When we first hear the famously syncopated theme music, it’s literally a blast from the past. Jacked up in Dolby, accompanied by a fast-forward montage that’s like a trailer played at warp speed, the jagged eight-note signature motif of Mission: Impossible sounds more propulsive and alive than ever — it revives our memories of the TV series and then some. Happily, we sit back, thinking that if the rest of the picture can retrofit our nostalgia this suavely, we’re in for a heady couple of hours. But Mission: Impossible, it turns out, isn’t a movie of simple pop pleasures. Directed by the veteran trickster Brian De Palma, from a script by David Koepp and Robert Towne, it’s a movie of profoundly convoluted pop pleasures. Between dazzling suspense sequences, it invites the audience to work for a good time.

The original show, which ran on CBS from 1966 to 1973, offered a new blend of espionage and paranoid-surreal fancy. Each week, a team of U.S. undercover operatives, led by dour Peter Graves (who looked as if his hair had been white since birth), executed a top-secret operation with tight-lipped bureaucratic aplomb. If their demeanor was strictly business, however, their covert activities, which ranged from the most elaborate sort of electronic slicing and dicing (Greg Morris’ Barney, the team’s technology whiz, might have been the ur-hacker) to going undercover in skintight latex masks, were like a secret agent’s sci-fi version of an illusionist’s variety show. It was the knowing, poker-paced preposterousness of Mission: Impossible — this team of Cold War drones bending reality with a fun-house mirror — that lent the series its hip, ironic edge.

The film starts out like one of those old, beloved episodes, with veteran IMF agent Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) receiving his instructions via videocassette — something about apprehending a Russian agent who plans to steal a disc and use it to reveal the identities of American agents stationed in Europe. Phelps assembles his usual team, draws up his usual master plan, and assigns a pivotal role to his ace protege, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). But just as the team goes into action, the filmmakers pull the rug — and the floor — out from under us.

With the Cold War ancient history, the new Mission: Impossible updates superspy hanky-panky to the Aldrich Ames era, locating the enemy inside the IMF. And the story line, as well, turns in on itself. Mission: Impossible is structured as a Rubik’s Cube that keeps on twisting. It’s about setups within setups, and though most of it makes sense on paper, I doubt I’ll be alone in confessing that I wasn’t always clear as to how, exactly, the mysterious IMF mole connects to the mysterious arms dealer, or to the sinister IMF chief (Henry Czerny), or to the incongruous double murder by the gate… (And is there some reason Vanessa Redgrave plays an underground mastermind like the madam of a West End brothel?) The problem isn’t that the plot is too complicated; it’s that each detail is given the exact same nagging emphasis. Intriguing yet mechanistic, jammed with action yet as talky and dense as a physics seminar, the studiously labyrinthine Mission: Impossible grabs your attention without quite tickling your imagination.

Halfway through, Cruise assembles a new spy team of former agents who’ve been ”disavowed.” With these renegades up and ready, De Palma finally unleashes a great sequence. The agents have to break into a computer room where they’ll set off an alarm if they make a sound or touch the floor. As Cruise dangles from the ceiling in antiseptic silence, the surroundings so sterile white they could be something out of 2001, De Palma, a wizard of crosscutting, gets us giggly with tension. Cruise plunges to within inches of the floor, and the actor’s balletic urgency is palpable — we’re on that crazed trapeze right along with him. Later, in the amazing climax, De Palma places Cruise atop a train traveling at such throttling speed that the fact that it’s dragging a helicopter seems almost an afterthought.

In sequences like these, Mission: Impossible plunges us thrillingly into the moment. But the rest of the film unfolds at a slight dramatic remove. Cruise’s spy team includes the bald, molasses-voiced Ving Rhames (Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction) and the cocky Jean Reno (from The Professional), charismatic actors who haven’t been given nearly enough to do. With Cruise front and center, Mission: Impossible comes close to being a de facto James Bond thriller, yet without the romance of Bond. Cruise, winning as he can be, is too boyish for the hardened superagent he’s supposed to be playing. As the ”love interest,” Emmanuelle Beart, in a role that seems to have been left on the cutting-room floor, is upstaged by her own lips. For all its trickery and bravura, Mission: Impossible remains a quizzical, impersonal toy. When it’s over, and the Rubik’s Cube finally does line up, we’re left with the odd sensation that, distracting as the picture may have been, there never was very much to it. B

Mission: Impossible
  • Movie
  • 110 minutes