A few months ago I was so blown away by the ridiculous spectacle of the trailers for Furious 7 that I doubled back & watched all seven Fast & Furious movies for the first time ever just to see what it was all about. What I found was a franchise that I had rightly ignored as a teen for being a mindlessly excessive reflection of what has to be one of the trashiest eras of pop culture to date: that nasty little transition from the late 90s to the early 00s. Over the years, though, I’ve developed an affinity for mindless excess & hopelessly dated trash cinema, so 2015 proved to be the perfect time to watch the Fast & Furious movies from front to end. As expected, they started as a disconnected mess of car porn & Corona soaked machismo, but by the fifth film in the series, something intangible clicked & the movies suddenly pulled their shit together, forming a cohesive action universe built on the tenets of “family”, rapper-of-the-minute cameos, and hot, nasty speed.
I can’t say I was equally blown away by the trailers for the newest Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation, as I was by Furious 7‘s more over-the-top flourishes, but there was a similar feeling of being left out there. Rogue Nation will be the fifth installment of a franchise that’s been around for nearly two decades. Despite the ubiquitousness of the image of Tom Cruise suspended from a ceiling in a white room in 1996, I can’t remember ever seeing a single scene from the Mission: Impossible films. The Rogue Nation ads suggested a similar trajectory for the franchise as the Fast & Furious films. It seemed like something along the way had finally clicked for the series, like it now had its own mythology & core philosophy, which is a feeling I’ve never gotten before from the outside looking in. My mission, should I choose to accept it (that’ll be the last time I make that awful joke, I promise) is to come to know & understand the series form the beginning, to figure out exactly what’s going on in its corny super spy mind, the same way I became part of Vin Diesel’s “family”.
What I found at the beginning of the Mission: Impossible saga was unexpectedly classy. This was a retro action movie starring (a pre-Scientology-fueled couch-jumper) Tom Cruise when he still defined what it meant to be Movie Star Handsome. This was 1996, a beautifully naive stretch of the decade before we let rap rock ruin America. This was a unnecessarily intricate mood piece espionage film helmed by (former Movie of the Month) director Brian De Palma, arguably the king of unnecessarily intricate mood pieces. This was a dumb action movie with a classic score by Danny Freakin’ Elfman, for God’s sake. In other words, why did I wait so long to watch this? I wasn’t absolutely floored by what basically amounted to a love letter to the same 60s super spy media that the incredibly funny Spy spoofed earlier this year, but I was at the very least pleasantly surprised by how well-executed it was. These days it’s difficult not to meet news of an old TV show getting a big screen adaptation with a pained groan, but back ,in its day Mission: Impossible was kind to its source material (despite fans of the original series grousing at its initial release), obviously holding immense respect for the era it came from, while still updating it with a certain amount of mid-90s badassery.
A lot, if not all, of the film’s success could be attributed to Brian De Palma. The needlessly complicated camera work he throws into this film elevates the material immeasurably. Within the first major sequence alone the eye is overwhelmed by an onslaught of tracking shots, Dutch angles, first person POV, ridiculous Old Hollywood noir lighting, etc. De Palma is known for his tendency towards excess and Mission: Impossible definitely has him operating at his least inhibited, displaying the same lack of good taste & visual restraint that he brought to the ridiculous Nic Cage thriller Snake Eyes. It’s a genuine treat. There’s some other cool, big ideas at work here, like the way the movie poses espionage as a form of theater (at one point a character lays out a secret plan as “Here’s the plot . . .”), but it’s really De Palma’s overreaching visual style that makes the movie special.
That being said, a 60’s sense of class & an overenthusiastic De Palma can’t save the movie from its own action movie trashiness entirely. Mission: Impossible is essentially a mere three ridiculous action sequences & some much less exciting connective tissue and there’s plenty of camp value to be found at the very least in its super spy gadgetry. For instance, despite the obviously technically proficient world of international super spies detailed here, they’re all fighting over possession of a floppy disk, a very era-specific MacGuffin that really takes me back. Besides this goofery, there’s also a truly ludicrous scene where a helicopter chases a train into a tunnel, there’s a lot of mileage squeezed out of the high tech masks that allow characters to rip off their faces & become other people, and the infamous Tom Cruise hanging from the rafters sequence features a lot more puke than people typically mention. All of this and Ving Rhames. I cannot stress how much Ving Rhames’ mere presence brings to the table, camp wise.
I didn’t know exactly what to expect with Mission: Impossible, but I was pleasantly surprised. I honestly think it’s super cool that a franchise that Tom Cruise pays for & stars in himself has such a classy, but (intentionally) campy beginning. As far as super star vanity projects go, you could do much worse than a cheesy Brian De Palma action flick starring Ving Rhames & an exploding helicopter. It’ll be interesting to see where the series goes from here, but for now I’m really liking what I’m seeing.