The shift of gears that took Tom Cruise from smug-faced lead to smug-faced mega star can be traced right back to here. Sure, Top Gun and Risky Business are far more iconic roles than a secret agent with the cardio of steel but Ethan Hunt’s first adventure marked the first time Cruise produced one of his own films and therefore forged his path to couch bouncing world domination.
Jim Phelps of the Impossible Missions Force (the IMF obviously employed 5 year olds to name their agency) assembles a team to intercept the theft of the Knock List, a file that contains the identities of undercover agents. However, the mission encounters catastrophic failure and the team is obliterated (worth it for the sight of Emilo Estevez getting stabbing in the face by an elevator) leaving point man Ethan Hunt as the only survivor. When briefed, Hunt finds out that the mission was a decoy to root out a mole and as he is the last one left standing, he is the number one suspect. Hunt promptly responds by escaping, forming his own team and attempts to steal the ACTUAL Knock List from the CIA in order to use it as bait to bring out the real mole. Thus is set in motion a series of outlandish twists and impossible missions (which Hunt repeatedly proves to be merely improbable) that lead to a high speed finale on board the Chunnel. Can Hunt clear his name before he’s “disavowed” by the enemies all around him?
There’s a few schools of thought that seek to deny Mission: Impoosible from it’s throne of awesomeness. The first is from old school fans of the TV show, horrified at the movie’s treatment of beloved character Jim Phelps (here played very much in a Jon Voight sort of way by character actor Jon Voight), but to them I say this: no one cares. Sorry.
The second niggle people have with the movie is that some find it too confusing and this I can understand. In over 20 years with multiple rewatches I still haven’t managed to piece together the whole thing myself (I’m still not sure WHY the stamp in the bible is such conclusive proof of someone’s guilt, couldn’t it just be a coincidence?) but scenes showing Ethan’s running scenarios in his head over suspicions over who is exactly responsible for what are played one after the other with no explanation and I totally get people getting lost. BUT – I cry – it’s a spy movie, isn’t it SUPPOSED to be a bit twisty and turny?
The final issue usually is pointed at Cruise himself and the fact he has three speeds in this movie: tense, bewildered or smug. Again, a fair point; Cruise is slathered all over the screen for virtually the entire film (and even when he isn’t, people are either talking about him or his picture is plastered up on a wall somewhere) and the ensemble can barely cling on for the ride but this is Tom first starting to enter the stage of his career where to pull off breath catching stunts is like oxygen to him – so I say let the baby have his bottle.
In fact, the best way to crack Mission: Impossible is to treat it like a three episode arc of a TV show as the whole story is made up of a trio of massive set pieces joined by scenes of exposition.
The initial section is the whole heist in Prague where we are walked through it verbally, then visually and then it falls apart and agents start dying in public like a shit stand-up comedian. The section ends when Hunt realises he’s been framed and detonates a restaurant that unwisely seems to be 67% fish tank in order to escape his own people. This is then followed by the show stopping sequence where again, we are walked through a heist in CIA headquarters at Langley which involves Cruise being dangled above a computer terminal like a cat burgling marionette while being unable to touch the floor, make a sound or even raise the temperature in the room without setting off an alarm.
The final “episode” is the climax which, like all good spy movies, takes place on a train – or in this case a Euro service hurtling from England to France – which brings all the players together and desides to go utterly mental with Hunt and the villain clinging for dear life as a helicopter, trapped in the tunnel behind them, buzzes around in their wake ending in a moment so awesomely stupid (Hunt’s IMF training apparently allows him to tolerate explosions that happen directly next to him) you will either cheer or scream “oh, fuck off!” directly at the screen (for the record, I was both…)
Yes, some people find M:I 1 tough to get along with but I’ve always adored it, and check out the talent involved! Ving Rhames, Jean Reno, Kirsten Scott Thomas and a VERY flirty Vanessa Redgrave? AND all marshalled by Hitchcock devotee Brian DePalmer? Come on!
Some still may well complain at the more outlandish aspects of the film – exploding chewing gum, slaughtering half the cast a third of the way in, the presence of Emilo Estevez – give the film an uneven tone but you shouldn’t deny that the film that finally catapulted Cruise into the mega-leagues is a hell of a lot of fun.
May any disagreements self destruct in 10 seconds…