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Sunday, July 16, 2023

"I started with classical theater, and it’s rare that you get to say some of the stuff Kittridge gets to say in a genre film," Henry Czerny tells The New York Times' Kyle Buchanan. Here's more from Buchanan's article:
Mission: Impossible” is a franchise known for its big-budget, death-defying stunts, but sometimes there’s nothing more suspenseful than a good old-fashioned, face-to-face staredown.

That’s what the actor Henry Czerny brought to the first film in the series, released in 1996. As the officious Kittridge, director of the Impossible Mission Force, Czerny sneered at star Tom Cruise with such delicious condescension that their tetchy tête-à-tête in a Prague restaurant — shot at deliriously canted angles by the director Brian De Palma — became one of the film’s highlights.

Six films later, in the new “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One,” Kittridge has returned to sneer and spar some more with Cruise’s superagent, Ethan Hunt. Christopher McQuarrie, who directed the last three movies in the franchise, said he had long intended to have Czerny return to the fold.

“Henry’s Kittridge is not a villain,” McQuarrie wrote in an email. “He’s not even an antagonist. He’s a worthy adversary, walking the line between a guy we love to hate and want to like. He’s a bastard, but he’s a bastard we want on our side.”

When the 64-year-old Czerny boarded the new film, he was surprised at how fluid the production was: McQuarrie and Cruise knew the action set pieces they wanted to include, but the scenes stitching them together were still up for grabs. Much of the exposition that would set up those sequences eventually fell to Czerny, who can deliver stakes-setting information with musical grace.

If that’s the distinctive flavor that Czerny can provide, he’s happy to deliver it. “I binged on ‘The Bear’ last night,” Czerny said during a video call last week, “and this image of ‘Mission: Impossible’ keeps coming up as a beautiful French dish, in that everything has been reduced so the flavor is profoundly intricate, unique, separate.”

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation, held before SAG-AFTRA went on strike.

Chris McQuarrie has said that ever since he took over directing duties on this franchise, he’s been looking for the right time to bring you back. Were you aware you were under consideration?

I had no idea. As a matter of fact, when I got the call, it was 25 years almost to the day when Brian De Palma and Tom decided I was going to be their Kittridge. In January 2020, McQ wanted to talk to me about bringing Kittridge back. I thought it was a little bit of a joke, and he said, “No, seriously.” So I spoke to him the next day and he said, “We’re not sure what we’re doing with the script yet.” I thought, “Yeah, you’ve got a script in the bottom drawer somewhere. Come on, you’re just not telling me what you want to do with the guy.” But the script is very fluid.

What did they tell you about why they brought you back?

I think he was brought in as a burr that we remember in Ethan’s shoe. The original idea was that he represented the bureaucracy — the C.E.O. or whatever — that doesn’t like the asset to be human. So with Ethan, he’s the world’s asset. And the American people who Kittridge, to a certain extent, believes he represents, they’re his shareholders. He doesn’t like that there’s one person they’re beholden to. However, who else are you going to call?

How has he changed since we saw him in the first film?

I asked McQ, “OK, what do you think he’s been doing for 25 years?” It wasn’t really bothersome to McQ that there wasn’t an answer for that, and I was somewhat taken aback. At the same time, McQ has such a wide focus, and those particulars are allowed to be brought to the screen by the actor: “You do your homework, you let me know and we’ll sort it out, and we’ll actually do several versions of what you think he’s been doing.”

So before I arrived in London for my fitting on a film that really had no script at the time, we had an idea of what we were going to do. I figured Kittridge got schooled by Ethan 25 years ago, so he figured, “OK, I’m going to work in all the other agencies in Washington because I don’t like being schooled by somebody who’s younger than me.” So I think he’s worked everywhere he could at as high a level as he could, and came back to run the Impossible Mission Force a great deal more edified. He has a sadder but wiser knowledge of how the American intelligence machine works and who it’s working for.

How did things evolve with the character?

McQ has a process that can be really intimidating for actors who haven’t done this before. What I’m used to after working on a show [he has appeared in several series, including “Revenge”] for a few years is you’ve got two takes, maybe, because we’ve got 12 pages to do today. You’ve got to pick a couple of things and we’ve got to move on. But with McQ, something will come out based on what you’ve packed and he’ll start adjusting it. He’ll allow you to go in a certain direction. And then you’ll go back and reshoot it if you want.

So what he was after, we realized, was this kind of older-brother thing going on between them. Kittridge is clearly trying to keep Ethan in line, doesn’t want to let him have all the marbles, but there’s a profound respect for him as well. And McQ was allowing those flavors to show up in plenty of takes so that when he got into the editing room, he can hone the scene and it’ll have those flavors distilled.

What do you think makes your face-offs with Tom so delicious?

When you’re working with Tom, there’s a focus that’s available to you, and you can disappear. You just can open the tap and see what comes out. Kittridge and Ethan obviously are coming at the issue from different sides. Kittridge believes that he’s operating on behalf of his shareholders, as is Ethan. But Kittridge’s personal investment in success is deeper than Ethan’s: Ethan’s idea of success is that we all are better off, Kittridge’s idea of success is that we are better off.

You seem to take such delight in his lines.

Oh God, right? Like, why wouldn’t you? It’s luscious stuff. I started with classical theater, and it’s rare that you get to say some of the stuff Kittridge gets to say in a genre film. Some of the stuff is beautifully written. And there’s a cadence that comes out that apparently is somewhat unique to Henry Czerny, I found out.

Over the course of your career, you’ve played your fair share of exposition-delivering characters. How do you make those lines juicy?

By finding the absolute elemental flavors in the intent. What am I trying to convey? What are the stakes if I don’t convey it? And what am I going to do to convey it clearly and as quickly or as profoundly as I can? And that creates the cadence.

A perfect example of that is your centerpiece scene from the first “Mission: Impossible.”

I will tell you, and Tom will corroborate me on this, some of these scenes show up a day or two before, so you don’t have a lot of time to go over it 200 times and have it be part of your system in a way that you would like. But with that scene, there wasn’t a word change at all. I don’t know why, but that day, De Palma was very on me about commas and periods: “No paraphrasing here.”

Are you good at pretending that the camera’s not there when it’s as close as De Palma likes to put it?

I wasn’t so much then, but I am now. That’s why the scenes are so interesting, I think, between Ethan and Kittridge: There is an intimacy there that I try and maintain.

In the new film, your very presence in a scene seemed to make the camera angles more dramatic.

Oh, yes. Vanessa [Kirby] and I shot the train scene, and then we shot the scene between Ethan and Kittridge — a reshoot, because they’d added a character. We went and shot some of it, and they were shooting from the De Palma angles, we’ll call them. Then they looked at each other and thought, we’ve got to go back and reshoot the train scene.

Really? They reshot the whole train scene with more canted angles?

It worked thematically. The intent begot the form. It wasn’t an add-on, it was, “Oh, that’s right. Let’s go back and do that.” That’s the way they put these things together.

What do you remember about being cast in the first “Mission: Impossible”?

I didn’t want to do it at first. I was in Brazil and I was not in a good frame of mind, I didn’t speak the language, I hadn’t slept in weeks, and we were shooting nights [on a Brazilian film] — it was a disaster. I got a call from my rep, saying, “Brian and Tom want you to do their Kittridge.” I said, “I don’t think I can do it.” He said, “Henry, you’re doing it. I don’t know what the hell you’re thinking, but in three weeks’ time, you’re going to be back here and you’re going to be doing that.”

OK, fine. I went to the C.I.A. for a couple of days and I chatted with the people. I thought, “How does this work? They’re not going to tell me everything, but I want to have some juice in there.” When I went to do rehearsal for “Mission,” the first one, I had all these ideas: “You know, what actually happens is blah, blah, blah.” Brian said, “Good to know, but we’re not doing a documentary.” However, that research helped ground the character a little more for me. After the first film, did you expect to continue with the franchise?

