5 out of 5
Directed by: Brian De Palma
Every now and then, we have action movies that help to set the bar for what action movies that follow should be. There will be flicks that succeed in executing bigger and ballsier sequences – especially as technology allows us to do more and more more convincingly – but what remains as a marker of these bar setters versus their influences is that the former holds up. You can watch it a decade later, two decades, more, and the movie still works, from start to finish. It still holds the same magic it did on a big screen as it does on a little screen. They can be spectacle, but they are spectacle that leave a damn lasting impression.
Every time I rewatch the first Mission: Impossible (and I have rewatched it often), I am reminded of the above. And yes, I’m defining M:I as one of those defining action flicks. The way it commits to its faux spycraft and pseudo intelligent twists and turns is immersive from scene one; that it happens to be populated with a bevy of fine actors – Tom Cruise as disavowed agent Ethan Hunt; Jon Voight as his boss, Phelps; Vanessa Redgrave as a trader in secrets, Max – who weren’t playing it cheekily seemed to suggest a new tier for the action genre, one that you could maybe say called ahead to the comic book films of the 2010s convincing audiences to take them on their own, PG-13 terms. The effect goes beyond that, for sure, as M:I gave us bluffs and double bluffs in its story with a presentation that rewarded you for following along – even if you weren’t; I know the flick confused me at a first pass, but it made me feel like I wasn’t – and this slickness has been forever attemptedly emulated by its peers – and then it of course gave us the M:I franchise itself, which has continued to impress. And it started here: with Brian De Palma’s assured, in your face handling, and Tom Cruise, clearly on screen, leaping out of the way of or into unbelievable dangers.
The plot is one of any given spy flick: a job goes wrong, Ethan’s team is lost and he’s being framed for the blame; he plays good and bad sides against each other to find the real baddie and – spoiler – save the day. And there are logic leaps galore, but David Koepp’s and Robert Towne’s script, and De Palma’s crafty scene construction, magic this up so things seem logical: that gigantic, one-in-a-million guesses come across as deep-seated spycraft. It’s wonderful. That alone keeps us on the hook for just the story; for just watching Ethan “puzzle” it out with the compatriots he picks up (Ving Rhames and Jean Reno among them). But then you toss in some terrifyingly exciting action, which, executed over 20 years in our movie past still looks awesome, and you’ve got a hands down classic. One that set a bar that’s still hard to reach.