by Daniel Gorman Film Kicking the Canon

Mission: Impossible | Brian De Palma

April 1, 2020

In their 2015 documentary, De Palma, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow let iconoclastic writer/director Brian De Palma speak about each of his films, chronologically, from early student films to 2013’s Passion. A fascinating (if minor) document, De Palma serves one important function: it locates a linear narrative within De Palma’s wildly varied career. Here’s a man who has directed at least one bona fide horror classic (Carrie); a rock n’ roll, musical-horror hybrid (Phantom of the Paradise); a couple of gut-wrenching, war-is-hell films (Casualties of War and Redacted); gangster pictures (Scarface, The Untouchables); sleazy art-trash sex thrillers (Dressed to Kill, Body Double); a few outright fiascos (The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Black Dahlia), and one huge, monstrously successful pop masterpiece in the form of 1996’s Mission: Impossible — a film which is largely responsible for codifying the cultural image and status of worldwide superstar actor Tom Cruise. 

As Baumbach and Paltrow’s documentary makes abundantly clear, De Palma was always working — even if many of his screenplays never actually got produced, and many of the big pictures he was at one some point attached to didn’t pan out. (It’s fun to imagine a De Palma Prince of the City or Basic Instinct, both of which saw the director’s departure sometime during pre-production.) For every weirdo picture like Dressed to Kill or Body Double, De Palma was more than happy to use studio resources to make something like The Untouchables or Wise Guys. In other words, this wasn’t the ‘one for me, one for them’ that indie directors love to mythologize. 

In 1993, De Palma was coming off a box office disappointment with Carlito’s Way, and by his own admission he was looking for a hit. As it turned out, to get one he had to simply be in the right place at the right time: when a producer approached him to take on Mission: Impossible, he jumped at it. The film was to be the first produced by Cruise, who had partnered with Paula Wagner and had a first look deal with Paramount Pictures. Following his own string of box office and critical successes, Cruise was, by all accounts, looking for another guaranteed hit. De Palma recalls working with original screenwriter David Koepp and the difficulty that they had in retrofitting the TV version of Mission: Impossible, which was an ensemble show, with the star demands of the production. Their solution? Kill off most of Cruise’s team. 

Working with long-time cinematographer Stephen H. Burum, De Palma throws everything he can at the screen, and the resulting concoction is glorious to behold. There are elaborate, multi-level sets, split diopter shots, glasses that are also cameras, and split screens within screens containing visual information constantly layered on top of itself to create a panoply of images.

Despite De Palma’s reputation, Mission: Impossible is not a sneakily subversive film — unless one wants to dig for some kind of vague, post-Cold War, free floating paranoia. But for anyone looking for a straightforward adaptation of the old TV show, it must have been a surprise to watch the filmmakers systematically eliminate almost the entire IMF team in the first act here. In the aftermath of a job gone horribly awry, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is set up to look like a mole, and soon he’s on the run and disavowed by his own government, in a set up that almost all the other M:I films have copied. Determined to clear his name, Hunt puts together a new team and breaks into CIA headquarters at Langley, VA. Their mission: to obtain a secret NOC list that contains the names of every deep cover operative in the world. It’s a silly macguffin which De Palma rightly disregards, finds unimportant. What is important, to him, is staging as many mind blowing set pieces as possible, pulling each off with aplomb. 

Working with long-time cinematographer Stephen H. Burum, De Palma throws everything he can at the screen, and the resulting concoction is glorious to behold. There are elaborate, multi-level sets, split diopter shots, glasses that are also cameras, and split screens within screens containing visual information constantly layered on top of itself to create a panoply of images. In many ways, this is De Palma’s North By Northwest, another globe-trotting adventure yarn that never lets logic get in the way of the fun. Hunt’s infiltration of the CIA offices, in particular, is a legendary sequence: Cruise’s hero must enter a secure room without making a sound or touching the ground. A masterclass in suspense, with perfect cutting and framing, playing out in almost total silence (this, of course, being a nod to the central heist in Rififi). It’s a scene that’s now firmly a part of the pop culture lexicon — and yet, despite desensitization from decades of lesser imitations, it still amazes.

At 110 minutes, Mission: Impossible is brisk with nary a wasted moment. It burns through plot, double crosses, intimate betrayals, and even circles back to replay its own opening minutes from a different perspective, finally revealing to the audience what’s been going on this whole time. For someone like De Palma, fascinated by voyeurism and surveillance, this is all good, clean fun — an opportunity to cast his usual obsessions in a more playful mode. (De Palma would ultimately make the sleazy-sexy version of this film’s globe-trotting, spy thriller template with 2002’s Femme Fatale.) Ultimately, Mission: Impossible stands as an immaculate snapshot of a time, not so long ago, when Hollywood still made slick, smart blockbusters. Cruise has since turned M:I into a massive global franchise, with each new film entry upping the ante on death-defying stunts and outlandish action scenes. De Palma’s original, though, is still the best — and the only one that could be mistaken for an actual espionage thriller. For all his outlandish fascination with sex and violence, De Palma is also a classicist, and Mission: Impossible finds him at his pulpy popcorn peak.


Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.

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