plot reversals, No real character development, Dumb peripheral characters, Overbearing soundtrack
The Basics: When Ethan Hunt’s team is burned, he learns there is a conspiracy within the Impossible Missions Force and he is the prime suspect.

With so many reviewers going gaga for James Bond in celebration of his 50th Anniversary and the accompanying Blu-Ray/DVD collection for that milestone, I thought, “Now’s the perfect time for me to review Mission: Impossible.” What can I say? I’m a contrarian at heart. Actually, I have a thing about having sensibility in my reviews and I vaguely recalled seeing Mission: Impossible III (reviewed here!) and being disappointed by how derivative of Alias (reviewed here!) it was. Conversely, I enjoyed last year’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (reviewed here!), so I thought it was time to go back and see the first Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible film.

I am not impressed. Within the film and as a professional reviewer, there were too many conceits utilized by Mission: Impossible that made it problematic at best. As a viewer who understands how Hollywood works (at least in general terms) the fact that the film opens with a shot of Emilio Estevez, whose name does not appear in the opening credits, is a disturbing nod that informs the viewer they should not get overly attached to his character. In the film itself, Mission: Impossible features one of the dumbest criminal masterminds of all time in that the “diabolical genius” who is behind the film’s conspiracy (which he has apparently been planning for some time) stupidly tells the truth at key moments which allow the protagonist to easily reason who is behind everything. Obviously, if one is a mole in a government agency, they should be used to lying and working covertly. The villain in Mission: Impossible does so so poorly that it is hard to believe that the person gets as far as they do.

Following a mission in Kiev, Jim Phelps assembles an Impossible Missions Force Team in Prague. With the stated mission being to recover a disc that has the aliases and mundane names of every IMF operative working in Eastern Europe, Phelps’s team, which includes Ethan Hunt, Claire Phelps, Sarah, Jack and another operative, infiltrates a party. The mission, however, goes sour and everyone but Hunt appears killed. Contacting command, Hunt is put in contact with Kittridge, who happens to be in Prague and is able to extract Hunt. Meeting with him, Kittridge reveals that there is a mole in the IMF and because Hunt’s family farm has suddenly come out of debt, he is the prime suspect.

Evading Kittridge’s men, Hunt makes it to a safe house, where he attempts to find the people who gave the IMF the mission and he discovers Claire is still alive. Claire and Hunt assemble their own team of former IMF agents to get the list which was used as bait to draw out the real mole. As Kittridge closes in on his team, Hunt learns the identity and motivations of the enemies of the IMF.

To the credit of Mission: Impossible, Ethan Hunt is characterized as a realistically smart protagonist. He asks – immediately – one of the key questions of Kittridge when he learns that the other agent is in Prague. Hunt is operating on a level that makes him seem like a credible, realistically-seasoned spy. He might not be a good son (why would he let his family farm stay in debt if he had such a good job?!), but he is a realistically competent spy protagonist.

The acting in Mission: Impossible is fair. Tom Cruise is credible, if young looking, for a superspy action hero Ethan Hunt. On the character front, Ethan Hunt and his family ties make less sense for a spy of his caliber (obvious weakness), but Cruise gets into the role after the opening meeting scene (in that, none of the performers seem to be taking the briefing seriously enough to be actual intelligence agents. The scene is fun, but not at all believable). The only other truly credible actors in Mission: Impossible are Emilio Estavez and Ving Rhames. Jean Reno, who can usually be counted on for a great performance, plays Krieger as clumsy at a moment when the character cannot afford to be and he does not sell the moment. Similarly, Emmanuelle Beart, who plays Claire, is a pretty generic pouty-lipped, Hollywood ideal who has no presence or gravitas on the screen. Henry Czerny, at least, has the excuse that he isn’t given much to do with Kittridge as a generic antagonist.

Several of the shots in Mission: Impossible do not work in a rational sense. Coming off the iconic scene in the record’s room, Ethan Hunt catches a bead of his own sweat to prevent it from setting off the alarm. The shot looks marginally good, but it is so obviously an insert shot that it is distracting to the seasoned viewer. In other words, there is no way the hand could be at the angle and placement it is shot in, especially catching the sweat, in the reality of Hunt’s body position in the shot. In fact, the movement needed to make it work would have caused the suspended character to pinwheel.

Director Brian De Palma sacrifices rationality for the cool look in several key moments. The finale of the film involves Ethan Hunt laying inches away from a helicopter blade and he looks mildly startled. That helicopter blade should have been exceptionally hot; regardless of it missing slicing open Hunt’s neck, he should be pretty uncomfortable from the heat. De Palma hopes the viewer will not notice this. Furthermore, he uses an incredible reliance on the soundtrack to telegraph the emotions and tension the viewer is supposed to feel.

They do not.

As well, De Palma makes several obvious cuts - most obviously with Jack's demise - where he is obviously laboring to keep the film PG-13 and it looks and feels sloppy at those moments.  The result is a spy film that strives to be even average, but is so preoccupied with creating the next “surprise” twist that the viewer is left bored for much of the movie.

For other spy thrillers, check out my reviews of:
The Bourne Identity
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy


Check out how this film stacks up against others I have reviewed by visiting my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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