May 2330, 1996
Great start, but the movie keeps fighting its own internal logic.
Directed by Brian De Palma
A Paramount Pictures Release
A kick-ass trailer can make you nervous. It sets up two opposed expectations the movie will be good or lame that you can believe at the same time. This time is brief, of course, usually no more than a couple of weeks, since the movie inevitably comes out and the suspense is resolved.
Mission: Impossible had this kind of delicious tension going for it. Its trailer is a flat-out beautiful piece of work, full of explosive excesses, burning fuses and shots of Tom Cruise looking buff and sorta buzzcut ( la Keanu in Speed), all set to the rockin' beat of the famous theme music. You know the movie can't live up to this kind of promise, but you hope for the best anyway.
It begins with Emilio Estevez as the electronics whiz, watching via monitor an impossible-mission-in-progress almost as if he were watching a segment from the TV series. Cruise plays Ethan, the Martin Landau master-of-disguises part, and Emmanuelle Beart is an exotic-female type (a less cool reworking of Barbara Bain's part), bloodied and looking dead in order to terrorize the mark to give up crucial info. When the mission is accomplished, the camera pulls back, the players break down the set and the theme music kicks in (this music punches up the action at three significant moments, interrupting Danny Elfman's relatively sedate score). "We got it!" says Ethan, confident and thrilled. The opening credits roll, essentially as another version of the trailer, even faster and smarter.
The film can't keep up this pace. Its next scene reveals a basic inability to manage its action-pic imperatives alongside the TV show's resourceful, low-budget-driven machinations. Jim Phelps (transmutated from Peter Graves to Jon Voight, looking a little too tired and lumpy-faced to be as edgy as the head of this crack team needs to be) is getting the "this tape will self-destruct in five seconds" message. It's the familiar lead to the plot and introduction of characters. But wait. There's a glaring contradiction here. As the voice of authority (Henry Czerny) offers Phelps the standard "out" ("... this mission, if you choose to accept it"), the operation is already underway. There are no shots of Phelps looking through the pile of his Impossible Missions Force (IMF) dossiers, deciding whom he'll tap for this adventure. Instead, the crew's off-screen and in place, awaiting his arrival in Prague. It seems that there are no choices here, just contracts, signed in advance.
This is obviously a small point. But it's indicative of the movie's willingness to disregard its own internal logic and follow instead a certain inexorable, externally dictated logic. Big-budget movie conventions rule: for instance, when Ethan goes to meet a contact at a restaurant where the decor consists of numerous, large aquariums, you know you'll be seeing some serious tank-bursting footage, glass and water and fish flying everywhere (in slow motion, it goes without saying). This makes sense, because you've seen it before on a smaller scale in other movies, and this movie is, at least in part, concerned with upping the action genre's visual ante (it's directed by Brian De Palma, who comes with a rep for virtuoso frame-compositions, no matter what you think of his homaging to/lifting from Hitchcock).
There's an interesting question raised by MI which has very little to do with whether it's a good or bad movie (or whether it will make money, which it will, thanks to Cruise). It has to do with what's "possible" and "impossible." More precisely, it has to do with how art (popular or otherwise) shows what's impossible, which presumes you can think it up to begin with, meaning it's not impossible (there's a potential existential swirl here, if you want to go there). These parameters have necessarily been changed with the transition from small to big screen. The TV show had to contend with material limits (which inspired numerous clever, even campy moments: Bain knew how to work her eyebrows; Cruise doesn't do camp, the current Vanity Fair cover notwithstanding). But the movie, co-produced by Cruise and Paula Wagner, can afford to show off.
This showing off illustrates the paradox of making the impossible look possible. MI does some of this well and some badly: the London and Prague locations look sensational; the Eurotrash henchmen look silly. The scene (you've seen it in the trailer) in which Ethan is suspended and sweating over the all-white, super-alarm-rigged floor at the CIA's Langley HQ, where a single drop from his brow will set off the system and get him and his team killed absolutely, is pretty deliriously anxiety-making. But the inevitable e-mail scene, when Ethan makes a portentous connection, mixes retarded computer-screen images and "a-ha!" moments from The Specialist and Disclosure (those moments where characters are a few steps behind viewers, who don't have to pretend that they haven't seen this plot before in another movie).
Which brings me back to the trailer. Someone was able to put together an exciting set of images and ideas (a couple of minutes' worth, anyway). As movie and advertising budgets keep growing, it occurs to me that eventually it'll make more sense in both an internal and external logic kind of way to make trailers that stand alone, that promise everything and never have to deliver anything. And what's impossible stays that way.