Almost no violence, only implied sex, and an alarming lack of self-aware quips; the perfect ingredients for a summer blockbuster, no? And yet that’s exactly what 1996’s Mission: Impossible is: a sneaky, quiet roller coaster ride of a spy movie that raked in the dough by finding the fun in actually spying. Speedy car chases, explosive firefights, and sleek tech are replaced with tense file downloads, duplicitous sabotage babble, and goofy latex masks; how the film ever attained theatrical success is anyone’s guess, but it was and remains refreshing, to say the least — a kind of anti-James Bond with a rebellious American sensibility. It’s also a fantastic example of how popcorn action can (and should) come in different flavors.
So what exactly does the first Mission: Impossible do differently than its future cohorts? Well, nearly everything. Brian de Palma’s distinct, voyeuristic visuals never let the audience forget it’s watching a movie; he wants nothing to do with the bland, realistic color schemes and flat angles of more recent entries, instead reveling in splashes of neons and unsettling compositions that wouldn’t be out of place in a comic book. A dense script by David Koepp and Robert Towne reminds us why secret agents are more effective when operating in the shadows, ignoring shoehorned romance, ditching run-and-gun for cloak-and-dagger. Lastly, Tom Cruise plays his IMF operative less like an impenetrable ghost legend and more like someone who actually does this kind of stuff for a living, and quietly gets away with it. Like a spy.
In other words, Mission: Impossible is the opposite of what current summer blockbusters are like, including within its own franchise. You won’t find Ethan Hunt dodging fighter jet missiles along a narrow bridge, clinging to the side of an Airbus 400 transport plane as it takes off, nor finding a reason to suction glove across the face of the tallest building in the world — and zero motorcycles will slow-motion jump through fire with doves flying in the background. Sheesh. No, almost every physical stunt (except during an off-tone ending) actually feels plausible, able to be performed without too much special effects trickery. You know, stuff like jumping out the ground-floor window of a restaurant, dangling from the ceiling of a small enclosed room, and hopping a fence. These feats of derring-do may not sound exciting on paper, yet in execution, they somehow still feel over the top in the best way possible, proof that the key to cinematic thrills is merely cinematic skill.
Normally such requirements from what is supposed to be summer escapism would not be tolerated by those whose wish is simply to lean back in the seats and let the entertainment wash over them, but the filmmakers cleverly disguise their work as a typical Hollywood actioner, putting a fake mustache and sunglasses over a globe-trotting espionage story designed to wow the audience with exotic locales and big stars. Standard archetypes like the wrongly accused man on the run, the double agent buried deep within the organization, the rogue putting together a ragtag team to pull off an impossible job, and a final reveal full of betrayal and surprise give the audience enough of familiar things to attach themselves to while they grow accustomed to the new maze. Whimsical gadgetry like exploding gum, camera glasses, actual poison pens, TV wrist watches, and amazingly perfect latex masks keep the feel fun and light; we know this isn’t John le Carré. Loads of spy jargon that could seem tedious, like the screenwriters were just showing off how cool they are, instead sounds smart enough to wink at its own technical ridiculousness. Add to that the crowd-friendly star power of a Tom Cruise in his prime, and Mission: Impossible has plenty of elements to identify itself with its mega-movie brethren to make a studio executive feel safe, while straying in those notable ways. Like, say, an action scene with hardly any “action”?
The rest of the visuals in Mission: Impossible serve the spy movie feel just as well. DePalma’s signature skewed angles ratchet up anxiety during terse moments, while mechanical tilts, pans, and slow zooms act like a surveillance camera, voyeuristically watching and calling attention to points of interest and making it feel like we’re in on the game. Stark color contrasts inspire an off-kilter unease, while use of the whole frame, positioning characters and objects around the edges within a deep focus, either highlights their various levels of importance by their distance relative to the lens, or camouflages their shifty behavior. The large, massively close-up faces of two high-ranking officials loom intimidatingly over a lowly analyst standing meekly in the background as they determine his feeble fate. Zoom in on a waiter off to the side of a female operative at a crowded party; he casts a suspicious look, but is it admiring or observant? Bow-tie, 12 o’clock — often a film goes in with the plan not to call attention to itself in this area, instead preferring to let the script and actors do most of the talking, but Mission: Impossible hides in plain sight, not only supporting its own cause with pictures, but often telling the story with them, ridding itself of extra expositional dialogue that would only mire things further and prevent the audience, spies ourselves, from unraveling intrigue detail by detail.
Set against its sequels, Mission: Impossible doesn’t seem to belong, is the real rogue agent. While those iterations have relied on a more traditional summer movie action-oriented approach, the original tried to subvert the balls-to-the-wall formula, and largely succeeded. It may have removed its mask and revealed the blockbuster identity underneath at the very end, but for nearly two hours it fooled audiences into enjoying an action movie with a much more subdued view of “action,” when it easily could have wrought destruction after five seconds. A quieter approach can still leave audiences speechless; there’s more to action than noisy violence. Because of its creativity in both avoiding and exploiting genre conventions, Mission: Impossible remains a fascinating summer blockbuster, and possibly the best of the series. Turns out that fun spy movies don’t have to be dumb — they just need a little more intelligence.