Oh, there’s a story there. At the end of it, I thought I would have a lunch with [producer] Paula Wagner because I was optioned for the second one. We discussed what Kittridge could have been doing in the first one, what I think you should be doing in the second one. Paula Wagner listened very politely, paid for the lunch, and that’s the last I heard from her. I burned the bridge with all these notions of what Kittridge should be doing. It was my highfalutin idea about what I had to offer Hollywood after only my second film there.

It must be very full circle to come back to this franchise with a director who’s actually welcoming every thought you’ve got about the character.

Who would have thunk it? Be patient, keep honest. Lo and behold, really cool stuff will show up.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
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Saturday, July 15, 2023

Vox's Alissa Wilkinson suggests that Dead Reckoning makes it clear what the Mission: Impossible movies have always been about:
In the very first scene of the very first Mission: Impossible film, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is interrogating a Russian guy. We don’t know it’s Hunt, though, because — in perhaps the most iconic running bit in the M:I universe — he’s wearing an extremely lifelike rubber mask. Two minutes into the scene, he walks over to the Russian, drugs him till he passes out, and then pulls off the mask, dramatically revealing the face of a slightly flushed and rumpled Cruise. (It’s hot under all that latex.)

Shortly after that first reveal, the walls of the room fall outward into a warehouse, which makes for a bigger reveal: The whole scene was faked. Not only was the now-immobilized Russian hoodwinked, but the audience was tricked into believing their senses. For us, the moment is delightful; for the laid-out man, not so much.

That opening parry for Mission: Impossible, created and produced by Cruise as a spy-action franchise for himself, showed up in movie theaters in May 1996, with Brian De Palma (of Carrie and Scarface) in the director’s chair. Compared to the latest installment in the franchise, frequent Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, the 1996 version is much sweatier, darker, and kind of erotic. (A Brian De Palma movie indeed.)

The omnipresent unmaskings, of which there have been at least 15 or 20 by now, are still a mainstay of the films. What’s so great about those reveals, in particular, is that you’re rarely actually expecting them. Dead Reckoning Part One plays with this a little, but for the most part, through all the films, any guy at any time could rip his face off and you’d still be like, “Wow, I did not see that coming.”

The new version is like its predecessors, employing a trope borrowed from the TV show that spawned the film: trickery around every corner, a sense that you can’t quite believe what you see. Dead people turn out to be not-dead people. Walls of rooms keep falling apart to reveal they’re constructed in some warehouse somewhere. Everyone could be a rogue agent or maybe not, and the movie sure isn’t going to wink at you about it till it’s good and ready.

That those twists and turns keep surprising us seven movies in points to what’s truly delightful about the Mission: Impossible franchise, and what makes it, in my opinion, both the most inventive and the most satisfying long-running franchise in Hollywood. On one level, M:I is wonderful because the convoluted plots are pretty much beside the point; if they can be said to have a consistent theme, it is “Tom Cruise likes almost dying on camera.”

And yet once you’ve watched them all, you can detect a kind of meta-theme to the M:I movies. It stems from a simple moviegoing fact: Most of us believe that what we are seeing in a movie is how things actually happened in the world of the movie. It’s why a movie like A Beautiful Mind or Big Fish or The Irishman is so memorably affecting; we are trained to believe our narrators, and when it turns out that what we’ve been watching is not quite what actually happened, it’s thrilling. New meaning emerges from the mismatch.

Mission: Impossible plays on this expectation, though there’s no specific perspectival narrator. The thrill comes from occasionally discovering that what we’ve been watching is an elaborate fake-out. Sleight of hand is everywhere. Don’t trust your senses, Mission: Impossible exhorts us — they’re easily manipulated.

This is underlined, in another meta-heavy way, by what makes the films so distinctive: Cruise’s incredible, literally death-defying stunts, every film seeming to take them to a new level. He climbs up sheer rock walls, leaps across rooftops, fights cliffside, and hangs off the side of a flying Airbus A400M. Each time a new Mission: Impossible movie is released, it’s accompanied with marketing material that mainly leans on explaining that yes, Tom Cruise did actually climb the Burj Khalifa. Personally I, and I suspect Cruise, will not be satisfied until Ethan Hunt is in outer space. (Oh, he’s doing it.)

Why emphasize that he’s actually doing these stunts (albeit with cables and nets — you could never afford to insure the production otherwise) as the lynchpin of the M:I marketing? First, of course, because it is pretty badass. But the second reason is obvious: While action is a mainstay of American cinema, particularly in superhero movies, we all know they’re flying around on soundstages and are CGI’d within an inch of their lives. It’s all spectacle, but with no reality.

With Mission: Impossible, however, our deceiving eyes don’t quite extend to the stunts. Yes, there are tricks of the camera and computer going on. But Tom Cruise is actually driving a motorcycle off a cliff and then plummeting down. That’s real — real enough to gasp and hold your breath and get a little shaky. It’s as much a mainstay of the movie as the mask trickery, and that subtle play with what we’re seeing, with the real and the unreal, suggests the movies might be doing this very much on purpose.

The rest of Wilkinson's review carries a "spoiler" alert, and can be read at Vox

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
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Thursday, July 13, 2023

"As Ethan's arc comes full circle, so does this franchise, leading back to the 1996 film that started it all," CBS News' Nathan Durr states in the closing paragraph of his review of Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One. "Dead Reckoning purposefully parallels De Palma's franchise starter in the best ways, incorporating stylistic Dutch angles, effectuating the return of the morally ambiguous Agent Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny), interspersing tense-ridden sequences that don't require ultra-sophisticated stunts, and an eerily familiar third-act conclusion. Fans of the first film will be delighted to see some tongue-in-cheek references to the original. Thematically, incorporating the past with the present from a filmmaking perspective is a brainy move. Not only does this make for an emotionally rich experience (for the most part) for fans who have been invested in the franchise for decades, but it allows Dead Reckoning a chance to explore some fun and varied thematic elements that help this chapter feel fresh."

Now let's bounce back up to the first two paragraphs of Durr's review:

The Mission: Impossible intellectual property has existed for the better part of 50 years dating back to the original 1966 American espionage television series. A procession of films starting with Brian De Palma's 1996 delineation of the source material enkindled a strong following of action thrill-ride enthusiasts, each awaiting the latest death-defying feat from the ageless wonder himself, Tom Cruise. With each subsequent film, the series has shifted away from De Palma's trademarked directorial techniques such as point-of-view perspectives, split-diopter shots, and cross-cutting to manufacture enough rising tension in the edit. The core fundamentals of the spy espionage sub-genre have largely taken a backseat since then, instead relying on spectacle as the main selling point. Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One comes full circle with the series' roots, however, recapturing that classic De Palma tension while upping the ante with a few truly inspiring action set pieces.

Atoning for the failures of the past and reconciling with the repercussions are the central themes of this newest rendition. As the film's cinematic qualities are heavily influenced by the past, so is the narrative, attempting to interweave pieces of Ethan Hunt's tempestuous history with a threat that portends the well-being of his fellow Impossible Mission Force crewmates. Dead Reckoning also feels timely, centering the film around a sentient artificial intelligence whose ability to infiltrate secure databases and control information spawns a global race for control. Artificial intelligence, the ability to process human intelligence through technology, has dictated the conversation as we implement various AI-generated applications into our daily lives. As advancements in computer sciences grow, artificial neural networks augment in complexities, making artificial intelligence a useful, but dangerous tool.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
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Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Ben Pearson at /Film has put together an amazing "Oral History Of Mission: Impossible's Iconic CIA Heist Scene." Not only is assistant director Chris Soldo one of the people interviewed, but Pearson also shares images from Soldo's personal archives of script pages and Brian De Palma's storyboards. Obviously, you'll want to read and re-read Pearson's entire article, but here are some highlights:

JC Calciano (Production Associate to Paula Wagner):

Honestly, I don't think anyone knows this. I think that five of us who were in this meeting ... I truly don't think anyone else outside of this meeting even knows this. When we were writing the script, we brought in a friend of mine. I had produced a movie in Arizona, and I met this woman who was a CIA agent. She and her husband were both CIA agents. So I brought her in as a consultant to help with the movie. Her name is Sue Doucette, and she came to London to help us as a consultant.

