‘Mission: Impossible’ Revisited

         
 

30 April 2012| No Comments     by Sean Chavel

 

When it first came out, nearly every audience that came out of Mission: Impossible (1996) agreed that the action sequences were dazzling and yet, in more or less words, weren’t exactly sure what the plot was about. There was this nagging reference to the NOC list – who had it, who wanted it. But it ran roughshod over this question: What was it?

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt, left; Jon Voight as Jim Phelps, right

Later when I saw it, and since I saw it again recently, it suddenly became clear. The NOC list is actually simple: It’s a list of American comprehensive covert agents in Eastern Europe. Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) and Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) must keep the NOC list from falling into the wrong hands.

Hunt is a survivor in a Prague mission that goes fatally wrong, and is immediately “disavowed” by CIA Chief Kittridge (Henry Czerny) who suspects him as a mole working for another secret service operation. Agent Claire (Emmanuelle Beart), a beauty sex deploy, is the only one left besides Ethan.

The problem is that director Brian DePalma (“The Untouchables”) is a virtuoso technician, but blasé when it comes to story clarity. He treats the scene transitions and dialogue setups with such indifference that the plot info came off as too vague in the first viewing. If DePalma had drawn his camera in, or had given the actors a lingering moment to chew on the revealing dialogue, we wouldn’t have missed as much in the first viewing.

Listen closely enough, when Jim Phelps listens to the top secret assignment video played during the opening credits. “A [traitor] has stolen one half of a CIA NOC list, a record of all our deep-cover agents working in Eastern Europe,” continuing, “For security reasons, the NOC list is divided in two,” further explaining the code names and real names are matchless without the second list.

Vanessa Redgrave as Max

Jim briefs his team in a board meeting, finishing the scene by explaining what would happen if the list got out into the open. Listen closely again when Ethan meets arms dealer Max (Vanessa Redgrave), and you’re caught up on the plot.

Chief Kittridge is a tough, unforgiving agent. Max is a sinister arms dealer. Both are not friends to Ethan. This sounds obvious, but I point it out because on the first viewing it might pass you by that Max is an arms dealer, because she’s regarded with such nonchalance. The name of the real mole is Job (as in a reference to the Bible, particularly point to passage 3:14). BTW, Job’s identity is revealed on the train scene at the end, via spy eyeglasses.

The great impossible mission is to break into the IMF (Impossible Missions Force) mainframe, a department located inside CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia, to retrieve the NOC list. Ethan will set up a would-be corrupt trade with Max, but it’s really just his way to trap her, have her arrested, and clear his own name at the end. Ethan retains two other rogue agents to assist him, played by Ving Rhames (“Pulp Fiction”) as Luther and Jean Reno (“The Professional”) as Franz.

Three classic set pieces occupy “Mission: Impossible.” The first is an exploding aquarium-restaurant in Prague with a great slow-motion shot of rushing fish tank water. There is the climactic sequence of Ethan hanging onto dear life on a speeding train in the Chunnel tunnel connecting Britain to France (it outdoes anything you saw in “North by Northwest,” although it does giddily develop into the most impossible thing ever). But really, the centerpiece heist sequence, is one of the great action sequences ever assembled. And how unlikely, because it is a silent action set piece.

It’s the Langley heist which requires Ethan to do a ceiling drop into a high security vault to download the NOC list from a computer mainframe. The vault is heat and sound sensitive – no sounds, no sweat, or else the alarm will go off. It’s a trapeze act for Ethan (notice his dance shoes), falling head-first into a white sterilized room that’s like the menagerie from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It’s visually clean, so sleek, so antiseptic, so contrasted between black and white colors. In other words, immaculate. And, in contrast, Ethan the intruder of this vault space, is inches away from error. This whole bit is a nail-biter of suspense. It’s also as visually elegant as a Kubrick film. The slow-motion falling of the knife at the end of the scene is a homage nod to the bone flying into the air, wiping into a futuristic space satellite in “2001.”

The whole flick is so @#!*% sleek, that’s why it has stood out for so many years. It somehow has gotten better with each viewing once you’ve listened in and picked up on some key phrases – the more you read into it, the more enriched it is. The twists and double-crosses are humdingers.

Cruise was at his most effortless cool, Beart’s lips were pretty-pouty back then instead of fish-pouty today, Voight did a helluva job, Reno was sly as a grumpy colluder, Rhames was a hip black cat. The syncopated theme music is, well, a more than probable adrenaline pumper. This 1996 entry spawned three sequels, including the best mission ever with “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” which arrived on DVD and BluRay this past week.

Film Cousins: “License to Kill” (1989); “Mission: Impossible 2” (2000); “Mission: Impossible 3” (2006); “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” (2011).

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of flickminute.com, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.

 

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