Critics' Corner

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Desson Howe - Weekend section, "Exciting, smart and enormously enjoyable."

Hal Hinson - Style section, "Humorless, charmless and flat."


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'Mission: Impossible'

Scene from this movie Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), head of the Impossible Missions Force, receives instructions via the famous self-destructing tape about the group's latest assignment-namely, to document the theft of the CIA's master list of spies in Eastern Europe.

A mole has broken into the group's inner circle; the mission was an attempt to flush him out. But instead of exposing the real culprit, it throws suspicion on team member Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), who is forced to go underground to prove his innocence. -- Hal Hinson
Rated PG-13


Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Tom Cruise; Jon Voight; Henry Czerny; Emmanuelle Beart; Jean Reno; Ving Rhames; Kristin Scott-Thomas; Vanessa Redgrave; Emilio Estevez
Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Filmographies: Tom Cruise; Ving Rhames;
Emilio Estevez; Jon Voight







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'Mission': Impossibly Good

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 24, 1996

The summer season has its first winner-by which I mean, a movie that deserves to score big at the box office. "Mission: Impossible" is exciting, smart and enormously enjoyable, like a combination of "The Fugitive," the Tom Clancy movies and the great James Bond pictures.

Bucking the Hollywood trend toward terrible stories that are strung between extraordinary special effects ("Jurassic Park," "Batman Forever" and "Twister"), "Mission," starring Tom Cruise, is a white-knuckle tale that's complemented with great effects.

Given that "Mission" operates on surprise, treachery, new discoveries, disguises (those peel-off latex masks, of course) and story twists galore, it's best to sum up the plot loosely.

Cruise is part of the IMF (Impossible Missions Force) team that includes point man Jon Voight (as Jim Phelps, the only character from the original TV series), computer hacker Emilio Estevez and agents Emmanuelle Beart and Kristin Scott-Thomas. The mission they have accepted lately takes place at an American Embassy party in Prague, where a double agent must be stopped from picking up a computer disk containing the names of every CIA operative in the world.

That great sense of choreography from the TV series comes beautifully into play as the IMF agents take their respective positions-on the stairwell, in an elevator and in a car outside. But as they close in on their mark, something goes horribly wrong. The all-important disk is suddenly "in the open," which is to say, up for grabs.

In the tradition of the great paranoia thrillers of the 1970s, Cruise finds himself suddenly pitted against everyone and not sure whom to trust. Forced to rely on Beart from his old squad, and officially "disavowed" agents Ving Rhames (the fabulous Marsellus Wallace in "Pulp Fiction") and Jean Reno (the heavy in "The Professional"), he takes the battle to Langley-home of the CIA.

The filmmakers-including director Brian De Palma, and screenwriters David Koepp and Robert Towne, and Cruise's new production company-have outdone themselves. "Mission" is about suspense, plain and simple, as Cruise confronts mysterious adversaries, including two operatives called Max and Job who may be friends or enemies.

The movie's also an exhilarating tribute to the computer. Laptops, not Uzis, are the weapons of choice, as agents break codes, conduct missions, send jamming signals, download politically sensitive files and watch the results of their work on multiple live video screens.

True to Hollywood form, "Mission" has more story twists than necessary and concludes with the usual shower of spectacular pyrotechnics. But director De Palma, with help from his loyalists (including cameraman Stephen H. Burum and editor Paul Hirsch), never gets lost in the hyperbole. There's a riveting scene, set in a Czech restaurant, which begins with subtle tension (as Cruise learns terrible news from a superior), then ends with the explosion of a large lobster tank. Cruise is left scrambling down the street outside, with gallons of water, and various fish and decapods, cascading after him. Don't worry: No lobsters were harmed during filming.