When we were working on the script and talking about the script, she told us that — and this is true — the CIA had a room that was ... I think there was a name for it, but I don't remember. There was no outside connections into this room. So this way, nobody could get to it. This particular room was the most secure room at the CIA. The only way you can get in is by one door with one agent. We wrote this scene based on her notes and experiences on that. She was so great, and she was so helpful. We hired her to be the actress who stands guard at the door for that scene.

Paul Hirsch:
The idea was to keep it as quiet as possible. This is an incredibly difficult chore for the sound editors, who can't stand silence — it just drives them crazy. And there was a closeup of the rope going over a little wheel, and they put in a tiny little squeak, and we had to say, "No, take it out, take it out. They wouldn't go in there with a squeaky wheel. This is 'Mission: Impossible!' They get it right." So we tried taking everything away, and that just didn't quite work. So there's a little bit of air going on.

Paula Wagner:
As a director, Brian De Palma was really great at creating tension and suspense, because it's all about the setup, and he was masterful at setting up the task and then creating obstacle after obstacle. So the threat had to be taken out of commission. I mean, this is beautiful teamwork on the part of Tom's team. This had to be so carefully orchestrated, so at the right moment, at the exact time, with the right dose, [Claire] had to put the drop in his coffee.

Rolf Saxon:

I was on it for, I think, two weeks, and I was working on [another] picture interspersed with that. I was being taken from one set to the other set, so I worked three weeks solid without a day off. That was great. Not complaining. I loved it. It was fun. But I got a little punch-drunk every once in a while, and I was messing around on set, joking around. The first [assistant director], Chris Soldo, came over and said, "Brian wants to have a word with you." And the look on his face was not good. I thought, "Oh jeez, here we go." [Brian] asked me to come over, I came over, and he said, "You're something of a clown, aren't you? A bit of a clown." Chris had said, "Look at me, and if I shake my head no, don't answer." He was standing behind Brian, and Chris and Brian had worked together for 10 years. Chris is a great guy. We're still friends.

So basically, there was a little bit of back and forth, and [Brian] said, "Can you do that again?" And I said, "I beg your pardon?" And he said, "Can you do that again? Make people laugh like that? Everybody was laughing, and I'd like to put that in the show." And I said, "Yeah, sure!" He said, "OK, after lunch, we'll spend a couple hours and put some funny stuff in." So after lunch, we spent all that afternoon and part of the next morning putting in a bunch of stuff, almost none of it which is still there. But the throwing up is. He said, "Do you want noise to happen?" Brian asked if I wanted noise in the bucket. I said, "No, I think they'll get the idea. My thinking is we don't want to gross people out, we want it to be sort of amusing." And he said, "OK, cool. Fine. Fine. That's great. Good idea," as he turned away.

Chris Soldo:
The closeup of the catching of the drop, that was done by a second unit. Brian's protege, second unit director Eric Schwab, who did all of the plate photography in Ireland for the train sequence. That was one of the shots that was handed off to him.

Keith Campbell (Stunt Double, Tom Cruise):
Catching the drop of sweat from the glasses, that was fun. I got to do that. That's actually my hand in there. But this camera was shooting 360 frames per second and it makes so much noise. I mean, I think you get one take for a roll of film on that because it's just going through so fast. I know I wasn't hanging in wires when we did the actual high-speed camera and the sweat dropping because it was such a closeup on the drop of sweat coming down and the hand coming in to catch it.

Rolf Saxon:
In Donloe's final scene, there was a particular gentleman who said, "And what about him?" and at one point, he ad-libbed, "And what about the geek?" and De Palma cut filming and said, "What did you say?" He said, "What about the geek?" and [De Palma] said, "Don't call Rolf a geek." I think that was the nicest thing he'd ever done to me in the entire two or three weeks. That was just really nice of him to do that.

And, a story about Princess Diana:
JC Calciano: Princess Diana came to set one day. So that's how much [attention] we were getting, because Tom was there. It was a funny story that I get a phone call. Now, I'll tell the story. It doesn't put me in the best light, because I was a 30-year-old, 30, maybe, young guy, American, not really savvy to the royals or any of the English stuff. But I get a phone call that said, "Princess Diana would like to come to the set. Can she have a tour?" So I'm like, "It's your country. Sure. She wants to come." So she showed up, and she just rolled in. She didn't have anyone other than Harry and William with her. She just rolled in, and one of the production staff comes in into my office, ashen. They're like, "Princess Diana is in the production office, asking for you." Nobody knew, and I didn't think to tell them. So she came in, and I was like, "Oh, all right. I'll be right there."

Anyway, so then she came in, and she was lovely. I showed her around the whole location and stuff, and she's like, "Oh, can I meet Tom Cruise?" I was like, "Yeah, let me tell him you're here," which I hadn't even thought before, like, "Oh, let me prepare anyone for her." So she came, and then it's like, "Tom, could you see Princess Diana?" He's like, "Of course. Of course. Set it up. Set it up." I'm like, "No, no, no. She's right here." He goes, "She's here with you?" I was like, "Yeah, I'm showing her around." [He was] like, "No, no, God. Come in. Come in. Come in." It was just funny how casual it was.

Keith Campbell: Everybody says, "Hey, tell us the story about your career and stuff," and [this] is the best story of my entire career. Because I was in there rehearsing, hanging upside down, coming down from the ceiling, and the door of that set opens up and in walk Tom Cruise and Princess Diana and William and Harry. They came to visit the set and that's where I got to meet them. It was just unbelievable. I was hanging upside down and Tom introduced me to Princess Diana and the boys while I was hanging upside down and she reached up and shook my hand. It was so sweet.

Posted by Geoff at 10:42 PM CDT
Updated: Thursday, July 13, 2023 10:37 PM CDT
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Monday, July 10, 2023

"In 1996. Tom Cruise and Brian De Palma’s reboot of an antiquated spy series was a risk in every sense," reads the subheadline of an article by Tom Fordy that posted today at The Telegraph. "How did they pull it off?"

Here's an excerpt:

For all of Cruise’s stomach-lurching stunt work in M:I sequels – including the latest, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning – the CIA heist is still the series’ most enduring moment. It’s also the truest to the 1966-1973 TV series: a seemingly impossible mission, pulled off via intricate planning, crafty deceptions, and teamwork.

It’s stunning craftsmanship from Brian De Palma – a true master of suspense, demonstrating the same precision-perfect execution as the Impossible Missions Force. The tension De Palma squeezes from a single bead of sweat is incredible.

Cruise did the stunt work, naturally, beginning a trend that has intensified across the sequels. Dangling upside down for a few hours seems like small potatoes compared to clinging onto a plane during take-off. But it was punishingly hard to do. Attempting to hang parallel to the floor, Cruise kept tipping forward and bashing his face – so he stuck £1 coins in his boots to balance himself out horizontally.

It was De Palma who came up with the sequence, inspired by a similar set-piece in the 1964 heist movie, Topkapi. De Palma filmed the heist in near-silence – another nod to Topkapi, and a deliberate reaction against the sheer racket of other blockbusters. “All the action films coming out were so noisy!” says [Paula] Wagner. “What could be done that was different? Silence. You couldn’t have a sound in that sequence. Nothing could disrupt the flow and ambiance in that room. That was unique unto itself – the concept of silence.”

Indeed, the 1996 Mission: Impossible was a different kind of blockbuster – a complex thriller with perspective-shifting rug-pulls – and markedly different from what the series is now. Not that modern M:I isn’t good stuff. It’s the most consistent and wildly inventive action series around. But even Dead Reckoning – out now – has tipped its hat and rubber mask to the first movie.

Mission: Impossible was the first film that Tom Cruise produced himself. It was also his idea. “The conversation I remember most clearly was Tom calling me and saying, ‘We’re going to do Mission: Impossible – I love the series!’” says Paula Wagner. “And I loved it too.” Cruise and Wagner would also produce Mission: Impossibles 2 and 3 together. More recently, Wagner produced the Pretty Woman musical – on tour across the UK later this year.

