Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Brian De Palma: Mission: Impossible

Though not nearly as deconstructive as De Palma's '80s pastiche and travesty, Mission: Impossible feels like a classical, identifiably "'90s," art-for-art's-sake blockbuster, a bit of formal excess that uses the implausibility of the original TV series as an excuse to make no sense whatsoever. Unburdened from the need for logic, the film unfolds as an incessant series of double-crosses, grandiose setpieces and classical techniques. That coherent aesthetic propels the film long after its narrative becomes a mire of betrayal and intrigue.

Sent to intercept a diplomat selling U.S. secrets, the Impossible Missions Force team led by Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), stakes out an embassy with precision planning. But just as everything seems to be going perfectly, tiny cracks begin to form, and in short order sabotage leaves the entire team dead save for Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), who looks mighty suspicious when superiors inform him that they are hunting a mole in the organization. Betrayed by the true traitor and now suspected of treason by his bosses, Ethan has no choice but to flee and clear his name. These betrayals, real and imagined, are but the first in a film where the dead return and mirrored shots always reveal different perspectives.

As a work of pure style, Mission: Impossible is a tidy piece of nonsensical formalism. Its shots always work in the moment, such as the POV Steadicam movements through the embassy as characters speak to "Ethan," shots broken up by yet more POV voyeurism of the other agents scoping the floor and exterior. But when those shots are repeated in Ethan's reflections on what went wrong, the attention shifts to the background to reveal watchers of the watchmen. Later, the suspense of a falling knife works on two levels, as its own breathtaking moment of slow-motion tension and as a visual reminder of the blade that felled one of the members of Ethan's team.

Voyeuristic and identity imagery abounds: everyone is always monitoring the action on miniature surveillance cameras that the agents tote, and targets often speak to friends without realizing that it is really Ethan in a perfect face mask. Angles cant in moments of stress, and the multiple meanings of nearly every frame give De Palma's shots a depth of field that transcends the deliberately gnarled narrative.

No stranger to making films that serve as perpetual-motion aesthetic devices, De Palma nevertheless never got to do it with this much Hollywood backing, and watching Tom Cruise scrunch his face and dramatically demand answers for his crumbling life is even more entertaining when one considers that, 20 years earlier, the director would most likely have shoved William Finley out there to give a more unacceptably stiff performance. A solid cast of international heavy-hitters and domestic stars makes so little sense on paper one gets the suspsicion that De Palma grabbed all the actors he liked while peopel were still willing to work with him. I mean, in what other throwaway blockbuster will Tom Cruise rub elbows with a cast as eclectic Vanessa Redgrave, Emmanuelle Béart, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emilio Estevez, Jean Reno and Ving Rhames?

He also uses the sizable budget for some gloriously huge and ludicrous setpieces. When the IMF head (played by Henry Czerny with drawling menace, every word shaped into a missile before being fired) first confronts Ethan in a restaurant, Hunt escapes by using a gadget to blow up an aquarium, an explosion that sends one man flying across the room in clear defiance of gravity and enough water to submerge the Lower Ninth Ward. The climax occurs on-top of a TGV train speeding into blur as Ethan faces down a helicopter with not so much as a spitball, and wins.

But nothing beats he film's centerpiece, the much-parodied and copied break in of CIA headquarters in which Ethan must be lowered from the ceiling while making no noise, keeping the room temperature within acceptable range and not letting so much as a drop of sweat touch the sensored floor. It is a genuinely inspired scene, the black clothes Ethan wears as the stereotypical form of shadow war camouflage rendered almost comically useless in the brilliant white of the computer vault. Adding to the suspense is the good ol' split diopter to show Krieger (Reno) being distracted from keeping Ethan suspended by the presence of a rat crawling toward him in the ventilation duct. Judiciously timed close-ups, cutaways to the poisoned vault worker that obscure spatial and temporal relation to Ethan's hacking only for the repeated sidetracks to clarify the dimensions and a taut grip on editing make the setpiece truly thrilling even after years of overplay.

While it is not a major work in De Palma's filmography, Mission: Impossible nevertheless has aged much better than its successors, films that cater to the modernized, more chaotic action styles. For all its twists and turns, the film manages to deliver a clear message against the spy genre: De Palma and his writers, David Koepp and Chinatown scribe Robert Towne, present the villain's defection as the product of pride and refusal to give up power, of being angry that the nation might lead a more peaceful path in the wake of the Cold War and not need these trained assassins and agents anymore. The traitor actually says the president is running the country "without my permission," an arrogant broadside that suggests the power such agencies used to wield over government and the reluctance of those agencies to cede authority back to lawful bodies. That the actor who utters these lines is one of Hollywood's most prominent conservatives is but another facet of De Palma's sly politics even in this odd but entertaining franchise starter.

1 comment:

  1. Very intriguing read. Opened my eyes to some of de Palma's trademark lovable ludicrousness