It’s been probably close to a decade since the last time that I saw Mission: Impossible, and the one thing I’ve always remembered about it is that it’s a film that’s difficult to understand. The series of life-like masks that star Tom Cruise finds himself wearing throughout is but the cherry on top of an already convoluted plot. I was but a child at that first viewing, however; my adult perception should be able to sort out complicated plot lines about stolen spy lists and double-crosses and hidden identities with far less trouble, right? Yes and no. The movie is no less complicated than I remember it being, but it’s clear to me now that the twisting storyline is no work of mastery – it’s a house of cards, albeit designed by M.C. Escher.
At the outset, the Mission: Impossible gang – headed by CEO Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) and led by COO Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) – are given a mission to infiltrate a fancy dinner party in order to apprehend a criminal. There are two lists in existence which detail the code and actual names of undercover agents working around the globe which, in the wrong hands, could jeopardize countless lives. It is the team’s job to photograph the suspect and capture him before letting the information out, and they must do this in the most ridiculous way possible. Hunt is forced to do his master-of-disguise routine in order to imitate an old Southern senator, while the other team members scan the crowds with x-ray sunglasses (because who doesn’t wear giant sunglasses as a high-class soiree?) or climb on top of the elevator in order to hack into its computer system. Needless to say, the job goes spectacularly awry and it appears that everybody except for Hunt has been taken out.
As luck would have it, the mission was a decoy, now Hunt looks like a killer and something-something Job #314. What, that doesn’t mean anything to you? I think I’ve described it as the characters in the movie did verbatim. What else do you need? Through absurd coincidence that I won’t reveal here, Hunt comes to be in contact with “Max”, who in turns informs him that the real list of names is housed at the CIA headquarters in Langley, VA. It would seem that that means the information is safe, but Hunt realizes he has to break into the Central Intelligence Agency to steal the information – don’t ask me why. In order to do this, he assembles a new team from scratch, although who the hell they are or where the hell they came from is hardly given a thought. One of them knows a lot about computers! That’s all you need to know.
This is the point where it finally occurred to me that the movie is only feigning sincerity. It wants you to get invested in the mystery, but there’s nothing stable to grab hold to – and there’s no better way to illustrate this than in the sudden appearance of a new team of compatriots who are willing to go rogue with Hunt without a second thought. Of course we the viewers are suspicious of each one of them, as Hunt himself would be if he were more than just a dumb movie character. Given that the film comes from director Brian De Palma, the man behind The Untouchables – and later, Snake Eyes – this tendency toward epic ridiculousness should have been expected. If you can let yourself get caught up in the thrill of the action and the iconic score, the movie might be cheesy fun, but it’s difficult to shut off your critical faculties when the picture purports to be intricate.
In the most famous and most idiotic scene, Hunt and his new team attempt to break into a room at CIA headquarters which is so sensitive that the body heat of an unauthorized person in the room is enough to set off alarms. This is in addition to floor panels sensitive to weight changes, sound-sensitive triggers, and laser beams just below the 50-foot high air shaft because, I dunno, I guess the CIA kinda suspected somebody might try to break in through that air shaft. Hunt’s team is aware that any of these could set the sirens blaring, but they’re willing to break in nonetheless. First things first, they strap a machine onto the vent to block the path of the lasers without setting off the alarm. Because items like that totally exist and are easy to access by persons who have been disavowed by the spy agency they work for. Then Hunt is silently lowered into the room by a cable, held taut by one of his team members. I guess the “high-tech electronic pulley system” was too much to ask for after the expense of that laser-stopper. Despite describing the advanced temperature sensing technology present within this room just moments prior, Hunt is able to enter without detection. The camera cuts to a thermometer beeping up and down by a tenth of a degree at a time, though again this makes no sense. And don’t even get me started on the “rat incident”, wherein a rat startles the man holding Hunt’s cable, causing him to temporarily drop our hero – cutting back inside the shaft a moment later, the rat is dead and our human pulley is able to continue his job undisturbed. Do I even want to know what it was he did to euthanize the creature without being able to use his hands?
Perhaps you think I’m being unfairly critical. Perhaps you expect that I am moments away from going to the IMDb page for the movie in order to list the numerous goofs as marks against the film (trains run on the left track in England and France, duh!) in my frenzied effort to tear it down. Yes, it’s possible that I may be taking these minor issues with a bit too much seriousness, but to quote my review for Twilight: Eclipse, here’s the thing: the movie does not take this seriously at all. You can’t make a movie about spies and not care about continuity or reason. A spy is a gumshoe on steroids – any movie about the profession should be able to convincingly evoke an air of legitimate mystery and tension throughout, but this is something that Mission: Impossible fails to accomplish. It’s akin to making a movie about lawyers without understanding anything about the law (which reminds me, I really need to write my review for Suing the Devil soon), or a movie about doctors without understanding medicine. Can it be done? Sure it can, but the audience can tell when you’re making up gibberish.
Mission: Impossible is a lot of gibberish and flashy action sequences. That’s okay to an extent, but there comes a point where one starts to drown in the shallowness.