There has never been a bad Mission: Impossible movie. They’ve all been ridiculous. They’ve all strained credulity. They’ve all had dense, convoluted plots that don’t really stand up to any scrutiny. They’ve all functionally served as Tom Cruise stunt reels, the plots reduced to incoherent connective tissue propping up increasingly freaky stunt sequences. And yet they all fucking rule, even the second one, with its fantastical and unbound-by-physics John Woo fight scenes. The fifth installment, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, is out today. And even though I know nothing about the story, I do know it has Tom Cruise hanging onto the side of a fucking airplane when it’s taking off. That’s enough. I’m in.
This is one of the most dependable blockbuster franchises going in part because Cruise, as a producer and the obvious focal point, has great taste in directors. The first four were all big-movie visionaries in one way or another, guys with distinctive aesthetics and canny ideas about how to put together flashy and noisy entertainments: Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, and Brad Bird don’t quite top the Alien movies lineup of Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, but they’re not too far off, either. Cruise handed the fifth one to Christopher McQuarrie, who directed Jack Reacher and doesn’t really belong on that list. I’m a bit dubious there, but that guy did make The Way of the Gun, so maybe we’re okay.
The best M:I movie to date is unquestionably the fourth one, with the absolutely bugshit scene of Cruise climbing Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. But it’s fascinating to look back on the 1996 original, a time capsule from an era when it wasn’t necessarily considered a great investment to turn an old TV show into a mega-budget explosion-fest. At this point, these movies have pretty much transcended the source material in the popular imagination, and I couldn’t tell you anything about the show beyond its badass Lalo Schifrin theme music. But the first movie made a few risky decisions, utterly changing the tone and using one of the series’ heroes as the central villain. The movie might’ve honestly been better off if it had gotten rid of a few established plot elements and found a whole new title; at least then, it wouldn’t have had to deal with all the TV actors going public with how they thought the movie disrespected them. (To be fair, though, Mission: Impossible is a badass title. I can see why they wanted to keep that.)
These days, movie executives are terrified of pissing off the nerds who make up an important audience demographic; the entire point of the San Diego Comic-Con seems to be to reassure dweebs that blockbuster movies will stay as true as possible to their beloved childhood memories. (I’m about to spoil things here, but this is a 19-year-old movie, so chill.) But the movie, in its big twist, cast the TV show’s team leader Jim Phelps as the traitor who sold everybody out, allowing them to all be killed so he could sell a disc of IMF agents’ identities to the highest bidder. Peter Graves, who played Phelps on the show, was incensed, so they cast Jon Voight in the part instead. This is basically like making Captain Kirk the villain of a Star Trek movie, then recasting the part when William Shatner gets all pissy about it. You have to respect the gall.
Watching the movie now, it’s a bit of a mess. De Palma went into shooting it without a finished script, so the studio brought in a series of screenwriting heavyweights, including Chinatown OG Robert Towne, to work it over. The result is unsurprisingly glued-together and confused, though it may actually be the most straightforward of this deeply muddled series—in any case, De Palma didn’t seem to care much about the plot in the first place, being much more concerned with using a big stage to do his usual Hitchcock-tribute thing. Hitchcock is all over the movie: The extreme close-up camera angles, the mannered line readings, the one shot of a spiral staircase that screams Vertigo. Even the heavy and egregious green-screening in the finale looks a lot like North by Northwest.
I get the feeling Cruise must’ve hated that greenscreening. By the finale here, he’s hanging onto the roof of a high-speed train and being blown all over the place while Jean Reno flies a helicopter into the Chunnel behind him. The effects are dated, but it’s still an effective set piece: De Palma used a gigantic wind machine that still made things look pretty dangerous. But these days, Cruise would’ve insisted on hanging onto that train in real life. His absurdist stunts are the movie’s real hallmark, and the idea of him using a soundstage for one of those sequences feels quaint now.
That’s not the only thing that sets this one apart. Cruise looks so young here: closer to the baby-faced kid of Risky Business and The Color of Money than to the ice-faced psychopath daredevil of Ghost Protocol. His freaky intensity is on full display, but I’m not sure it’s his defining characteristic this time. And the movie’s use of technology is pretty hilarious: The computer interfaces would be laughed off the screen today, and it’s hard to picture a world where someone thinks it’s a good idea to cast Ving Rhames as a hacker. But all those severely ’90s touches, right down to the end-credits techno remix of the theme song (by U2’s rhythm section!), make this weirdly charming in an anachronistic sort of way. Nobody so much as throws a punch until the movie’s almost over! That’s weird!
And the action sequences really are spectacular. The opening team-being-dismantled scene is tense and elaborate and features Emilio Estevez getting his face impaled, so top marks for that one. Cruise running from exploding fishtanks is one of those early examples of his willingness to do crazy stunt shit. The finale, fake as it looks, gets over on sheer absurdity. And the movie’s centerpiece—the bit where Cruise hangs from a ceiling to steal a disc from a secure vault in CIA headquarters—is pretty much a heist-movie masterpiece. Because of the room’s insane security, nobody can speak above a whisper, and the resulting quiet gives the scene a primal tension. The bright-white vault itself looks like the spaceship from 2001. And on top of that, we get all these scenes of some poor government functionary running off to a bathroom to puke. One classic sequence like that is all an action movie really needs.
True, 1996 wasn’t a great year for blockbusters. Mission: Impossible wound up being the year’s third-highest grosser, and neither of the two movies that beat it has a scene anywhere near that good: Independence Day has the White House exploding, and Twister has the flying cow, but you don’t hold your breath while watching either today. Mission: Impossible is different, and that’s why there’s a new one in theaters right now.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
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