Ahead of the release of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation this Friday, I’m going to be looking back at the four previous installments in the series to chart the evolution from one film to the next and see how well they individually hold up. The M:I movies are especially interesting in this regard because where most action blockbuster franchises settle into a bland uniformity once the sequels start churning out, each entry in this series is most notable for how different they all are from each other. Even the Bond series, which over its fifty-odd year history has reinvented itself time and time again, does not come close to the tonal disparity existing between each new M:I release.
The original, directed by Brian De Palma, remains my favourite and the most tonally distinct of the four to date. Where John Woo’s sequel, which I’ll cover tomorrow, turned the series’ focus almost exclusively to big-budget action, De Palma’s Mission: Impossible is more interested in plot and atmosphere than large-scale shootouts or big action set-pieces. True, the climax in the Channel Tunnel is as enjoyably loopy as anything which would follow, but the film leading up to it channels the intricately plotted Cold War spy thrillers of the ’70s rather than the typical blockbuster fare of the time.
The plot starts off with a mission to retrieve a leaked list of undercover agents going horribly wrong, leaving Ethan Hunt the only surviving member of his team. Under suspicion of being a traitor, Hunt sets about following leads to uncover the person who really betrayed him. At the time, the movie was mockingly referred to as Mission: Impenetrable for its convoluted storytelling, possibly one of the reasons why subsequent entries in the series have kept plotting to a bare minimum. De Palma’s film has its share of twists, but isn’t especially difficult to follow for anyone paying attention. There are perhaps a few too many ancilliary details introduced around the margins, but the plot unravels for the most part in fairly straightforward fashion.
If anything, that slight overcomplexity feeds nicely into the spirit of the genre that the film most closely emulates. The ’70s saw the thriller genre become heavily politicised, reflecting the paranoid escalation of the Cold War and the sense that even one’s own government was not to be trusted. The heroes of the time frequently found themselves questioning old loyalties and struggling to comprehend the far-reaching implications of the situations they found themselves in. Hunt starts out as the quintessential company man, loyal to a fault to his mission and his team, yet finds himself having to collaborate with an arms dealer, Max, and steal from CIA Headquarters, in the movie’s exquisitely tense signature scene, the very list he was initially assigned to protect. In other words, to prove his innocence he has to do exactly that which he was wrongfully accused of doing in the first place.
That level of moral complexity is something the series abandoned immediately afterwards, which is a shame since it elevates the material so compellingly here. De Palma has great fun playing with the tropes and visual stylings of the genre, creating a rich atmosphere which adapts to the changing mood of the narrative. The first act, in Prague, is drowning in Third Man-esque shadows as Hunt finds himself alone, in constant danger and straining to make sense of a puzzle for which he seems to be missing all the crucial pieces. As he is forced to compromise his old certainties to make progress, the dominant colour scheme shifts from deep black and blues to greys and browns, emphasizing the new world of moral murkiness that the movie inhabits. As his plans start to come together for the third act climax, so too does the movie become more boldly colourful.
De Palma’s love of genre cinema made him a perfect fit not only for emulating the style of old-school thrillers, but subverting it as well. Turning Jim Phelps, the only character to carry over from the TV series, into the villain was one hell of a ballsy move, not to mention an immensely controversial one at the time, but plays brilliantly into the movie’s themes of shifting loyalties and political cynicism. Casting Vanessa Redgrave as arms dealer Max was similarly inspired. Redgrave turned what could have been a rote and uninteresting supporting character in the hands of a man into something far more devilish. Just as James Bond’s boss, M, had recently been recast as a woman in GoldenEye (1995), the female Max reflected the growing influence of women in all areas of society, while also subverting the femme fatale trope so beloved of the genre. Max is sensual and slyly predatory, using flirtation as both a tool to achieve her ends and a mask to cover her ruthlessness. She’s exactly the sort of boldly defined supporting player that later movies have so noticeably lacked, especially with Redgrave, a character actress par excellence, finding just the right level of dry wit to leverage the movie’s sometimes over-serious tone.
Max’s experienced, manipulative sensuality exists in stark contrast to the youth and relative sexlessness of Tom Cruise’s Hunt. Even across four movies, Hunt has never found much by way of personality, but that blank slate quality works in his favour here by stripping him of much of the overblown machismo blighting so many action heroes then and now. Cruise’s portrayal skews closer here to the Jeremy Renner character from Ghost Protocol: a highly competent field agent whose primary skills are in analysis rather than action. Indeed, he barely kills anyone until the movie’s end. This intelligence is emphasized in one of the movie’s most inspired scenes. Phelps, having returned from the dead, recounts a falsified version of how he survived his apparent assassination at the beginning of the movie. Hunt vocally accepts the story, all while mentally mapping out what really happened and confirming Phelps as the traitor. It’s an audacious piece of narrative trickery in which De Palma sets dialogue and visuals against each other to simultaneously advance the plot and enrich our appreciation of Hunt’s talents.
While the series would certainly go on to have its share of successes, that this early subversive streak and focus on atmosphere and plot were so thoroughly abandoned is a great loss. Mission: Impossible is not a perfect film by any means, but is a more faithful and interesting adaptation of its source material than all which would follow, while also being unafraid to subvert it to create its own big screen identity. Cinema could do with more heroes like this early Ethan Hunt, a more intellectual, even slightly nerdy version of the generic action man he would turn into for the following movie.