‘M:I’ flashback: ‘Mission: Impossible’ (1996) is more brainy than brawny as series launches (Movie review)

M

ay is the month of “M:I,” as we look back at the six “Mission: Impossible” films from May 2-10. First up is the original “Mission: Impossible” (1996):

“Mission: Impossible” is a type of film you have to pay close attention to in order to follow the plot, the strategy of the hero, and the scheme of the villain. But it rewards close attention, treating us to a boffo train-and-helicopter action sequence to close things out. Continuing from the 1960s and 1980s TV series (although it’s not necessary to watch those to know what’s happening), the cinematic series – at six films and counting – introduces us to a new undercover agent, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise).

Cruise has since used this role to solidify his action-star bona fides. This first entry features the iconic, oft-parodied sequence where Hunt infiltrates a stark-white vault at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. He hangs by a wire mere inches above the ground, and we know if a drop of sweat hits the floor, alarms will sound. Cruise is known for doing his own wire work (wherein wires are later digitally erased), so it’s appropriate that wires are central to this sequence.

Director Brian De Palma gives “M:I” an old-school feel with his usual leisurely pacing (by modern action standards) and old-world settings, including gorgeously brick-laden Prague.

It’s masterfully edited for tension by “Star Wars” and “Empire Strikes Back” veteran Paul Hirsch, who intersperses Jean Reno’s Krieger – who holds the other end of the wire — being distracted by a rat, Ving Rhames’ Luther digitally tracking a CIA agent from his van setup, and the agent (Rolf Saxon) nearly entering the vault only to have bouts of nausea and turn around.

Director Brian De Palma gives “M:I” an old-school feel — appropriate for source material that originated in the ’60s – with his usual leisurely pacing (by modern action standards) and old-world settings, including gorgeously brick-laden Prague.

But what really defines this movie is the screenplay by David Koepp (“Jurassic Park”) and Robert Towne, working from a story by Koepp and Steven Zaillian. You can’t let your mind wander or you’ll be left in the dust, but it’s engaging if you lock in. After the initial mission is spelled out by group leader Jim Phelps (Jon Voigt, continuing a role from the two TV series), things go spectacularly wrong. Then Hunt is accused by a higher-up boss, Kittridge (Henry Czerny), of being a mole. So Hunt has to work on his own to expose the actual mole, and avoid Kittridge, and pretend to bargain with the villains (led by Vanessa Redgrave’s Max) who truly do want to acquire the NOC list (a list of undercover agents). Whew.

Continuing the enjoyable throwback vibe, Czerny speaks in a deliberate, noir-detective manner. And French actress Emmanuelle Béart plays pouty-lipped Claire, Phelps’ wife who is both a fellow agent and a femme fatale. As Hunt holes up in a safehouse in London, we’re not sure if he should trust Claire. It’s seems doubtful she married the older and less attractive Phelps out of pure love, after all. Meanwhile, his two new recruits – Krieger and Luther – are “disavowed” like Hunt himself. (By the way, the agency they work for is called the IMF – Impossible Missions Force – although I had to look that up.)

This is remarkably dense stuff for a blockbuster film, but I appreciate that Koepp, Towne and De Palma give us time to absorb it all. They don’t blast past the plotting and into action sequences. On the downside, there’s not much action here for an action movie.

But the grand finale wins us over as Hunt pursues the villain across the top of a high-speed train in Britain, and if the high speed is a filmmaking illusion, it’s a damn good one. Meanwhile, the collaborator aims to pick up the villain via helicopter, and the train keeps going through tunnels. The green-screen special effects aren’t flawless, but they won’t pull you out of the thrills.

At a digestible 110 minutes, the first “Mission: Impossible” will be too heavy on the spy intrigue and too light on the action for some viewers. But in retrospect, it’s a rather fascinating movie: It’s part of a series that’s still going strong today, yet it’s so old-fashioned that action films aren’t made like this anymore.

Schedule of reviews:

Saturday, May 2: “Mission: Impossible” (1996)

Sunday, May 3: “Mission: Impossible II” (2000)

Wednesday, May 6: “Mission: Impossible III” (2006)

Thursday, May 7: “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” (2011)

Saturday, May 9: “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” (2015)

Sunday, May 10: “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” (2018)

Also of interest: Shaune’s rankings of the six “Mission: Impossible” films