Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation continues the unexpected late flowering of a TV-derived spy franchise into its best self. Is it not right, then, to take a look back to that franchise's beginnings?

There's an elephant in the room that two decades haven't gotten rid of: the 1996 feature film Mission: Impossible commits to a twist at the three-quarter mark that serves almost no purpose other than to thoroughly and pointlessly piss off anybody committed to the 1966-'73 American TV series Mission: Impossible to enough of a degree that the movie's title would function as a draw. There's damn little about the movie that capitalises on that connection: the plot, attitude, and even the genre are all completely different from the show, although obviously any movie that gets to include Lalo Schifrin's glorious theme music will benefit from doing so. So why do it? The character involved is enough of a non-entity within the film in and of itself that any subversive bite goes awry. The commentary on post-Cold War aimlessness in the intelligence community is identical if you change that character's name and thus avoid the whole bloody affair. All it really does is telegraph a lazy contempt for the property and its fanbase, and even if Mission: Impossible had no other flaws - and it certainly has other flaws - this would be enough to keep me from ever particularly cottoning to it, for I am indeed quite a fan of the show. And also, for some reason, I've spent all my energy so far trying like mad not to spoil a movie that came out two full generations of movie audiences ago, but it's a good habit to keep.

Despite its thorough and conscious rejection of the show it was based on, this was ground zero for the trend of strip-mining classic TV for new action tentpoles (most of the previous TV-to-film adaptations during the 1990s had been sitcoms turned into the movie version of sitcoms), and I will concede that the film's enormous financial success is easy to comprehend: the parts of this film that work, work really damn well, most especially but not only its instantly-iconic thriller sequence that finds Tom Cruise suspended from the ceiling of an austere white room while trying to silently hack a computer. The film kicked off one of the 21st Century's most interesting (even in its worst entries) action franchises, but Mission: Impossible is not itself all that much of an action movie: it's much more interested in plumbing the paranoia that attends to the life of a super-ultra double-top-secret spy, which it does through some elaborately staged moments of high tension that are frequently communicated through mundane speech and character beats.

"Just like Hitchcock!" one might want to say, upon recognising that M:I was directed by Brian De Palma, history's most famed Hitchock impersonator, but by 1996, he'd largely worked that out of his system, and the film is working in a different vein than that. This is still a big-budget studio movie, Paramount's big play for the summer, if not indeed the whole year (it ended up being the third-highest grosser of '96, behind the VFX tag-team of Independence Day and Twister), and it carries with a certain shallow gloss as a result of that. The incongruity of faces like Kristin Scott Thomas and Emmanuelle Béart (in, I believe, her only English-language film prior to 2014) cropping up in such an obvious Hollywood commercial play is one thing that might make us want to credit M:I with a little more artistic gravitas, as does the presence of De Palma, for that matter, clearly more interested personally in pulling at the wires inside a gigantic studio production than actually sitting down to make one like a good boy. These things are all to the credit of producer Cruise (his first project with Paula Wagner under their Cruise/Wagner banner), already at this point looking to start his fascinating project of tweaking, self-analysing, and inverting his superstar persona - Jerry Maguire came out later the same year, and his dates with Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson were next in line. But these things ultimately do not make Mission: Impossible any less of a '90s popcorn movie.

Nor, frankly, is it one of the better examples of such things. The blunt fact is that the story - credited to David Koepp and Steve Zaillian, with the finished script handled by Koepp and Robert Towne - is a bit of a shambling mess, bearing the unmistakable mark of a movie that was assembled from pieces of movies that were not made, with a couple of tremendously obvious loose ends (the most conspicuous being a Bible that serves as the clue to unlock the film's twist, but it makes absolutely no sense how it manages to do so), and a final act that takes the delicacy of the preceding 100 minutes and says "fuck it, just throw an exploding helicopter at it". De Palma's directing doesn't do much at all in the way of obviating these flaws, and it usually feels that he was more invested in pursuing ideas for the sake of it, than pursuing ideas for the sake of this exact movie. That pays off: Mission: Impossible is always at least interesting as an exercise in De Palma stylistics. The problem is that it is, frequently, only interesting as such an exercise.