Later in the picture, De Palma's adroitness with suspense comes through loud and clear: Cruise has to reach and operate a computer located in a security-obsessed stronghold which detects any weight on the floor, the slightest noise or any change in human body temperature of more than one degree. While he attempts the impossible, De Palma causes an entire audience to hold its breath. In the face of Dolby-digitalized, mega-din sound effects, that's a special effect unto itself.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (PG-13) - Contains profanity and relatively minor violence.

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De Palma's 'Mission' Implausable

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 22, 1996

"Mission: Impossible," Brian De Palma's big-screen adaptation of the popular '60s television series, is a stone drag-humorless, charmless and flat. The impossible part is that the filmmakers have botched such a seemingly unbotchable premise.

From the beginning, the action appears dated, as if the filmmakers were still locked in a Cold War mind-set. Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), head of the Impossible Missions Force, receives instructions via the famous self-destructing tape about the group's latest assignment-namely, to document the theft of the CIA's master list of spies in Eastern Europe.

Instead of using this initial action to demonstrate the dynamics within the team-to show us how slick and cool under fire they are-De Palma and screenwriters David Koepp and Robert Towne have the mission blow up in the team's face. A mole has broken into the group's inner circle; the mission was an attempt to flush him out. But instead of exposing the real culprit, it throws suspicion on team member Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise in Martin Landau's old part), who is forced to go underground to prove his innocence.

On television, "Mission: Impossible" was primarily a spy show. In updating it, though, the producers have emphasized the action-adventure aspects. As a result, Cruise is forced to play a role that might have been better filled by Schwarzenegger or Stallone. In the scenes where Cruise isn't required to perform super-heroic stunts, the filmmakers attempt to tell us who this guy is, but all his more personal traits appear to have been recycled from his character in "Top Gun." Ethan is a cocky wise guy with all the confidence in the world, and-at least from the audience's point of view-nothing to back it up with. The star has never seemed more lightweight than he does when he confronts his secret nemesis, played by Vanessa Redgrave with a voice so effortlessly rich and deep that Cruise sounds like a Viennese choirboy by comparison.

De Palma seems to have lent only his technical genius to the project. The movie looks amazing. The way he breaks down the action and hooks his shots together is conceptually and graphically brilliant, but you admire it almost in the abstract. It's ravishing, but what does his style have to do with anything? What does it express-except itself?

The result is that style and substance-what little there is-never meet. After Ethan is disavowed by his bosses, he hatches a plan to break into CIA headquarters at Langley. As impossibly daring as this plan is, we never get much sense of who the enemy is or what is at stake. To help accomplish his mission, Ethan assembles a new crew, played by Jean Reno and Ving Rhames. Like Greg Morris on the series, Rhames is the electronics wizard-in this case, the super-hacker-and Reno plays the strongman (the Peter Lupus role from TV). But the characters remain distant. Same goes for the French star Emmanuelle Beart, who lends a seductive, continental flavor to her updating of the Barbara Bain character, but in general leaves her only partly realized as well.

De Palma can't seem to give the film any narrative rhythm or momentum, either. After Ethan's first escape, we expect him to keep running. He is, after all, on the lam. But instead of hiding out, he runs straight back to headquarters, gets on-line and starts sending e-mail. Why is it that so many filmmakers think we're fascinated by watching our heroes play with their computers? In movie after movie, the moment of truth comes when the hero has to download information onto a disk.

Because of De Palma's dazzling technique, the movie isn't dull; it is, however, very hard to follow. Also, the adapters have failed to come up with variations on old riffs from the original that might have brought them vividly up-to-date. Ethan, like the character in the series, likes to wear disguises and change identities. But in an era when morphing is the latest in special effects, ripping off a mask is old hat and hopelessly anticlimactic. There are empty thrills, and some suspense. But throughout the film, we keep waiting for some trace of personality, some color in the dialogue, some hipness in the staging or in the characters' attitudes. And it's not there. De Palma, Cruise and company can't even deliver on the simple pleasures of the original. This is the opposite of mission accomplished.

Mission: Impossible is rated PG-13.


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