Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.20: Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 69 (B)

Everyone needs a paycheck. Sometimes, great directors have to take a “one for them, one for me” mentality in order to get a pet project made. When Tom Cruise, a fan of the original Mission: Impossible TV series, approached Brian De Palma to direct the film adaptation, the result was one of De Palma’s least personal films (only The Untouchables could really compare). But that doesn’t mean it’s without merit, nor that De Palma isn’t able to inject some personality into the film. Mission: Impossible might not go down as one of the great Brian De Palma movies, but it has more than its share of pleasures.

Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is a member of the IMF American spy group, his particular team being led by Jim Phelps (Jon Voight in a role originated by Peter Graves). When Phelps and the rest of the team (Kristin Scott Thomas, Emilio Estevez, and Ingeborga Dapkunaite in cameo roles) are killed on a mission in Prague, Ethan and Claire (Emmanuelle Beart) are suspected of murder by IMF director Kittredge (Henry Czerny) and go on the run in Europe. Hoping to find the real culprit by trading with arms dealer “Max” (Vanessa Redgrave), the two team up with former IMF agents Luther (Ving Rhames) and Krieger (Jean Reno), steal a list of undercover agents from CIA headquarters in Langley, and try to clear their names.

It should be said up front that the plot of Mission: Impossible is borderline incoherent and makes no sense whatsoever. This isn’t necessarily a drawback, however: the Mission: Impossible series has more or less become an excuse to string stunning set-pieces together and allow the director (De Palma, John Woo for part two, J.J. Abrams for part three, and Brad Bird for last year’s series-topping entry) to explore personal interests and themes.

De Palma, ever the expert craftsman, uses the big budget to his advantage to explore his pet theme of voyeurism. In a film about spies, it could be difficult to separate the narrative from De Palma’s active interests, but the use of surveillance has a voyeuristic thrill in the first Mission: Impossible. More importantly, when things go wrong, there’s a feeling of helplessness as a character (usually Hunt) can do nothing but watch as things fall apart and his friends die. When Jack (Estevez) gets stuck in an elevator shaft, there’s nothing his team can do but listen to him die. When Jim and the rest of the team get ambushed, Hunt is too far away to save his friends, but often just close enough to watch them die; this leads to a fleeting glance with another De Palma theme, guilt (although that’s mostly cleared away for the big set-pieces). Most importantly, who watches who and when determines the outcome of the action set-pieces of the film, from the opening ambush to the grand finale on the TGV train.

The script by David Koepp, Steve Zaillian, and Robert Towne doesn’t give the cast or De Palma too much to work with for depth: Beart’s character could be a sexy femme fatale, but that’s glanced over. The emotional devastation of the team’s death doesn’t really hit, and while one character has a surprisingly nasty death for a PG-13 movie, there’s not much insight as to what any of it means the way there might be in other De Palma films. As for the other characters: there are some fun performances in the supporting cast (Voight, Rhames, Redgrave, Reno), but not much depth of character. And while Tom Cruise is perfectly solid as Hunt, it is not one of the great Tom Cruise performances (there are many, I don’t care what anyone says). Perhaps it’s a bit much to expect in a blockbuster film that’s solely about stringing set-pieces together, but other Cruise collaborations with great directors usually yield great results: Scorsese for The Color of Money, Kubrick for Eyes Wide Shut, P.T. Anderson for Magnolia, Michael Mann for Collateral, Cameron Crowe for Jerry Maguire, and Spielberg for Minority Report (an example of a Cruise blockbuster film with depth of theme and character).

But while Cruise the frequently underrated actor is mostly just in movie-star charisma mode, there’s something else Cruise doesn’t get enough credit for: he could probably be a professional stuntman if he wanted. As with many of his action films, Cruise does most of his own stunts in Mission: Impossible, and the results are pretty incredible (he topped himself in part four with the building climb).

De Palma, for his part doesn’t use his film-centric worldview too much (although there’s a clever bit of magic that all but acknowledges the bait-and-switch nature of the plot), but he goes all-out on the set-pieces (other than the fun but impersonal special-effects finale on the train)- he uses slow-motion to emphasize certain stunts or movements. His grip on how to use Hitchcockian tension, slowly eking out suspense in deliberately paced set-pieces, is masterful, as always. He uses great locations in Prague and the rest of Europe to his advantage. Best of all is the famous Langley break-in, one of the most stunning set-pieces in his filmography. De Palma and the screenwriters set-up how utterly impossible the ensuing heist is supposed to be, but that only makes the airtight, you-can-hear-a-pin-drop results all the more astounding. Added bonus: De Palma gets a film reference in the heist, which is basically a high-tech homage to Jules Dassin’s masterful heist movie Rififi, because it wouldn’t be a De Palma film without an incredible extended homage in there.

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