But anyway, I should get around to the plot before I hit the 1000-word mark, even though in ignoring it I'm doing no worse than the movie. The Impossible Missions Force, a top-secret US government agency that solves the problems that can only be cracked with creativity, cunning, and extra-legal means, has lost a list of its agents' true identities, and top agent Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) and a team he's hand-picked have traveled to Prague to retrieve it. The team, including Ethan Hunt (Cruise), Sarah Davies (Scott Thomas), Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez, uncredited), and Phelps's wife Claire (Béart), successfully infiltrate the American embassy in Prague, but the mission otherwise goes spectacularly wrong: starting with a sudden and shockingly gruesome death for Jack, the entire team except for Ethan ends up dead, a mere 26 minutes into the film. IMF director Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny) informs Ethan (rather stupidly, when it comes down to it) that this suggests to all involved that Ethan must therefore be the mole that the IMF was trying to smoke out with this mission, and so the agent now finds himself on the run to clear his name and find the real traitor, even if he has to enter the grey world of disavowed IMF agents and shady arms dealers to do it.

The scenario and tone split the difference neatly between the sour espionage realpolitik of John le Carré and the florid fantasies of James Bond, and that's by far the nicest thing I have it in me to say about Mission: Impossible as a story. The whole thing is so damnably confusing: not in the rewarding way where we're navigating a puzzle that snaps into place at the end as long as we've been paying full attention, but in the frustrating way where we only have to pay such close attention because the filmmakers made a huge mess of things. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the TV series's focus on group efforts to solve problems as a team of specialised experts; really, it's nothing but a spy-themed variant on the infinitely more satisfying The Fugitive from three years prior, subbing Cruise during an uncertain transitional phase for Harrison Ford at his peak powers. Like many an action film before or since - including all four of its own sequels to the date of this writing - it's primarily a scaffolding for setpieces, and it has the grave misfortune to end with by far the worst of its big three: a helicopter vs. train chase through a tunnel that suffers from all the idiotic bigness of popcorn cinema and lacks any grace in the filmmaking, on top of having primitive CGI that has aged unexpectedly poorly.

The other two are pretty great, though. The hacking scene I've touched on, but it's worth reiterating how well it uses deathly silence and uncomfortably intimate close-ups on Cruise's sweaty face to ramp up the suspense to exquisitely painful levels. The opening scene at the embassy, the only part that feels anything like the old Mission: Impossible, is a nifty marriage of quick cutting between elements of the team's plan, inspired spy movie balderdash (the series' beloved mask machines put in their first, most dramatically "Look at me! I'm cool!" appearance), and beautiful style: an overhead shot of the embassy stairs is an exercise in pure geometrical composition that speaks especially highly of De Palma's visual sensibility. The sequence uses unexpected but totally successful first-person shots to work us into the action; editor Paul Hirsch plows through scenes and lines with terrific momentum-building speed.

De Palma is good enough at suspense that he can even get some really taut tension from scenes where nothing seems to be happening at all: the conversation between Ethan and Kittridge is shot from an inconsistent array of sickening angles, far nastier than any basic two-shot situation has the guts to be, and it's great. It only goes so far, though. Ultimately, the film has a hard time defining its stakes (the MacGuffin is particularly MacGuffiny, primarily because of the number of different times it turns out not to be real), and its characters range from distinct but under-used (Scott Thomas gives Sarah attitude that's not in the script, but she dies before the conflict even begins) to dull functional objects in the script's gears (everybody else, though Béart is the most flaccid, I assume for reasons of language discomfort). After the later sequels left Cruise totally at ease with the role of Ethan Hunt, charming and hard and visibly thoughtful, I'd quite forgotten how stiff he was here; by '96, he'd already given some very good performances, but the real loosening-up that came from working with Cameron Crowe in Jerry Maguire and Anderson in Magnolia was needed before he could make Ethan anything but a generic action movie superhero, here unfortunately stuck in a wannabe-brainy spy thriller.

Credit where credit is due: the film tries to push against its genre, and the auteurist flourishes are unmistakable, which is much more than can be said for the vast majority of films at this level of commercial ambition in this era of Hollywood filmmaking. Mission: Impossible isn't always successful, but it's certainly never lazy. Its earnest desire to be a Bond picture with more thoughtfulness and challenging aesthetics are to be lauded, though I think it's telling that 15 years later, when Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol finally carved a top-notch movie out of this material, it was by going in a different direction than the original film in almost every way other than the mechanical ingenuity of its setpieces.

Reviews in this series
Mission: Impossible (De Palma, 1996)
Mission: Impossible II (Woo, 2000)
Mission: Impossible III (Abrams, 2006)
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (Bird, 2011)
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (McQuarrie, 2015)
Mission: Impossible - Fallout (McQuarrie, 2018)