Back in the 1990s, there was a Hollywood gold rush on old school TV properties. Between 1993 and 1999, there were also film versions of The Fugitive, Maverick, The Saint, The Avengers, and Wild Wild West. It preempted the current blockbuster formula. Almost 30 years on, every blockbuster is essentially a re-run. “This was early in taking a TV show and making it a movie,” says Wagner. “Now it’s done all the time. And this was before all the Marvel franchises. I think we were pioneers out there working out ‘What is this? How does this work as a movie? What are the elements that you keep? What are the things that you change and evolve?’ It was more than making a movie. It was bigger than that.”

But unlike The Fugitive et al, Mission: Impossible hadn’t been off screens all that long. Paramount had made attempts at an M:I film in the 1980s and brought back the TV show in 1988, with original series star Peter Graves. When Tom Cruise whipped off the rubber mask for the first time, M:I had only been off air for six years.


One of the major challenges, says Wagner, was “How do you reinvent a Cold War television series for a film in the mid-1990s?” Critics asked the same thing ahead of the film’s release. The original IMF team operated in the shadows of the Cold War. Regular targets included dictators and shady governments in made-up countries. Jon Voight’s IMF leader, Jim Phelps – the character played by Peter Graves on TV – comments on his place post-Cold War. “One day you wake up and the president of the United States is running the country without your permission. The son of a b––––, how dare he.” Phelps admits that he’s now just “an obsolete piece of hardware not worth upgrading.” GoldenEye, released just six months earlier, had similarly repositioned Bond for the 1990s – “a relic of the Cold War”.

Other changes were needed. The TV series had been about a team operation, with Phelps selecting his preferred agents at the start of each episode – each of whom had their own special skills to carry out their part of the mission. De Palma was not only subverting the conventions, he had to make M:I a star vehicle for Cruise, too. “The first thing we have to do is kill off the whole team,” said De Palma.

The film begins like the classic episodes: Phelps receives his mission (which he naturally chooses to accept) via a self-destructing tape, then assembles his team and plans out the mission. They have to seize a list of CIA agents from a target in Prague. But it’s a set-up. The team – including Emilio Estevez and Kristin Scott Thomas – are murdered one by one. Its rich De Palmian stuff: a dizzying swirl of trickery and kills, and shrouded in a thick fog of treachery. “You set the rules up and turn them on their head,” says Wagner. “You think you have your mission team, then they all die in the beginning! Just when you think it’s gonna turn out a certain way, it doesn’t.”


The 1996 action now seems relatively low-key – in contrast to Cruise trotting around the Burj Khalifa at 2,700ft, at least ­– though the film still hangs on three stunt sequences: the CIA HQ heist, a fight on a high-speed train, and Cruise jumping away from an exploding aquarium – a neat, watery twist on the standard jumping-away-from-an-explosion set-piece. Cruise performed the stunt himself, leaping away from literally tons of water, which required precision timing.

But Mission: Impossible is an unusually smart action film. In the later sequels, the trademark deceptions and confidence tricks are played like set pieces – usually punctuated by a punch-the-air mask rip. In the first Mission: Impossible, the deceptions are the fabric of the whole film. It wrong-foots viewers at almost every turn – a constant unraveling of misdirections, springing one reveal after another.

The labyrinthine plot wasn’t for everyone. After the film’s release, De Palma called Koepp and told him there was a one-word buzz about it: “Incomprehensible!”

In its smartest scene, Voight’s back-from-the-dead Phelps tries to sucker Hunt with an elaborate lie about how the botched Prague mission played out. Phelps narrates his version of events, but what we see is something completely different – Hunt figuring out what really happened. He knows that Phelps masterminded the double-cross. “If you look at De Palma films, his characters aren’t quite what you think they are – often appearances belie who the characters really are,” says Wagner about that sequence. “That was another aspect that Tom and I as producers really appreciated and supported. Not only the sleight of hand in terms of the action, but none of the characters were exactly who you thought they were.”

The film abandons the smarts for the final showdown. Phelps and Hunt fight across a train as it races through the Channel Tunnel – while Jean Reno gives chase in a helicopter. The new M:I film, Dead Reckoning, also stages a train fight – one of the seven-quel’s numerous nods to the first movie.

The original train showdown is still a thumping bit of action. It somehow puts you right onto the carriages – the feeling that you’re holding on for dear life just by watching it. When the classic Lalo Schifrin theme kicks in, and the helicopter rotor blade misses Cruise’s throat by a matter of inches, it’s undeniably thrilling.

Cruise and De Palma debated about whether to include the train-helicopter sequence. Cruise and Robert Towne, said De Palma, were pushing for the film to end with a mask reveal in the boxcar. De Palma would later deny reports of a rift between them, though they had a robust creative relationship.

“Tom is a very smart guy, and he had very strong opinions about things,” De Palma told Premiere magazine. “We would argue, but he always said, ‘Whatever you want to do, Brian.’ I made all the final decisions. We were deciding whether we needed the helicopter chase at the end. Tom thought about resolving the scene in the boxcar. I was pushing for the helicopter chase. I said, ‘We’re making Mission: Impossible here. We better have some wham-bang ending.’ I argued strongly about why I thought this would work, and he ultimately, I think, made the correct decision.”

Cruise certainly had no qualms about getting on that train. He clambered aboard the carriages at Pinewood Studios, in front of a blue screen, and was blasted by industrial-strength fans. “That’s really Tom standing on a train car with the wind coming in his face at hundreds of miles an hour. Trust me,” says Wagner. “It was very dangerous having to jump from one moving vehicle to another with the wind coming straight at him. We did it on the largest stage at Pinewood. It was very challenging. He would have been on a real train the whole time if he could.”

De Palma achieved what he’d set out to do. Released on May 22 1996, Mission: Impossible was the biggest hit of his career – $450 million at the global box office. “It’s better to make them at the end [of a career] rather than at the beginning,” De Palma told Wade Major about making a hit film.

Wagner credits its global success, aside from M:I being a great piece of cinema, to its international cast and clever promotion. “We treated Mission Impossible as a worldwide event,” she says. “This was an innovation in worldwide marketing because we focused on individual foreign markets rather than treating international box office as a monolith. We approached the rest of the world with the same fervour as domestic.” Paramount sent out a booklet of promotional ideas to cinema managers, which suggested – quite brilliantly – to put on helicopter rides or have sky divers dropping into cinema car parks for some extreme, gimmicky PR. (I must have missed that at our local Odeon.)

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
Updated: Tuesday, July 11, 2023 12:07 AM CDT
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Saturday, July 8, 2023

The other day, Sight & Sound posted an article from its archive headlined, "Mission: Impossible – a popcorn movie to take seriously". The article by José Arroyo was introduced this way: "Brian De Palma’s spy series opener was, argued this feature in our July 1996 issue, 'glamorous, exciting, sexy and sometimes witty.' Mission: accomplished." Here's an excerpt:
Applying the Frankfurt School’s critique of mass culture to this type of filmmaking would not be hard: Mission: Impossible is not very original; the structure of the whole doesn’t depend on details; it respects conventional norms of what constitutes intelligibility in contemporary filmmaking. It could be seen as an example of pseudo-individuation, that which seems different but is in fact the same, whose object is to affirm capitalist culture – Popcorn laced with discourses that propagate and sustain existing relations of power, lulling its audience into believing that they live in the best of all possible worlds. This type of criticism has often been levelled against Hollywood cinema. But though productive as part of a critique, it’s a dead end when it results in mere dismissal.

