Mission: Impossible

It isn’t until Mission: Impossible is almost finished that you realize it never actually started. This, I hope, will be the emptiest spectacle of the season (God help us if they get any emptier) — a pointless, aggressive non-movie to rival Batman Forever. Summer blow-outs like this can bring out the Chicken Little in those who care about film: The sky is falling! Cinema is dead — long live the corporate thrill-machines!

The director, Brian De Palma, is a past master at operating thrill-machines (Blow Out, Carrie, The Untouchables, a host of others). So I don’t understand why this one crashes so often. There are a handful of witty De Palma touches, but after a while it gets depressing to sit there and count all the De Palma-isms for lack of anything else to hold your interest. It’s like hearing sporadic Jimi Hendrix riffs scattered amid two hours of Muzak.

Mission: Impossible has a headache-inducing plot that I’d just as soon not explore in depth. Secret agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), working for veteran spy Jim Phelps (Jon Voight, in for Peter Graves), gets caught up in a scramble for a valuable computer disk, and some agents trust him, even if he doesn’t trust them …. I can feel the pounding behind my left eye. I don’t remember why the disk is valuable, and I don’t care.

Nor, evidently, did De Palma, or the screenwriters (Robert Towne, Steven Zaillian, and David Koepp are credited), or anyone else involved in the movie. Mission: Impossible is vague and dull in an infuriating way: Nothing is at stake, nobody on the screen means anything to us. (At least Twister found a few seconds for characterization — banal characterization, granted, but still.) It starts loudly and confidently and maintains that pitch, but it’s all bluff.

De Palma has rounded up a stellar international cast (Vanessa Redgrave, Emmanuelle Béart, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jean Reno, Ving Rhames), only to forget about them or to kill them off rudely; any movie that loses Kristin Scott Thomas in the first reel obviously has no priorities. Mostly, De Palma sticks with his unexciting star, who is also the co-producer, unfortunately. Cruise himself is a bit of a machine, but De Palma can’t rewire him. Cruise has only one thing on his hard drive: cockiness.

Two sequences stand out: a nail-biting entry into a heavily-guarded computer room, and the outrageously phallic climax involving a train, a helicopter, and a tunnel. De Palma pumps up the action the way he always does, turning suspense into a sly joke. But too often the action simply collapses into bombastic special effects that your cousin Floyd could direct, given $70 million and cutting-edge computer pizzazz. De Palma inserts his first joke at the end of the opening credits, when his name appears over an image of a tape famously self-destructing. But the joke may be on him. This Mission results in the self-destruction of a great film artist for the sake of Hollywood, commerce, and star ego. It’s a mission De Palma shouldn’t have chosen to accept.

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