Resurrecting ‘Mission: Impossible’
To anyone who was conscious during the late ’60s, the words mission impossible conjure up three sense memories: ”Good morning, Mr. Phelps,” that compulsively hummable musical theme, and the sight of actors ripping lumpy scrims of latex off their faces. And that, friends, is just about all this past summer’s big-screen version of Mission: Impossible retains from the original 1966-73 TV series. Conveniently, Paramount is also releasing 12 episodes, on six tapes, of the original Mission: Impossible. The four videos we were able to review offer a reminder that at its best, the first Mission: Impossible could make impassiveness seem downright alluring.
The espionage game in MI, the series, is all about process. Absurdly complex plans are carried out with a bare minimum of drama; the only concession to suspense is the bureaucratic tattoo of a snare drum on the soundtrack. The two-part episode titled ”The Bunker” (Vol. 6) nails the approach: As Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) and his Impossible Mission Force (Martin Landau’s quick-change artist, Rollin Hand; Barbara Bain’s coolly capable Cinnamon Carter; and the rhythm section of electronics whiz Barney Collier, played by the late Greg Morris, and strongman Willy Armitage, played by Peter Lupus) rescue an imprisoned rocket scientist, the viewer is treated to a dizzying array of impersonations, stratagems, high-tech gimmickry — and a total absence of emotion.
For that reason, the show’s pilot, on Vol. 1, is a fascinating archaeological find. Here the characters actually get to crack smiles: Bain’s Cinnamon clearly has a seamy past, while Landau’s Rollin preens with an actor’s vanity. And there’s Steven Hill as team leader Daniel Briggs, a role he played throughout the entire first season. Hill is currently the sharp grandpa DA on Law and Order, and viewers will be astounded to find him a viable romantic lead here, hotheaded and intuitive where his replacement, Graves, was detached and procedural.
Mission: Impossible could slide into the merely dull, of course: The two-parter ”The Council” (Vol. 3) is a padded IMF-versus-the-Mafia saga that plays out in a series of monochromatic apartments. And the show’s tap dance around real-world events could turn surreal: There’s barely a black actor to be seen in Vol. 4’s ”The Mercenaries,” set in an equatorial African guerrilla camp. By and large, though, the tapes prove that anal-retentive scripts and rigidly controlled performances can make for good TV.
The new Mission: Impossible, directed facelessly by Brian De Palma, is a noisier piece of work. There are additional differences: While the TV show was an ensemble vehicle, the movie is under strict Cruise control — the star also served as coproducer — and the realities of a post-Cold War world add a level of le Carrean disenchantment that the series never envisioned.
With all that, this new Mission seems especially jaded. If the TV show had a fetish for process, the movie worships production values: The real reason some viewers found the plot incomprehensible is that there’s barely any connective tissue between the Big Scenes. The plot involves IMF member Ethan Hunt (Cruise) trying to find out who killed Phelps (Jon Voight) and the rest of his team during a stakeout in Prague. The trail leads to set pieces both marvelous (the high-wire theft of computer files from CIA headquarters) and ludicrous (a dippy climactic chase involving a bullet train and a helicopter). There are latex masks, of course, and a woefully naive depiction of the Internet. Thankfully, there’s also Vanessa Redgrave as Max the black-market arms dealer, with whom Cruise shares the most kittenishly erotic dialogue of his career.
Shrunk back down to TV size, though, Mission: Impossible feels even more disposable than the TV show — and not just because a key plot development trashes the series’ memory in a way that had Graves and Morris crying foul. What you remember from the series is the primal satisfaction of puzzle pieces snapping into place. What you take away from the movie is the sight of Tom Cruise suspended between ceiling and floor, arms flailing and petrified of making contact.
Mission: Impossible (1996 film): C+
TV series: Pilot/Photographer: B+; Council: C-; Mercenaries/Exchange: B; Bunker: A-