The film also offers a pretty dystopic view of contemporary Western culture. There is no longer any difference between the East and the West. What happens in Kiev and Prague or Washington and London is similar. All are corrupt places with citizens under continuous surveillance. Government, which is supposed to protect, throws out morality, ethics, justice and law to get what it wants, going as far as attempting to kill an honest Cruise, who is simply and desperately trying to do the right thing. Family is far away, ineffectual, vulnerable. Friends are unreliable: they may have killed your other friends, and may yet kill you. Love, as personified by Emmanuelle Béart, is a source of longing, an object of desire (seemingly always deferred) and an instrument of betrayal (the femmes are pretty fatal here – and structurally subordinate in the narrative, as is Hunt’s Black sidekick, played by Ving Rhames; plus ça change…). The worst enemies of Western culture are the ‘Third World’ and terrorists. The worst thing that can happen to an individual is to be ‘disavowed’, to be cut off from one’s corporate community; to survive the hero must remain monadic. It’s a bleak view. The film’s utopia is a masculinist fantasy: that if one is Tom Cruise, all such problems will eventually be resolved.

This is a reading of the film that appears to give it a degree of depth. But to look at Mission: Impossible only in this way is perhaps to miss what is most interesting about it. It’s built around set-pieces (the interrogation scene in Kiev; the Embassy scene; the aquarium scene and the Hotel Europa scene in Prague; the burglary at Langley, Virginia; and finally the train scene, which begins in London) each involving some element of action and ingenuity (from characters or filmmakers). These scenes are woven through the film like songs and dances are in an old-fashioned musical: it isn’t so much that they don’t tell us anything about the characters, but that their function as spectacle exceeds their function as narrative. For exampIe, though we may need to know that Cruise’s colleagues are killed at the start, we don’t need to see it in such detail or to such effect to follow the story. Mission: Impossible is a star vehicle structured around a protagonist: but it is not important to know much about Ethan Hunt, the character Cruise plays. What’s important is how Cruise the star looks, smiles, jumps, leaps, outwits. In such movies, the star functions less as character than as an integral production value. Tom Cruise as ‘Tom Cruise’ in Mission: Impossible is its own kind of spectacle (as when he takes off his mask and is revealed to be ‘Tom Cruise’ during his star entrance at the film’s beginning); what’s more, it’s an integral part of the spectacle presented during the more elaborate action scenes (as when the wind buffets his body on top of the train in the final scene).

Like the musical using the order of musical numbers to create changes of pace and variation, Mission: Impossible tries to vary its own set-pieces in terms of length, tone and desired effect: the scene at the Hotel is medium-length and meant to be exciting; the scene in Langley where Cruise steals the diskette is long and meant to be funny and suspenseful; the scene where Cruise makes the diskette disappear in order to con Krieger (Jean Reno) is meant to be ingenious. The last action scene, the lollapalooza, is to function as the showstopper. It begins with a blast from Lalo Schifrin’s energetic television theme-tune, and reprises all previous effects (it has excitement, speed, suspense, humour and ingenuity), but faster, with more intensity and at a higher pitch.

And like the musical, much of the beauty of and meaning in Mission: Impossible comes from the expressive use of non-representational signs: colour, music, movement.

The scene at Langley where Cruise and company download the names of undercover agents into a diskette is a good example of the pleasures on offer. While Rhames hacks away at the security with his computer, Beart, Cruise and Reno disguise themselves as firemen to get into the building. Beart injects the coffee of the computer worker with a serum to force him to go to the bathroom, and plants a bug on his jacket so that his movements can be traced. In the meantime, Cruise and Reno have managed to get to the room via an airvent. So far, so familiar: this is reminiscent of the pleasures of James Bond, with gadgets, wit and a few punches thrown. As the scene proceeds, maintaining the humorous tone, a shift registers. Will the computer operator return too soon, intercepting Cruise stealing the diskette? Cruise is hung from the ceiling with wires, handled by Reno. We see a rat waddling next to Reno. Will this cause him to lose control? Will the sneeze he’s been controlling simply erupt, setting off the alarm? De Palma is a brilliant student of Hitchcock: these bits are funny and suspenseful.

And Reno does lose control. Cruise, previously floating downwards, now drops abruptly to only inches from the floor. He’s hung from wires, waving his arms as balance, to avoid touching the floor: thus the film offers us the pleasure of Cruise’s physique, his physical prowess. But his body is also reduced to a graphic element of the composition, albeit a gorgeous one: for example, in the high-angle shot which shows us Cruise (dressed in black) against a white floor crossed with thin black lines. His body seems two-dimensional; it seems to disappear into the pattern as if matter had dissolved into geometry.

Two separate moments make this scene thrilling: a drop of sweat about to hit the floor and Reno’s knife falling to the floor. Both are exciting only because of their context (if either lands, this could ruin the mission). They involve quick cuts, to enhance the sense of danger and to give an impression of movement. But they also involve the use of slow motion, to arrest and break down movement.

The combined effect is that of the sublime. The slow motion fixes our gaze with awe; the quick cuts rush us headlong into terror. It’s thrilling to watch, but it’s also fascinating because such a technique, so typical of the contemporary action/spectacle film, reduces difference into equivalence while divorcing an object from its properties. Here a drop of sweat and a knife are equally dangerous, one a natural process which does the body good, the other produced by human ingenuity and human labour to cut and harm: moreover, the knife is dangerous not because it can pierce but because it can fall.

We could interpret this by arguing that in the post-modern world, culture is more the source of terrorized amazement than nature; except its awesomeness derives not from God but from humans. But if we think of this at all, we think of it afterwards. Mission: Impossible is so thrilling that even hermeneutics are left behind, for a while. On the ride, the viewer is too busy rushing through its aesthetics to think of anything but its erotics. Mission: Impossible is a delight because in pleasing the eye and kicking the viscera, it continually asks the audience to wonder, How did they do that? And that the film does this, and how it does it, is at least as important as why, or what it all may mean.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
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Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com:
Last summer, Tom Cruise was given credit for saving the theatrical experience with the widely beloved “Top Gun: Maverick.” One of our last true movie stars returns over a year later as the blockbuster experience seems to be fading with high-budget Hollywood endeavors like "The Flash" and "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" falling short of expectations. Can he be Hollywood's savior again? I hope so because “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” is a ridiculously good time. Once again, director Christopher McQuarrie, Cruise, and their team have crafted a deceptively simple thriller, a film that bounces good, bad, and in-between characters off each other for 163 minutes (an admittedly audacious runtime for a film with “Part One” in the title that somehow doesn’t feel long). Some of the overcooked dialogue about the importance of this particular mission gets repetitive, but then McQuarrie and his team will reveal some stunningly conceived action sequence that makes all the spy-speak tolerable. Hollywood is currently questioning the very state of their industry. Leave it to Ethan Hunt to accept the mission.

While this series essentially rebooted in its fourth chapter, changing tone and style significantly, this seventh film very cleverly ties back to the 1996 Brian De Palma original more than any other, almost as if it's uniting the two halves of the franchise. It’s not an origin story, but it does have the tenor of something like the excellent “Casino Royale” in how it unpacks the very purpose of a beloved character. “Dead Reckoning Part One” is about Ethan Hunt reconciling how he got to this point in his life, and McQuarrie and co-writer Erik Jendresen narratively recall De Palma’s film repeatedly. And with its sweaty, canted close-ups, Fraser Taggart’s cinematography wants you to remember the first movie—how Ethan Hunt became an agent and the price he’s been paying from the beginning.

David Sims, The Atlantic
Dead Reckoning Part One is another swaggering delight in the series, with director Christopher McQuarrie yet again finding some actual narrative grist in the continued adventures of the world’s silliest superspy. In having Ethan do battle with a ruthless AI dubbed “the Entity,” which wants to control the world’s governments, the film holds him up as an exemplar of humanity—a bold gambit, perhaps, given that Cruise is one of our strangest celebrities, but one the Mission: Impossible movies have been nudging forward for quite a while now. Someone like James Bond might be the best at what he does, but he’s still an extension of the state, and ultimately a ruthless person as a result. Hunt is technically part of America’s intelligence apparatus, but he rejects any notion of “the greater good,” instead stretching reality however he can to save everyone around him and the world at the same time.

