How Mission: Impossible inverts the spy formula

This year is the 25th anniversary of the release of the first Jurassic Park. For most of us at Cinedelphia, it is a film that has defined what we look for in a summer blockbuster. So what better time than now to revisit the last 25 years of summer blockbusters and pick our favorites? View the criteria and full introduction here, and the whole series here.

7. Mission: Impossible (dir. Brian de Palma, 1996)

I’ve written before about how this is my favorite film franchise ever (in a piece I will not link because it is three years old and has aged terribly) but going back for a full rewatch made me appreciate this first entry even more than I had previously. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved Brian de Palma’s 1996 Mission: Impossible since the first time I saw it as a child, but Ghost Protocol is my platonic ideal for these films, so the original entry had diminished in my memory a little after the last two entries in the series.

But one thing that remains impressive about this film is that it holds all of the DNA needed to make every other film in the Missions: Impossible series, but does so while completely inverting the formula. From my understanding, the original Mission: Impossible television series was kind of like The A-Team, each team member having a speciality that would absolutely factor into whatever crazy scheme or situation the group needed to solve in any particular episode. And yes, this movie has a team that follows that dynamic. They are killed off in the first 10 minutes.

Then we follow Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) on the run and on the internet, and quickly recruiting a new team. They aren’t as trustworthy as the previous team, nor are they as tested, and Ethan has gone from being the favorite son in a family of spies to being the leader of a crew of basic strangers. This changes the entire dynamic of the film, and while it serves to increase the tension, it inverts the formula in a way that is more dramatic and interesting than any other franchise that seems to try and shake things up (See the ‘hero versus hero’ plots in Captain America: Civil War and The Fate of the Furious). It makes the entire film feel a bit off, especially as a kid having grown up with Connery and Moore-era Bond films shaping my conception of the genre.

Of course, one of the best things about the series is that each director brings their own directorial stamp to the entry they helm, whether it be doves or mystery boxes. De Palma goes full force with Mission: Impossible, using upward angles, and of course the split diopter, allowing him to create even more tension:

I will admit I rarely notice these specific techniques while watching the film, but I think they explain why de Palma’s films feel more aggressively cinematic than many other directors. Having a creator choose to use techniques that are specific to the medium they are working in is a brass ring that should almost always be sought.

And the substance isn’t sacrificed for style. There’s a great emotional throughline in this film about Ethan’s relationship with Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), and the character relationships here are more impactful than anywhere else in the series. This also again, sets this film apart from the Bond series, standing in direct opposition to the emotional distance that defines 007. Mission: Impossible is equal parts style, story, and spectacle, and that’s what makes it one of the best blockbusters ever, let alone the last 25 years.

Also, hear Jill and I talking more about this film (and talking about a lot of things I left out of this write-up) on our recent episode of the Shame Files Podcast.


Author: Ryan Silberstein

Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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