With the trend that began in the early 1990's to adapt old television series into major motion pictures, Mission: Impossible was one of the many added to the list. Premiering in the late 1960's, Mission: Impossible was hit series for CBS for seven seasons and brought actors such as Peter Graves and Martin Landau to popular stardom. In 1996, superstar Tom Cruise collaborated with director Brian de Palma to bring the modern film version to life, and despite some critical drubbing at the time, Mission: Impossible proves to be one of the better television to motion picture adaptations to grace the screen to date.
Mission: Impossible, the series, was very much in the same mold of the modern police procedural Law & Order: it was almost exclusively plot driven. Sure, the same characters reappeared episode after episode, but none of them were ever fleshed out or significantly developed. The series was exclusively interested in telling it's tale of a team of U.S. spies using subterfuge, theatrics and make-up to confuse and confound their mark and obtain their goal. With Tom Cruise in the lead of the film version, it seemed unlikely that this format would hold, and while the film does give a little more depth to it's leads, it is still pushed along by the tale more than the people.
The film opens in Prague, where the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) have gathered to perform their latest mission: to prevent a double-agent from selling off a list of the secret identities of covert agents operating in Europe. The team is comprised of leader Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), key man Ethan Hunt (Cruise), electronics expert Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez), Sarah Davies (Kristin Scott-Thomas), Hannah Williams (Ingeborga Dapkunaite), and Jim's wife, Claire (Emmauelle Beart). Part way through the mission, things begin to go horribly wrong, and before the night is out, all members of the team except Hunt are killed by an apparent assassin. Hunt contacts the head of his division, Eugene Kittredge (Henry Czerny) and discovers that the whole mission was designed to capture a suspected mole in the agency, and since Hunt was the only one who survived, he is labeled the mole.
Hunt escapes capture and is determined to prove his innocence. With the discovery that Claire did not die during the mission, Hunt makes contact with an arms dealer named Max (Vanessa Redgrave) who the real mole was dealing with and makes his own deal: he will secure the information that Max wants if Max promises to deliver the real mole to him. Hunt recruits former members of the IMF who were discovered during previous missions and had to be "disavowed' by the U.S. These include super hacker Luther Stickle (Ving Rhames) and helicopter pilot Franz Krieger (Jean Reno). Together, the group plans their heist, but things quickly become complicated and not everything with this whole operation is as it seems.
At the time of it's release, Mission: Impossible was criticized for being so complicated as to be undecipherable, and while it is indeed complex, it is not impossibly so. The film does weave a complicated plot and requires the audience's attention, but that is actually one of the film's strengths. It doesn't proceed in an entirely normal manner, hitting all the usual beats you would expect from a Mission: Impossible story, so while it follows the formula to a degree, it also manages to stand that formula on it's head. If the film does fall short, plot wise, it is principally in one area involving a central twist to the story. From the moment the backstory for this twist is introduced early in the film until the plot finally reveals it, there is nothing terribly surprising about it. The final scenes of the film do suggest that it is not what it would seem to be, but even still, the fact that so major a plot element in a film that is supposed to be a suspense thriller is so easily deduced is a bit of a let down.
Mission: Impossible is also not an action film in the literal sense. There is one major action set piece, but it is late in the film's running time, and up until then, the film has had no major car chases or fisticuffs. It replaces those with one major sequence of suspense, in which Ethan Hunt must attempt to retrieve information from a computer in a room littered with sensing equipment, including pressure sensitive floors, temperature controls and audio sensors. This sequence, played largely without dialogue and no music, is effective in building tension and literally putting you on the edge of your seat.
Mission: Impossible is not really an actor's movie. All the leads, from Cruise on down, are competent and do their jobs well, but nobody really takes hold of your attention. Cruise is his usual suave self, Rhames is entertaining as Luther Stickle, and Reno is appropriately shady as Kreiger. There is the suggestion of a possible romance between Hunt and Claire, but there isn't much chemistry between the two.
Mission: Impossible isn't a great film, but it is a good, effective one. It does require the audience pay attention and, emotionally, it doesn't pack a whallop, but it is good summer popcorn entertainment.