Surrounding Ethan is his usual gaggle of pals: the tech guys Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg), and the multitalented British spy Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). The big additions to the mix are two more femmes fatales, an expert pickpocket named Grace (Hayley Atwell) and an assassin named Paris (Pom Klementieff). And though our villain is nothing more than a glowing sphere that lives in the cloud, it does have a human emissary of sorts, the seething terrorist Gabriel (Esai Morales, sporting a perfectly cropped salt-and-pepper beard). All of them are hunting for a set of special keys that will do … something to the Entity; as is usual for Mission: Impossible, the details are pretty unimportant.

Still, fans of McQuarrie’s high-energy approach in the series’ prior two films might be surprised at the extent to which this entry remembers the other side of spycraft. There’s a lot of double-crossing and murky alliance-making, evoking the twisty espionage of Brian De Palma’s first Mission: Impossible, way back in 1996; to underline it, the nervy character actor Henry Czerny returns as Eugene Kittridge, now the CIA chief, who hasn’t appeared since that 1996 installment. He’s there largely to highlight the ongoing absurdity of Hunt’s “Impossible Mission Force,” the quasi-governmental agency that somehow exists alongside America’s regular intelligence apparatus and recruits agents who are better at close-up magic than they are at hand-to-hand combat.

Though the computerized Entity is the main villain, Kittridge represents an element that’s just as important in these movies: the stuffed shirt who sputters impotently as Ethan and his friends defy all logic on their way to saving the day. Dead Reckoning Part One still has plenty of wild stunts—like Ethan riding a motorcycle off a mountain, and doing martial arts atop the Orient Express—but there’s more than a hint of melancholy in between all the action, and a hint of worry that maybe the good times can’t last forever in the face of all this bureaucratic, algorithmic thought. Given that this is a Part One, the film’s conclusion is inevitably less satisfying than a proper third act, but this is a worthy entry in America’s best ongoing franchise, one where sincerity and absurdity walk hand in hand with vital, triumphant conviction.

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter
The movie’s sustained adrenaline charge is both its strength and its shortcoming. Comparing part one of Dead Reckoning with Brian De Palma’s terrific 1996 opener, which upgraded the CIA’s covert Impossible Missions Force from its 1960s television origins to the big screen, is an illuminating insight into how audience expectations have changed in the past 27 years — or perhaps more accurately, how the major studios have reshaped audience expectations.

Working with screenwriters David Koepp and Robert Towne, De Palma assembled the nuts and bolts of an admittedly convoluted story with patience and care. He allowed his characters space to breathe while building to stylishly choreographed action sequences that bristled with the director’s customary Hitchcockian flair.

Notable among them was a nail-biting CIA heist operation in which Cruise’s Hunt was lowered into a state-of-the-art Langley security vault to copy a highly prized classified document. It set the tone for a series driven by jaw-dropping stunts, redefining the actor’s career at the same time.

In the almost three decades since that film, Cruise has become a much better actor. It’s hard to take the younger Ethan seriously now when he’s grinning like a cocky schoolboy in exchanges with Vanessa Redgrave’s smooth-as-silk arms dealer, Max — like some high school jock trying to impress the head cheerleader.

His Ethan has become more careworn, jaded, emotionally bruised; he’s acquired the gravitas that comes with loss. And the passionate, hands-on commitment with which the actor approaches each stunt, emphasizing practical execution over effects, has only intensified through the years. No one can accuse Cruise of being a performer who fails to deliver what his audience wants. Which includes running. So much running.

In that sense, Dead Reckoning Part One works like gangbusters. If something has been discarded in the storytelling craft along the way, it’s unlikely that the core fanbase will mind. But McQuarrie, who co-wrote the screenplay with Erik Jendresen (an Emmy winner for Band of Brothers), invests so much in the almost nonstop set-pieces that the connective narrative tissue becomes virtually disposable.

Sometimes it feels as if he’s boiled down the most thrilling elements, not only of the Mission: Impossible series, but of the Bond and Bourne movies, and threaded them into a sizzle reel. There’s less sense here of a story that demanded to be told in two parts — this one running two-and-three-quarter hours — than of McQuarrie and Cruise having a bunch more jaw-dropping stunts they plan to pull off and new travel-porn locations on which to unleash mayhem.

Tapping with uncannily sharp timing into a very now anxiety, the plot revolves around artificial intelligence gone rogue — “the perfect covert operation” — and the suavely sinister terrorist seeking to control it, Gabriel (Esai Morales).

The A.I. development harnesses the power to make everything from people to vessels of war undetectable, to turn allies into enemies, commandeer defense systems and manipulate the world’s finance markets. It has become a monster with a mind of its own that knows everything about everyone and can be controlled only with a cruciform key made of two bejeweled parts lost in the Russian submarine disaster that opens the movie.

As the motivation for a globe-hopping hunt to find the two halves of the key and slot them together to tame the A.I. renegade before Gabriel can get his paws on it, it’s a serviceable plot. But it’s elaborated in numbing scenes lumped in among the fun stuff, with Ethan and his associates trudging through leaden exposition dumps, intoning gravely about “The Entity,” as it’s come to be known. Ominous statements are batted about like, “Whoever controls the Entity controls the truth,” which I guess is tangible enough as a threat to world order.

But when we get to see the digital mega-brain at work, looking like a giant fibrous, pulsating cyber sphincter, the whole thing becomes a bit silly. And if after the first half-hour or so you’re still following the plotting intricacies of how the parts of the key got to wherever they are, whether they’re real or fake, who has them and how the IMF crew plans to get them back, congratulations.

Coming after the series high of 2018’s Fallout, in which McQuarrie found an ideal balance of story, character and turbocharged spectacle, this aspect of the film, it must be acknowledged, is disappointing. If De Palma’s Mission: Impossible was considered overly complicated, the storyline here is an absolute maze. But then, as soon as Ethan starts going at it with a pair of trained assassins in a tight Venetian vicoletto, or any number of other bravura sequences in beautiful locations, you’re unlikely to care much about all that Entity blather.

Siddhant Adlakha, IGN
Until the previous entry in the franchise, Mission: Impossible – Fallout (the one with Henry Cavill reloading his forearms), these movies largely stood alone, but Dead Reckoning Part One reaches into the past on numerous fronts. The return of the first movie’s morally dubious intelligence head, Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny), serves less as a wistful cameo and more as a throwback to the series’ neo-noir roots – a welcome antidote to a summer overrun with empty nostalgia à la The Flash and the new Indiana Jones. Ethan Hunt’s (Cruise) need to go rogue in Dead Reckoning is a direct result of characters and events of the original, Brian De Palma-directed Mission: Impossible, leading to a scenario where Hunt’s own government can’t be trusted with the movie’s dangerous McGuffin: an all-powerful, artificially intelligent algorithm dubbed “the Entity.”

Jonathan Sim, ComingSoon.net
Each one of McQuarrie’s movies has felt distinct from each other. With this movie, it seems as if he is putting his spin on the feel of Brian de Palma’s original Mission: Impossible movie from 1996. There is a lot of that tension, especially from the original film’s opening act, where the characters are racing to keep up with the looming terror around them. The film even brings back Ethan’s sleight-of-hand magic, Henry Czerny as Kittridge, and a finale action sequence set on a train. McQuarrie takes everything great about that original film and combines it with the flair that he has consistently brought to this series.

Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair
It takes a while to get into the groove of Dead Reckoning, which trades the gliding high gloss of Fallout for something grainier, stranger, more comedic. Its harsh camera angles evoke Brian De Palma’s 1996 Mission: Impossible film, no doubt a direct allusion. There’s even a climactic train sequence in Dead Reckoning, just as there was 27 years ago. McQuarrie seems done aping (and, occasionally, upping) Christopher Nolan and is returning to the M:I franchise’s roots. Understandable, given that we are, allegedly, approaching the end of its run.

