Spies like us
There's a junkie brilliance to Mission: Impossible that manages to out-shine the sparkling white teeth of its improbably smarmy star and producer, Tom Cruise. It reaches a level of such unregulated shamelessness that it easily crosses the line from schlocky fun to genuine camp. The movie doesn't make any logical sense--the agents all act like morons most of the time--but there's a perverse, wicked energy to it; it's rompishly bad.
The iconography of the pulpy TV show has become ingrained in American culture. Cruise plays Ethan Hunt, a member of the super-secret IMF team that is the CIA's version of Navy SEALs: The IMF agents undertake covert operations that no one else could pull off, and succeed each time. At the top of the movie, all of them except Hunt are killed when a job goes awry, and the head of the agency (Henry Czerny) assumes Hunt is the double agent they've been trying to ferret out. The balance of the film is a cat-and-mouse game, as Hunt eludes the CIA in an effort to find out who the real mole is.
This is Cruise's first producing credit on a movie, and he invites a certain degree of skepticism for selecting a fiercely '70s-bound TV show as his maiden voyage. Mission: Impossible thrived 20 years ago because it exploited America's cultural paranoias about Russia and Cuba and the nuclear threat. But the Cold War, as many recent movies kindly remind us, has ended, so what's a spy to do? The answer seems to be: pretty much what they did when tensions were full-throttle, only now they shake their heads and bemoan how different things used to be. In that way, the new breed of Cold-War movies is the grumpy fuddy-duddy of pop culture: whiny yet singularly bereft of any new ideas to breathe life back into the genre.
The movie basically misses the point of the series on which it's based. The nature of the television show was always procedure over substance, but that's not to say it elevated style over plot. Rather, the procedure--the detailed way in which the IMF team problem-solved its way to victory, week after week--was the plot. The show got the audience to care about missions that in themselves were irrelevant; the point was to observe the clockwork precision of spy business.
Nouveau thrillers like this Mission: Impossible couldn't care less about procedure or plot; they are merely results-oriented exercises, frameworks around which technological set-pieces are constructed. They appear to be the apex of cinema chic merely by acknowledging a simple political truth (the spread of detente), but what's missing is the effort to tailor the premise to new circumstances in a creative fashion. They don't take the time to reconfigure themselves with a new lexicon of sociopolitical threats. Instead, movies like this prefer to spend vast amounts of energy commenting on just how little content there is to work with--how burdensome it is to be mindless, cynical blockbusters rather than steady, durable masterpieces. The end products are monstrosities of high-concept style, hollowed out by a lack of heart--a whole genre of misshapen behemoths, grotesquely deformed by an excess of special effects, a dearth of plot, and an appalling concentration of rigid stock characters. Being such a huge fan of the genre, the malaise I experience watching Hollywood slowly desiccate what remains of Cold War thrillers must be akin to what Pauline Kael felt when she lamented that mediocre shock films were ruining the spell cast by the horror classics.
That's why it's a relief that the movie's director is Brian De Palma. Whether Cruise realized it or not, De Palma was an ideal choice to give a ludicrous spy melodrama its appropriately bitter flavor. De Palma's a gifted craftsman who wears his personal obsessions like sick badges. He's a master ripoff artist--maybe the best--precisely because he's so dedicated to mixing metaphors and stealing visual cues from other sources (mostly Hitchcock), and churning them into something primordial. His movies tend toward pastiche--collages of symbols whirling about inside his head, brought fully formed onto the screen. The results can be erratic. Like Polanski in his early films, De Palma sometimes blurs the distinction between psychotic fixations and unintentional parody, simply because his Freudian motifs seem too elemental, too quaint. But they also have the advantage of giving self-important films a freakish vigor. Under De Palma's direction, Mission: Impossible is simply too weird to be a total disaster.
It's possible that a more cerebral director could have punched up the script and erased the innumerable flaws in its logic. But if dazzling special effects are going to account for the sum total of a movie's positive traits, De Palma's special brand of bravado can only help it go down easier. De Palma frequently turns the screenplay's lapses to his advantage by including numerous homages to North by Northwest within the movie's scattershot structure.
Action pictures typically sacrifice character, and this is no exception. As an actor, Cruise is raw but not very detailed. He can chew the scenery with the best of them--Cagney, Hopper, Nicholson--but he often lacks their inner fire, their panicky intensity. Cruise is usually at his best when not playing the perpetual smartass. His two best performances--in Risky Business and Born on the Fourth of July--came when he was allowed to play a nebbish and a paraplegic--characters with hindrances, not advantages. Cruise has become an icon now, so he doesn't seem willing to stretch his acting muscle any more. Must he always play the supremely confident rogue--who is always as good as or better than his reputation? Cruise must assume that making blow-hards seem charming is a way of adding levels to his characterizations, but he's staked out that ground for so long that the routine is getting old. Worse yet, no one else in the cast gets much chance to shine--this is first and foremost a star vehicle for Cruise--although Vanessa Redgrave has a playful quality as an arms dealer, purring her lines flirtatiously.
The screenplay is a lurching, muddled mess. If real secret agents are as one-dimensional in their thinking as these spies, you have to wonder whether Aldredge Ames was doing America a favor. Good thrillers should work on two levels: viscerally, as tightly edited action pictures, and intellectually, instilling in the audience a conscious fear of the inevitable repercussions of power unchecked. You can't accomplish the latter without sharing the nature of the fear with your audience, and Mission: Impossible is simply too convoluted to carry that off. It tries to compensate by adding a superabundance of viscerally compelling scenes, but it suffocates all signs of intelligent life in the process.
The film's two signature scenes--one atop a bullet train as it races through the Chunnel with a helicopter in tow, the other an infiltration of a computer vault in CIA headquarters--are ghastly in their conception but, let's not deny it, beautifully executed. That may be what's most depressing about the movie. It's so slick, it sets a new standard for movies of this kind--base, passionless, splashy, and eternally dumb. If Mission: Impossible does indeed kill the political thriller as a viable genre, you still have to admit that it does so with a flourish.
Mission: Impossible. Paramount. Tom Cruise, Vanessa Redgrave, Henry Czerny. Written by David Koepp and Robert Towne. Directed by Brian De Palma. Now playing.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.