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Mission: Irrelevant

Sure, you can upgrade a TV series to the big screen -- but why bother?

Get a load of this: Tom Cruise thinks fast, and acts faster, to get out of harm's way in a Prague restaurant. With the aid of some explosive chewing gum, he blows the bejeepers out of a huge lobster tank -- and the three big fish tanks overhead -- to cause a conveniently disruptive tidal wave.

And take a gander at that: Cruise again, hanging from the ceiling on two thin wires, cleverly avoiding the pressure-sensitive alarms in the floor below. He gracefully spins and somersaults in the air, until he can reach down to another of the computer keyboards that figure so prominently in his latest movie adventure.

And, holy cow, look there: Cruise once more, pursuing a renegade superspy atop a high-speed train, holding on for dear life as the gale-force wind threatens to blow him off the screen and into another part of the multiplex. It's a dicey situation, made all the dicier when a helicopter pilot somehow manages to remain aloft inside a tunnel, and attempts to nick our hero with a rotary blade.

Yes, it's summertime, and the movies are busy. Last week, we were overwhelmed by Twister, the viscerally exciting but dramatically vapid spectacle that used high-tech camera trickery to create tornadoes as willfully malicious as Godzilla on a bender. Next week, we'll be asked to gallop with Dragonheart, a movie that relies entirely on the audience's willingness to accept a character generated by computers and voiced by Sean Connery as the living, fire-breathing companion of a Dark Ages knight played by Dennis Quaid. (Think of it as Braveheart Goes to Jurassic Park.) In the weeks ahead, we'll have alien invaders devastating Washington, D.C. (Independence Day), Eddie Murphy morphing into a skyscraper-huge lummox (The Nutty Professor) and Arnold Schwarzenegger duking it out with alligators and hanging on to airborne jetliners (Eraser). Clearly, this is the season when Hollywood figures special effects plus big bangs equal boffo box-office.

Mission: Impossible, the big-ticket action flick that has Tom Cruise (and his stunt doubles) performing feats of derring-do, isn't likely to be remembered as either the best or worst of the lot. As summer extravaganzas go, it is relatively restrained and passably intelligent. Better still, it features full-tilt action sequences and an unusually strong supporting cast -- Jon Voight, Vanessa Redgrave and French actress Emmanuelle Beart (Manon of the Springs) are among the notables who help or hinder the star. And yet, like many other big-budget offerings of summers past and present, Mission ultimately seems as pointlessly extravagant and ostentatious as an expensive impulse purchase from a duty-free store.

What we have, basically, is yet another feature-film update of a popular '60s television series. Robert Towne (Chinatown), Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List), David Koepp (Jurassic Park) and several uncredited collaborators were paid to cobble together the screenplay. And what did the producers get from these high-priced scribes? Something only slightly more inventive than the stuff that staff writers cranked out each week for the old TV show. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the screenwriters simply reworked and expanded some discarded script they found in the archives of Bruce Geller, creator of the original series. The movie is reasonably entertaining -- the dialogue is mercifully free of the ear-piercing banalities that clutter Twister -- but as a movie, it seems all out of proportion. So much time, money and energy has been invested in turning a bread-and-butter TV staple into a motion picture "event." With Tom Cruise, no less, in the lead role.

No, Cruise isn't Mr. Phelps, the stern-faced leader of the Impossible Missions Force. That character, played on television by Peter Graves, is handled here by Jon Voight, who spends much of the film looking very much like someone who can't quite understand how he got to this point in his once-promising career. After getting the traditional "Your mission, should you decide to accept it ..." message, Phelps assembles his usual team of highly trained operatives. The group includes Kristen Scott-Thomas, an unbilled Emilio Estevez -- and, of course, Cruise. Their mission, which they decide to accept, is to break into the American embassy in Prague and gather evidence against an employee who's about to sell information about U.S. deep-cover agents. Truth to tell, this doesn't seem like an impossible mission -- it's more like a very difficult task, or a highly challenging exercise -- but it does keep Cruise and company gainfully employed for a while.

And then, of course, everything goes terribly wrong.
Very early in Mission: Impossible, the filmmakers try to pull a fast one and, I'm afraid, they fail miserably. We're asked to believe that, when the smoke clears, a major character is among the dead. As if. Take a look at the opening credits, and figure it out for yourself -- no one who's billed that prominently is ever killed off so early in a movie. When the allegedly deceased individual turns up alive an hour or so later, Ethan Hunt, Cruise's character, doesn't look all that surprised. Few people in the audience -- well, okay, few people who have seen more than five other movies -- will be surprised at all.

But Ethan Hunt's superior (Henry Czerny in an amusingly fussy performance) falls for the charade. Worse, he figures some member of the IMF team must be a double agent. And Ethan is his most likely suspect.

Predictably, Ethan decides to clear his name and track down the real culprit with the help of his very own Impossible Mission team: Krieger (Jean Reno), a burly breaking-and-entering expert; Luther (Ving Rhames of Pulp Fiction), a looming computer hacker; and Claire (Beart), the beautiful and feisty wife of Mr. Phelps himself. (Forget the passionate embrace shared by Cruise and Beart in the movie's coming-attractions trailer -- it's nowhere to be seen in the finished film.) These guys take part in a really impossible mission, one that involves an unauthorized entry into CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. It also involves a few too many scenes in which characters stare intently at flickering computer screens. (What did the writers of spy thrillers do before the invention of PCs and laptops?) The actual break-in is genuinely suspenseful. But the movie's climax, set aboard the aforementioned high-speed train, is something of a disappointment. Despite Cruise's game efforts, he looks like -- well, like someone who's braving nothing more dangerous than the gusts of a wind machine on a movie sound stage. Which only serves to underscore one of the major pitfalls of making big-budget, summer-season extravaganzas: sometimes, even the most expensive camera trickery cannot avoid appearing transparently fake.

Brian De Palma (Carrie, The Untouchables) is listed as the director of Mission: Impossible, though the movie is notably lacking in the visual flamboyance that is typical of his work. It's probably worth noting that he and Cruise (who doubled as co-producer) reportedly clashed while determining the final cut of the movie. It should also be noted that De Palma was a last-minute, unexplained no-show at the recent Los Angeles press junket to launch Mission. This, trust me, is not a good sign.

Whoever had the final say over what is the movie deserves credit for a pleasingly cheeky touch: Vanessa Redgrave, cast as an international arms merchant, turns into a shameless flirt each time she's around the much younger Cruise. And Cruise, clearly enjoying himself, flirts right back. The few scenes that they share are wittier -- and, yes, sexier -- than anything else in the movie. Now that is a special effect.

Mission: Impossible. Directed by Brian De Palma. With Tom Cruise, Jon Voight and Emmanuelle Beart. Rated PG-13. 109 minutes.

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