Cruise shows little signs of slowing, even if his timing is off as he uncharacteristically struggles to get Dead Reckoning’s gears turning. But the stakes of the film make it feel as if finality is in the offing: a sentient AI is threatening the entire world, while human-led nations (and a couple of criminal enterprises) do a mad scramble to get it under their control. Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, either super spy or demigod, finds himself at the center of this narrative, largely for personal reasons. The memory of a lost love comes whispering out of the past while a contemporary, quasi-romantic relation is tossed into new peril. The macro and the micro are at risk from a holistic threat, one that will define the core mission of Ethan’s life.

Which, arguably, was also true of Fallout, but Dead Reckoning works hard to sell its even-bigger-ness. The AI stuff is too magical sci-fi for my taste—AI is a creeping menace, surely, but this foe plays too B-movie (think, Transcendence) and too all-powerful (think any superhero movie) for the relatively sophisticated Mission: Impossible films. It’s difficult to take things seriously, then, as McQuarrie (who wrote the script with Eric Jendresen) throws a heap of exposition at us while also trying to keep things light. (There’s a Roman street chase involving a tiny yellow Fiat, for example.) The balance is off, which even Cruise’s agility can’t correct.

An hour or so in, though, the film finds its footing, somewhere around the time that Ethan and his coterie of helpers (including new player Hayley Atwell, as a master thief in way over her head) arrive in Venice. There the film’s De Palmian moodiness is put to good use, in an arresting and somber sequence set in the impossibly narrow streets of the world’s most picturesque city. That then leads our hero to the stunt to end all stunts, one already shown almost in its entirety in promotional videos released months ago. It’s a shame that this jaw-dropping act—in which Tom Cruise pilots a motorcycle off a cliff and then does a sort of mid-air, Alpine BASE jump—has been spoiled. Technically impressive as it is, it’s been sapped of surprise.

But the subsequent train set piece is a satisfying stunner, unrelenting and convincing even in its dubious physics. I suppose it’s fitting enough that a Part One should really only get up to speed when it’s nearly over; that steadily built momentum is meant to rocket us into the finale, which will be released next year.

Hoai-Tran Bui, Inverse
The first half of a two-part story, Dead Reckoning Part One is an exhilarating blockbuster, distilling pure spectacle into a two-and-a-half hour feature. It’s also the first time Mission: Impossible is deep in conversation with itself. McQuarrie departs from his action-first style to pay homage to Brian De Palma’s first Mission: Impossible — all intense close-ups, canted angles, and heightened, pulpy paranoia. This creates a sense of full-circle continuity the Mission: Impossible films rarely have, but it also feels like McQuarrie is playing in another director’s sand box when he should be doing what he does best: delivering Tom Cruise’s latest death-defying stunt in the most breathtaking, jaw-dropping way possible. It’s in those moments that Dead Reckoning Part One transcends anything any other action tentpole can even dream of touching.

Posted by Geoff at 10:36 PM CDT
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Monday, July 3, 2023

At Film Stories, a site that "attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website," A J Black looks at how the Mission: Impossible movie franchise "started with Brian De Palma’s skewed, almost nihilistic implosion of what Mission Impossible meant to audiences." --
Why did Cruise, his first-time producing partner Paula Wagner, a multitude of screenwriters including Steven Zaillian, David Koepp & Robert Towne, and ultimately Brian De Palma, choose to destroy the very fabric of, what on the face of it, made Mission Impossible Mission Impossible? Because if you watch the film, and compare it with the TV series, they are without a doubt different beasts.

Mind you, De Palma fools you into believing it might be a faithful adaptation with his first act, following the opening sequence whereby Phelps, Hunt and the IMF team use a range of theatrics. There are the infamous masks which would become a staple of the entire ensuing franchise, through to a con job using sets, performances and disguises, in order to get what they need from a target.

The sixth film, Fallout, pays homage to this in a similar sequence before its own credit sequence, but the difference here is that the audience are in on the performance. De Palma gives us what we expect from Mission Impossible: teamwork, staging and illusion.

The credits, which recall the original series too with a reworking of Lalo Schiffrin’s iconic theme and flashes of the mission to come, reinforce De Palma’s own illusion. The longer con is on the audience themselves.

Hence why, when De Palma by the end of the first act, kills almost the entirety of the IMF team—including seemingly Phelps himself—during a mission that everyone expects them to succeed in as part of the greater challenge, you are left reeling. This has to be part of the illusion of the narrative, surely? The IMF team can’t all be dead! The clue is in casting Cruise, whose shelf-life as a global cinematic superstar is perhaps one of the most durable in Hollywood history. Cruise is now in his fifth decade as a leading man. Just let that sink in a moment. By the mid-90’s, he was very much established thanks to films from Top Gun all the way through to A Few Good Men. Cruise’s name was above the poster. Cruise was Mission Impossible now. This early on, however, we just didn’t know it.

In short, Mission Impossible does not yet understand Ethan Hunt. It presents a very different character to the one Cruise eventually builds. Ethan, here, is the begrudging, vengeful spy betrayed, as far as he is concerned, by his own government after he is fitted up as a mole inside the IMF. The prey of the CIA, in the form of Henry Czerny’s delightfully officious Kittridge.

It kickstarts what would become some of Mission Impossible’s most popular tropes, second only perhaps to the mask disguises – the mole and the disavowal. There is not one Mission Impossible film which does not either contain a mole working within American intelligence or Ethan’s loyalty and fidelity being questioned. All of this began in Mission Impossible the moment Ethan Hunt loses his team, because even despite characters such as Ving Rhames’ Luther Stickell becoming a loyal ally over successive films, not one picture in this franchise has Ethan working, truly, as the cog inside a functional unit. Ethan is the machine.

De Palma’s film is, principally, a deconstruction of what made the 1960’s TV series work. That show was created at the height of the Cold War, with American and Soviet tensions providing a backdrop for the kind of television that would take the post-war austerity of the 1950’s and frame it in glossier, brighter contexts. Mission Impossible came from the same Desilu Productions stable as Star Trek, which premiered the year before and as MI portrayed a unit which using trickery and manipulation to overcome the enemy, Star Trek looked forward to a future in which the hostilities of the Cold War would be a thing of the past in a new American, even globally united, frontier. Both shows even share Star Trek breakout star Leonard Nimoy as part of their casts.

Whereas Star Trek permeated and managed a breakthrough toward the tail end of the darker 1970s in the American consciousness, Mission Impossible struggled to bring its brand of theatrical fancy back to a public who had moved on past the anxieties of the Cold War. Its return in the late 80’s, just a couple of years before the end of the century-defining conflict, didn’t last long.

By the time De Palma’s big screen adaptation was in production, the Cold War was over. The Russian bear had been put down and, suddenly, American espionage didn’t work in the same way. Despite nasty brush fire wars across the 90’s such as Iraq or Kosovo, Mission Impossible returned in the decade defined by Francis Fukuyama in his book ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ as the titular ‘end of history’.

Koepp and Towne’s eventual, credited script reflects this in Jim Phelps. When he is unmasked as the villainous architect of the NOC List theft, Phelps’ rationale is revealed in dialogue he offers freely to Ethan in outlining the mindset of the villain, Job, he is trying to convince Ethan exists:

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 realise, it’s over. You are an obsolete piece of hardware, not worth upgrading, you got a lousy marriage and sixty two grand a year.

There is quite a lot to unpick here. Principally the fact that Phelps’ turn to the dark side, the betrayal of his country and the American values we saw his same character embody in the 1960’s, at the height of the conflict against the Soviets, was fuelled by the lack of a defined ‘enemy’ for the intelligence community to fight. The destruction of his team also represents a pre-millennial fear that the enemy could be anywhere, even within. As opposed to the ideological Communist bloc close in our mind’s eye, but in literal terms far from our homeland.

Mission Impossible‘s revival reflects a world filled with shadowy, unknown forces who could strike anywhere, at any time, right at the heart of where we feel safe. It almost prefigures the rise of spontaneous terrorism. Ultimately, Mission Impossible is trying to understand its place in a new geopolitical landscape, as well as in the changing trends and emerging post-modern narratives of the 1990s.

