A lot was riding on Mission: Impossible (1996) for Tom Cruise. Not only was it the first film he produced (in addition to starring), it was also his first attempt to kick start his own film franchise. And what better way to do this than resurrecting a classic television show from the 1960s? Cruise, always the calculated risk taker, wisely surrounded himself with talented people: Robert Towne co-wrote the screenplay, Brian De Palma directing and the likes of Jon Voight, Jean Reno, and Vanessa Redgrave in the cast. At the time, the James Bond franchise was in a transitional period and didn’t produce a new film until the following year. Mission: Impossible was a huge box office success spawning a franchise that continues to produce installments.
Jim Phelps (Voight) leads his group of IMF agents on a mission to intercept Alexander Golitsyn (Marcel Iures), a traitorous attaché, who has stolen a list of the code names for all of the CIA operatives in Europe. He plans to steal the other half of the list with their real names from an embassy in Prague. One by one, members of the team are killed off by mysterious assailants. Only Ethan Hunt (Cruise) survives the bungled mission and rendezvous later with his superior, Kittridge (a wonderfully twitchy Henry Czerny) in a restaurant. Over the course of their conversation, Ethan realizes that he was set-up and that another team was shadowing his own. Kittridge reveals that the embassy debacle was actually an elaborate scheme to expose a traitor within the IMF organization and he believes that it is Ethan and that he also killed his entire team.
De Palma conveys Ethan’s growing sense of paranoia and panic in this scene through increasingly skewed camera angles as the magnitude of what has happened begins to sink in. Henry Czerny plays the scene beautifully as Kittridge talks to Ethan as a parent might scold a child. The conversation between them culminates with a daring escape as Ethan causes a large aquarium to explode, using the ensuing chaos to make his getaway. This scene was Cruise’s idea. There were 16 tons of water in all of the tanks but there was a concern that when they blew, a lot of glass would fly around. De Palma tried the sequence with a stuntman but it did not look convincing and he asked Cruise to do it despite the possibility that the actor could have drowned.
Ethan regroups at a safe house where he meets Claire (Emmanuelle Beart), another surviving member of his team. He must find out who set him up and retrieve the list. To aid him in his endeavor, Ethan enlists the help of Claire and two other disavowed agents (Ving Rhames and Jean Reno). The film really gets going once Cruise hooks up with Reno and Rhames (playing an ace hacker no less) and they decide to break into CIA headquarters for what is Mission: Impossible’s most famous set piece. This impressively staged sequence is cheekily dubbed the “Mount Everest of hacks” by Ethan and is masterfully orchestrated by De Palma. The heart of this sequence is nearly soundless proving that one doesn’t need a ton of explosions and gunfire to have an exciting, tension-filled action sequence (Michael Bay take note).
Paramount Pictures owned the rights to the television series and had tried for years to make a film version but had failed to come up with a viable treatment. Cruise was a fan of the show since he was young and thought that it would be a good idea for a film. The actor chose Mission: Impossible to be the first project of his new production company and convinced Paramount to put up a $70 million budget. Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner worked on a story with filmmaker Sydney Pollack for a few months when the actor hired Brian De Palma to direct. They went through two screenplay drafts that no one liked. The screenwriting team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) wrote a draft and then David Koepp (The Shadow) was reportedly paid $1 million to rewrite it. According to one project source, there were problems with dialogue and story development. However, the basic plot remained intact. De Palma brought in screenwriter Steve Zaillian (A Civil Action) and finally Robert Towne to work on the script. According to the director, the goal of the script was to “constantly surprise the audience.”
Amazingly, even with all of these talented screenwriters working on it, the film went into pre-production without a script that the filmmakers wanted to use. De Palma designed the action sequences but neither Koepp nor Towne were satisfied with the story that would make these sequences take place. Towne helped organize a beginning, middle and end to hang story details on while De Palma and Koepp worked on the plot. The director convinced Cruise to set the first act of the film in Prague, a city rarely seen in Hollywood films at the time. Reportedly, studio executives wanted to keep the film’s budget in the $40-$50 million range but Cruise wanted a “big, showy action piece” that took the budget up to the $70 million range.
The script that Cruise approved called for a final showdown to take place on top of a moving train. The actor wanted to use the famously fast French train the TGV but rail authorities did not want any part of the stunt performed on their trains. When that was no longer a problem, the track was not available. De Palma visited railroads on two continents trying to get permission. Cruise took the train owners out to dinner and the next day they were allowed to use it. For the actual sequence, the actor wanted wind that was so powerful that it could knock him off the train. Cruise had difficulty finding the right machine that would create the wind velocity that would look visually accurate before remembering a simulator he used while training as a skydiver. The only machine of its kind in Europe was located and acquired. Cruise had it produce winds up to 140 miles per hour so it would distort his face. Most of the sequence, however, was filmed on a stage against a blue screen for later digitizing by the visual effects team at Industrial Light & Magic.
The filmmakers delivered Mission: Impossible on time and under budget with Cruise doing most of his own stunts. Initially, there was a sophisticated opening sequence that introduced a love triangle between Phelps, his wife Claire and Ethan that was removed because it took the test audience “out of the genre,” according to De Palma. There were rumors that Cruise and De Palma did not get along and they were fueled by the director excusing himself at the last moment from scheduled media interviews before the film’s theatrical release.
In some scenes, Cruise has a tendency to over-emote, like when Ethan is reunited with Claire after their entire team has been wiped out. Sleep deprived and paranoid, Ethan yells at Claire, “They’re dead! They’re all dead!” It’s an embarrassing bit of overacting on Cruise’s part but the actor redeems himself somewhat later on in a cheeky bit of acting when he cons Reno over a CD of vital information through a clever display of sleight of hand.
The film’s overriding theme is one of deception, a world where nothing is what it seems. The prologue has a disguised Ethan trick a captive man into giving up a name of a key operative. This is only one of many disguises (created by make-up legend Rob Bottin) he adopts throughout the film in order to obtain information or trick an opponent. The prologue also cleverly serves as a metaphor for filmmaking. The spy trade, like cinema, is all about creating an illusion and pretending to be something that you’re not. In addition, several members of his team are not who they appear to be as well and this keeps the audience guessing as to who is “good” and who is “bad.”
The common complaint leveled at Mission: Impossible was that it was hard to follow, fueling speculation that De Palma’s original cut was non-linear in nature and that Cruise re-cut it after disastrous test screenings. Regardless, if one is paying attention to what is happening and what is being said (or not being said, in some cases) it isn’t difficult to navigate the film’s narrative waters. The script is lean and unusually well-written for a big budget action blockbuster, which is quite amazing when you consider how many writers worked on it. Make no mistake about it; this is a paycheck film for De Palma. However, being the consummate professional that he is, the veteran director still delivers an entertaining film with some nice stylistic flourishes. What more could you ask for from this kind of film?