May the Force Be with You

The plot of the new movie Mission: Impossible probably makes sense, but I wouldn't swear to it. I'll give it the benefit of the doubt because it was cowritten by Chinatown author Robert Towne, a veteran screenwriter with impressive credits. But to tell you the truth, the damn thing shot by so fast that I gave up on trying to follow it about a quarter of the way into the film; in fact, I can't remember ever seeing a more flickering flick. Director Brian De Palma launches this Tom Cruise missile with a bang and keeps it hurtling forward at such a breakneck clip that when it flames out at the end of its 110-minute running time, you'll check your watch thinking that it couldn't have lasted half that long. Talk about going ballistic -- Mission: Impossible makes Speed look slower than a Greyhound bus stuck in traffic.

Best as I can piece it together, Mission: Impossible's story line boils down to spy vs. spy: Ethan Hunt (a muscled-up Tom Cruise back in cocky Top Gun mode) survives a botched assignment that costs several of his Impossible Mission Force cohorts their lives. Turns out there's a mole at the company, and the bollixed operation was really an elaborate trick designed to expose his identity. But nobody was supposed to die. As Hunt's accusatory supervisor Kittridge (The Boys of St. Vincent's shady Henry Czerny) points out, however, Cruise's character is the only member of the team still breathing, so Hunt becomes the prime suspect. Of course we know Hunt can't be the villain -- he's Tom Cruise, for crying out loud. Despite the filmmakers' total disregard for character development, we pull for good-guy-turned-renegade Hunt anyway as he flees his former employers and simultaneously baits a convoluted trap for the real double agent who set him up.

More fingers tap away at keyboards than pull triggers in thrillers these days, and Mission: Impossible is no exception. Computers A from a tightly guarded CIA mainframe to a host of sophisticated laptops A have replaced guns as the essential tools of the espionage trade; Hunt uncovers the traitor's alias and makes contact with the turncoat's arms-dealing benefactor via the Internet. And the film's MacGuffin turns out to be -- what else? -- a computer disk. This new Mission's high-tech toys make the gadgetry from the Sixties TV series of the same name look primitive by comparison. It seemed like every episode of the old Mission: Impossible show included at least one shot of a guy in a van (usually Greg Morris's Barney Collier, the team's techno-geek) monitoring a wiretap; in keeping with the times, the movie updates that character into Ving Rhames's computer hacker, whose versatile little PC eavesdrops on conversations, sets off electronic fire alarms, downloads classified files, blocks arms negotiations, and keeps tabs on his own coconspirators as well as a bugged CIA employee. Casting a virile black male as a thoughtful electronics whiz no longer has quite as much stereotype-busting impact as it did in the Sixties, when the TV show introduced Morris's character, but it's still a nice touch.

The only character from the TV show to make the transition to the big screen is IMF team leader Jim Phelps (Jon Voight, taking over the Peter Graves role), and the filmmakers assign him a fate that fans of the series will find wickedly ironic. Nevertheless, the movie retains several reassuring similarities to its small-screen predecessor. For example, elevator shafts and air-conditioning ducts still serve as critical conduits for sneaky humans. Sure, they're a little harder to get into and out of these days, what with electronic fingerprint identification, voice-recognition devices, and protective laser-beam grids blocking the way. But a resourceful spook such as Ethan Hunt circumvents such mechanical nuisances as easily as the TV show's Phelps negotiated magnetic card readers and touch-tone keypads.

Both the Sixties Phelps and the Nineties Hunt rely on outwitting their adversaries rather than outgunning them; Hunt draws a weapon only once, and even then he doesn't fire it. He favors clever deception over brute violence -- disguises figure prominently in his bag of tricks. Did television's Mission: Impossible make it through a single episode without Martin Landau's Rollin Hand donning an incredibly lifelike latex mask and impersonating a bad guy? The movie gets a lot of mileage out of that tried-and-true ruse as well, although Hunt's deployment of the dodge during the film's climax feels a bit too pat. You see it coming, even if Hunt's prey doesn't.

But in the post-Cold War era, Hunt finds it a lot tougher to distinguish the good guys from the bad ones than did his TV predecessors. Say what you want about communism, it sure made for easily identifiable villains. (To judge by the TV show, somewhere in Eastern Europe there must have been an assembly line turning out a never-ending stream of commie-sympathizing puppet dictators with epaulet-studded uniforms.) Bewilderment, confusion, and paranoia dog Hunt. His own government believes him to be an Aldrich Ames-style rat. Welcome to life in the Nineties.

Who better to guide an action hero over such treacherous psychological terrain than Brian De Palma, a veteran director of thrillers drenched in moral ambiguity (Carlito's Way), secret identities (Body Double, Dressed to Kill), and political intrigue (Blow Out)? The flat-looking, conventionally plotted small-screen Mission: Impossible never benefited from the expertise of a showman half as talented as De Palma. Consciously eschewing expository character development for frenzied plot twists and kinetic action, the director pulls out all the stops. Striking visuals gush at the viewer from all angles, building up to a gotta-see-it-to-believe-it finale wherein a chopper chases a choo-choo through a tunnel. De Palma has always enjoyed a reputation for masterminding bravura set pieces (the Grand Central Station escalator shootout sequence in Carlito's Way comes to mind), but this stunt tops them all. It amps up the energy level of the film to a standard few other action movies even conceive of. This movie may be popularly perceived as a Tom Cruise vehicle (the actor not only plays the lead, he also coproduced), but it's director De Palma who emerges as the true star.

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