Mission: Impossible (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The first star vehicle of the summer of 1996 is also the first major disappointment of the season. Mission: Impossible, the big screen resurrection of the popular late-'60s/early-'70s series, fails to generate much in the way of excitement or intrigue. This globetrotting adventure looks like an opportunity for Tom Cruise to play James Bond -- a role he is totally unsuited for. The writing for last year's 007 return, Goldeneye, isn't a lot better than that for Mission: Impossible, but, as an action hero, Pierce Brosnan is considerably more debonair and charismatic than Cruise.

There's no Bond in Mission: Impossible. Instead, the lead character is Ethan Hunt, the point man for Jim Phelps' IMF (Impossible Missions Force). Phelps (played by Jon Voight, not Peter Graves) receives assignment messages from his boss, Kittridge (Henry Czerny), via video transmissions rather than old-fashioned tapes. His group's latest job is to prevent something called a "NOC list" from falling into the hands of an international arms dealer (Vanessa Redgrave). If placed on the open market, the NOC list would put every United States deep cover agent in danger of exposure. However, when they embark on this mission, the IMF runs straight into an ambush where everyone is killed except Hunt and Phelps' wife, Claire (Emmanuelle Beart). Because he survives the carefully-orchestrated massacre, Hunt is suspected of turning traitor.

Fans of the TV series expecting a faithful translation may be disappointed. Except for a few nods to its small-screen predecessor, this Mission: Impossible is a vastly different, autonomous entity. Nine years ago, director Brian DePalma used a similar approach for a superior version of The Untouchables, but lightning hasn't struck twice. Teetering on an uncertain edge between action flick and thriller, Mission: Impossible doesn't succeed well as either. There are some high-energy moments, but none offers more than a moment's edge-of-the-seat excitement. Too much of what happens in Mission: Impossible comes across as fait accompli.

The predictable plot generates little interest. It's pathetically easy to guess the mole's identity despite the screenwriters' attempts to obscure the issue. The overall storyline contains a legion of gaping holes -- the more you think about it, the less sense it makes. Weak character identification allows Twister to seem like a masterpiece by comparison. In fact, taken as a whole, Twister is a significantly more involving spectacle.

Megastar Tom Cruise (who also co-produced the movie) struts and smirks his way through his role in a way that makes Hunt easy to dislike. It's not a particularly good performance, either. Cruise's supporting players form an interesting group, although not necessarily the kind of names one might expect in a big-budget action film. They include a highly-respected French actress, Emmanuelle Beart (Manon of the Spring, Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud); a veteran American actor, Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy); Four Weddings and a Funeral's Kristin Scott-Thomas; and the internationally-renowned Vanessa Redgrave.

What does it say about the current status of American motion pictures that three of Paramount Pictures' big 1996 releases, Mission: Impossible, A Very Brady Sequel, and Star Trek: First Contact, are TV series regurgitations? If this movie is any indication, originality isn't high on the studio's list of priorities. Twister has taken a critical drubbing because of its style-over-substance approach to entertainment, but Mission: Impossible is a worse offender. The substance here isn't appreciably stronger, while the style is less eye-popping. Due primarily to several deftly-crafted action sequences, Mission: Impossible boasts a few memorable moments. Keeping in mind what's expected from would-be summer blockbusters, this movie isn't a disaster, but, all things considered, there's little reason to make it a high priority for theatrical viewing.

Mission: Impossible (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 1996-05-22
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1