Phelps in his soliloquy also mentions ‘hardware’ and this hints at the emergence of technological means in the post-Cold War paradigm that would replace the need for spies in the field doing the heavy lifting. This is in its infancy in Mission Impossible, which feels quite charming in watching Vanessa Redgrave’s playful arms dealer Max trying to upload floppy discs onto a computer system before the Channel Tunnel cuts off her connection. But the point remains that intelligence agencies now no longer need men like Phelps.

Conversely, De Palma also wonders if they need the IMF, hence why he happily takes down the team thanks to their insider, and leaves Ethan free and clear to create his own ramshackle group of mercenaries to help him clear his name – primarily in the standout CIA Langley set piece, which remains one of the most impressive, iconic and not to mention tense, sequences in action cinema of the last thirty years.

Mission Impossible does not sell Ethan, in this film, as any kind of James Bond proxy. Cruise’s charm is perfectly evident but Ethan is not a seductive, one-man killing machine, or indeed the death-defying nihilist he becomes post-MI3. Ethan here is a touch more enigmatic and distant, which befits the colder stylistics of De Palma’s approach to the material. His lens channels Hitchcock while imbuing the frame with a distinctly De Palma-level of paranoia.

Posted by Geoff at 12:01 AM CDT
Updated: Tuesday, July 4, 2023 5:30 PM CDT
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Thursday, June 29, 2023

The Independent's Geoffrey Macnab "looks back at how Tom Cruise and a run of celebrated directors transformed a Sixties TV series into a blockbuster franchise" - here's an excerpt:
Over the last three decades, Cruise has become so indelibly linked with the Mission: Impossible franchise that it’s easy to forget what an unlikely project this actually was for him. It’s adapted from the CBS TV series that ran from 1966 to 1973. The whole point of TV’s Mission: Impossible was the team. It was an ensemble drama focused on a secret government espionage group. From the second series onward, the sleek, silver-haired Peter Graves was the star but Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, Greg Morris and Peter Lupus also had major roles.

In 1993, Paramount needed to do something dramatic to hold on to Cruise. After his success in the legal thriller The Firm (1993), he was already becoming Hollywood’s most bankable star. As Variety reported at the time, studio execs began desperately “scouring their properties to find a killer, franchise-type project for Cruise”. Mission: Impossible was what they came up with as bait for their prize asset. This was a period when other stars were also appearing in movies inspired by small-screen dramas. Harrison Ford was in The Fugitive (1993) and Mel Gibson played the lead in Maverick (1994).

Cruise had watched and liked Mission: Impossible as a kid. Nonetheless, he didn’t seem a natural fit for the big screen spin-off. He was the brash, toothsome boy wonder of Hollywood, not the type to play a hard-bitten spy in a murky and cerebral drama involving clandestine US government operations in Europe.

Brian De Palma was brought on board as director after Cruise met him through Spielberg. The actor went home after having dinner with the two directors and binge-watched almost all of De Palma’s films in a single sitting – and then offered him the job.

On one level, it was an astute decision. The award-winning filmmaker behind The Untouchables, (1987) Casualties of War (1989) and Carlito’s Way (1993) was a strong-willed auteur who wasn’t going to worry about upsetting the fans of the original series. The downside was that he was too big a personality simply to work as a hired hand.

There was something wanton and cruel about the way almost all the supporting actors in the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) team are dispatched so early in the movie.

“I said the first thing we have to do is kill off the whole team,” De Palma later observed of his scorched earth policy toward the other spies in the story.

Alfred Hitchcock famously had Janet Leigh stabbed to death in the shower around 45 minutes into Psycho (1960) but De Palma gets rid of Emilio Estevez, Kristin Scott Thomas and Ingeborga Dapkūnaite far more quickly. In its opening scenes, their characters all register strongly. They’re shown working together in a mission in Ukraine and then being debriefed by their boss Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) as they prepare for their next assignment in Prague. As spies go, they’re likeable, resourceful and attractive but that doesn’t stop De Palma culling them in ruthless fashion. One is impaled head-first on the spokes of a malfunctioning lift. Another is stabbed to death. They die very operatic deaths, clearing the decks so that what starts as a multi-character movie can turn into a Cruise vehicle.

Those associated with the TV series were appalled. In interviews, Graves expressed his dismay that mission leader Jim Phelps, whom he had played in staunchly heroic fashion, was now being portrayed in such a verminous light by Voight .“I am sorry they [the producers] chose to call him Phelps,” he complained, suggesting a different name would have been more appropriate. Graves appeared to think that Voight’s Phelps had nothing to do with the man he had played. An alternative reading is that after all those years working in the shadows for the US government and being paid so poorly, Phelps had simply turned rotten.

His co-star Landau was equally upset at the decision to destroy the Mission Impossible team. De Palma didn’t care. He had signed up for Mission: Impossible for one very specific reason. “I was determined to make a huge hit,” he admitted to fellow filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Jake [Paltrow] when they made their 2015 documentary about him. De Palma knew that for this to happen, Cruise had to be in as many scenes as possible.

One of the enduring fascinations of Mission: Impossible is the attrition between the star and the director. There are several accounts that claim they didn’t get on at all – although it’s unclear why they fell out. Some claimed that Cruise balked at doing the stunt in which Ethan was almost drowned after an aquarium in a restaurant explodes.

It didn’t help that the script was being reworked even as shooting was continuing. A small army of writers was involved, from David Koepp, whose credits range from Jurassic Park to Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Steven Zaillian, then best known for Schindler’s List, and Chinatown’s Robert Towne.

In spite of the best efforts of these scribes, the plotting is very creaky. It is there simply to link the action set-pieces at the heart of the movie. There are non-sequiturs and baffling moments in which Ethan, a master of disguise, puts on or rips off masks and changes his identity. Everyone is in pursuit of a floppy disk containing the so-called NOC list of covert secret agents.

For all its contrivances, this remains a full-blooded De Palma movie, bursting with his usual directorial flourishes. From the meticulously choreographed interrogation scene that opens the movie to the continual sleights of hand and trompe l’oeil effects, slow motion explosions, scenes in which dreams and reality seem to blur and even the ruby red lipstick worn by the doomed Scott Thomas that matches the blood from her stab wound, make the film very recognisably the work of its director. Miraculously, it also succeeds as a Cruise action picture. Critics picked up on the film’s many references to Hitchcock. Sight and Sound called it “an explosion of pleasures”, comparing it to North by Northwest and praised De Palma for making the story match the relentless tempo of the famous Mission Impossible theme song by Lalo Schifrin. It was re-recorded for the film by Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen of U2.

Nor was it a case of Cruise demanding more spectacle while the highbrow director fought for a greater emphasis on character development. De Palma insisted in a 1998 interview with Premiere magazine that he was the one who fought against fierce opposition for the wonderfully overblown, Wagnerian helicopter, train and tunnel chase that ends the movie.

Mission Impossible is an exercise in pastiche but it is glorious pastiche. The bravura sequence in which Cruise’s Ethan dangles spider-style from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, is inspired by the heist in the French thriller Rififi (1955) in which the thieves chisel through the ceiling of the apartment they’re robbing. The De Palma touch, though, is the close-up on the drop of sweat that Cruise catches in his hand, when if it hits the floor, the alarms will go off.

“One of these is enough,” an exhausted De Palma told Cruise when the actor asked him to make a sequel to Mission: Impossible. After he bowed out, John Woo, JJ Abrams, Brad Bird and Chris McQuarrie went on to direct further instalments of the franchise.

The tone of the movies has changed dramatically since 1996. The redoubtable Ving Rhames is still there as Ethan’s trusted sidekick Luther, but most of the other actors are long gone. The films have become lighter and yet more self-parodic. The stunts are as astounding as ever but what you don’t find is the sheer cinematic chutzpah that De Palma brought to the franchise. No one is comparing them to Hitchcock movies anymore.

Posted by Geoff at 6:36 PM CDT
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Monday, May 29, 2023

Posted by Geoff at 12:12 PM CDT
Updated: Monday, May 29, 2023 12:16 PM CDT
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