Mission: Impossible

I remembered watching a few episodes of Mission: Impossible as a kid, but growing up on James Bond movies as I did, the much more cerebral and stealthy approach to Mission was beyond me. Where were the crazy gadgets, the supervillain henchmen, the secret lairs, the convoluted deathtraps, the femme fatales with names I couldn’t repeat in front of my parents, and the big battle scenes between armies of uniformed drones? Mission wasn’t about all of that. It was about very smart operators playing elaborate cons on bad people with gadgetry that was on the bleeding edge of Radio Shack, and remarkably lifelike prosthetic makeup, and that was about it. No karate fights. No machine pistols and hot air balloons and people throwing razor-blade bowler derbies. The successful Mission was one in which nobody even knew it happened. It was a mind game with the security of the free world for stakes. That takes an adult to appreciate.

So when I learned, many years later, that Tom Cruise would be doing a Mission: Impossible movie, I was interested. When I read early reviews what the plot was almost too convoluted to follow, I figured that was just my fellow movie-goers being dullards, and that perhaps now I might get a fun spy thriller that was way more John le Carré than Ian Fleming. What I got was…a promising start of something.

Ethan Hunt is a young agent for the Impossible Mission Force under the mentorship of Jim Phelps (the central hero of the TV show). On a mission in Prague to steal a list of CIA operative identities, everything goes wrong and the entire team is slain except for Ethan. Wrongly accused of being a mole and a traitor, Hunt goes on the run, eluding the CIA while making contact with an arms dealer named Max (played with delightfully sophistication by Vanessa Redgrave). The list the IMF team boosted in Prague is a decoy meant to tip off the CIA; Hunt offers to steal the real list from the heart of the CIA headquarters in return for a pile of cash and the identity of whomever the real mole was that got Hunt’s team killed. Hunt recruits a few other disavowed IMF agents (including computer genius Luther Stickle, played by Ving Rhames), hits the CIA, and arranges for a careful sting that will get Max apprehended, the mole revealed, and Hunt’s record wiped clean.

The first third of the movie plays out much like an old episode of the TV show might have, without a lot of gimmickry or action, just tense plans being executed and a sense of paranoia once things go wrong. As Hunt gets clear of the CIA teams after him and is able to go on the offensive, the tone of the movie shifts, from shadowy clandestine offerings to a new kind of IMF job that is more focused on stealth then misdirection. If the old IMF agents were con artists, the new ones are ninjas. The final third completes the story’s transformation, with another sly setup on a high-speed train about to enter the English Channel Tunnel which then explodes into a wild action sequence that would put any Bond movie to shame. By the time it’s all over, you don’t quite know what to make of this chimera of a story. Is it a sequel to the TV show? Is it a remake? Is it a reboot? Is it an homage? Is it a break with the past? It’s all of those things and yet none of them, an inconsistent result that feels like more than one story competing for space within the same two hours or so.

But in the end, it all works in its own way, and sets itself up for what would become a very successful franchise, even if its opening installments have their growing pains.

For me, the movie’s moment of truth was the CIA heist scene, an extended silent action sequence in which Ethan and his crew physically infiltrate CIA headquarters and Ethan himself descends like a spider on a line to break into the world’s most secure computer room. The whole thing is remarkably well executed, and I remember in the theatre, the audience holding their breath and staying silent, lest they trip off any of the alarms Ethan was trying to avoid. It is a rare scene that brings viewers into the action so well, but this one most certainly did. For a spy movie, it was super-cool and inventive, and told us in no uncertain terms that the old Mission: Impossible was great, but this is the new Mission: Impossible. It will take what still works from the old, and use it to inform the new. It was more than a little ironic that the best parts of this movie are the action sequences that never could have been done in the original show, and more importantly, never would have been done, either.

And while that approach (and the treatment of some of the franchise’s legacy characters, like Phelps) might have deeply offended the cast members of the original show, for folks like me, this was a welcome transformation. This movie took something half-remembered and only half-enjoyed from childhood memory and reinstated it as something worthy in my adult imagination. Mission: Impossible isn’t perfect, but it’s a worthy effort to make sure something really cool didn’t pass entirely from the world. As a writer and as a movie lover, I have to respect that.

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