post cold war

Why Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible is a Great Film

I was 13 years old in 1996 and I had never seen an episode of Mission: Impossible. I remember Brian De Palma’s film was one of the highly anticipated films of the year. My friends and I went to see it without much context to the characters or the storyline. By the time the movie ended, I was thrilled by the action sequences, but totally confused by the plot.

However, despite my 13 year old brain’s inability to process the film, I kept rewatching the film when it came out on VHS. Something about it enthralled me and I eventually concluded that it’s a wonderful film for the following reasons:

It was filmed beautifully. Like his 1987 The Untouchables, De Palma created a fantastic look that fit the film’s genre. De Palma, like most directors, is inspired by other great films and paid homage to Battleship Potemkin (1925) in The Untouchables stairwell shoot-out.  Mission: Impossible‘s plot was a mix of mystery, spy, detective, and action and I think de Palma was inspired by The Third Man (1949). De Palma made much use of the European setting and filmed with Dutch angles to create tension.

The story fit the post-Cold War era of the 90s. It seemed many people who enjoyed the TV show were angry that nearly the entire team in the film was killed at the beginning. Team leader Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) betrayed his team, Ethan Hunt, and his country for money and greed. The Cold War was over and terrorism wasn’t Hollywood’s new boogeyman yet. As Phelps said, “Well, you think about it Ethan, it was inevitable. No more cold war. No more secrets you keep from yourself. Answer to no one but yourself. Then, you wake up one morning and find out the President is running the country without your permission. The son of a bitch, how dare he. Then you realize, it’s over. You are an obsolete piece of hardware, not worth upgrading, you got a lousy marriage, and 62 grand a year.”

The action scenes were awesome and looked good, really good. Even by today’s standards, the climax action sequence on top of the train still looks phenomenal. It lacked the artificiality that plagues CGI (Star Wars prequels, anyone?). The combination of accurate lighting and high-force winds created an action sequence that made you actually focused on the action, not on the CGI. And of course, you can’t forget the classic scene of a wire-hanging Cruise attempting to break into CIA’s most secure vault. Ridiculous? Yes. Fun? Absolutely.

It has one of Danny Elfman’s strongest soundtracks. I’m not usually an Elfman fan, but his action cues and limited use of the classic theme was incredibly effective. Other than the film’s beginning and ending, Lalo Schifrin’s theme was used only two other times: after the CIA vault break-in and before Hunt blew up the helicopter with the gum; thus, emphasizing the “impossibility” of the missions.