The Relative Strangeness of Brian De Palma on Mission: Impossible

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This is a guest post by Navarre Megali, a filmmaking student at UNCSA and North Carolina transplant by way of California, where he enjoys a saturation of craft beer and the use of the word “barbecue” as a noun.

While it isn’t uncommon these days to have “auteur” filmmakers behind big Hollywood franchises, it was practically unheard of in the 90’s, and therefore quite a strange circumstance to find Brian De Palma helming a big splashy action/adventure vehicle for Tom Cruise in 1996. Both Cruise and De Palma at this point were known names in the industry, but their pairing–both then and now–seems to be something of an anomaly. Indeed, the crafting of the first Mission: Impossible and its subsequent success seems to be a sort of happy coalescence of talent and timing.

The Hollywood giant Tom Cruise of today does not exist without the success of the M:I franchise, and it was its first installment that found him not only as a successful charismatic action hero, but a capable producer as well. As his newly-found production company’s first picture and Cruise’s first time filling the producer’s role, the success of the film was crucial, and Cruise was very careful in constructing it. It is for this reason that his choice for De Palma as director was at least strange if not unnecessarily risky. Cruise would go on to work with some of Hollywood’s greatest auteurs in his post-M:I career, but it would be a mistake to say that it was his work on this film that was the catalyst for opening those doors. In fact, in examining his career leading up to this point, we can begin to understand the road map that led him to De Palma: Coppola, Ridley Scott (oops), Tony Scott, Scorsese, Barry Levinson, Oliver Stone, Rob Reiner (back then this was a good thing), Sydney Pollack, and Neil Jordan. In fact, Cruise originally began developing M:I with and for Pollack, before ultimately landing on Hollywood’s best Hitchcock imitator.

De Palma had already completed his seminal works and established himself as a director of renown with Carrie, Blow Out, and Scarface. Nor was this his first foray into the Hollywood action/adventure genre: The Untouchables came before M:I. Nonetheless, his wheelhouse was Hitchcockian thrillers and deep character drama, so the choice–both Cruise’s in his selection, and De Palma’s in his acceptance–for direction was… unexpected. Or was it? We’ve established by now that Cruise had an eye for talent and was quite selective with who he worked with, and that De Palma had already dipped his feet into the Hollywood studio structure. Cruise at this point had seemingly already decided to go with a less-than-obvious choice, and De Palma had found both critical and commercial success in several of his more notable films. What is strange, though, beyond the fact that he accepted, is how well De Palma seemed to function and disappear into his adoption of this big-budget Hollywood genre setting.

Cruise and De Palma did not get along for most of the production of Mission: Impossible. This is hardly news, as the dynamic of the visionary director locking horns with the money-keeper producer is traditional in Hollywood. However, doesn’t it seem a little strange that an auteur director like De Palma wanted a bigger budget for bigger, more showy action set-pieces? It was De Palma, after all, who insisted on shooting the opening scene in Prague, with higher costs and a more complex shooting schedule. Entire scenes like the climactic bullet-train showdown seem severely out-of-character — or, at least, exaggerated extremes of anything he’d done before — for De Palma, and it’s surprising just how well he executes them. Most likely, these were the result of insistence from Producer/Star Cruise, but ultimately these were things that De Palma agreed to and then made his own. This, to me, is the most fascinating aspect of De Palma’s direction on the film: while it features some very patented De Palma characteristics, it also functions in some places as an incredibly well-staged action/adventure film from an auteur director.

The film opens with a classic De Palma (via Hitchcock) motif: the revelation of artifice and staging, a utility that lays bare the deception of performance and its relationship and interaction with an audience. In the case of the opening scene, the team is found executing an op, and upon its completion, walls are torn away, stage setting revealed, and actors/operatives exposed to reveal a convincing deceit; an apt metaphor for cinema in general and a clever way of working this theme into the fabric of a property built on such deception. As such, this theme is easily worked into and maintained through the narrative of the film, with the following botched op featuring a (later revealed) double-cross enabled by the virtual omniscience of the eventual villain through the use of “high-tech” surveillance. The following (several) double-crosses and use of identity throughout the film to obfuscate intent further underscores this theme, although for purposes that admittedly run counter to the original texture of the show: Martin Landau has famously expressed his displeasure with the film, stating its misunderstanding of the original series in its ahem mission to employ mind-games with the intent to deceive while avoiding detection. Read: not an action/adventure movie.

But I digress. De Palma, without a doubt, does weird things with this film. The Hitchocockian opening, the Dutch angles, a seriously-out-of-nowhere employment of POV (the lead-up to the first meeting with Max), brutal death scenes (Emiliooooo!!!), etc. all have the unexpected stamp of an auteur on a studio picture. They also, however, all contribute to the movie’s moderate unevenness in tone and theme. The early scene with the failed op is genuinely unnerving, and even downright scary in its crescendo of deaths. The following scenes with a reeling Ethan Hunt trying to make sense of the aftermath feel rightly disorienting, but then it all moves into a tantalizing heist adventure film in the latter half. It is this shift in tone and genre from Hitchcockian thriller to Hollywood action/adventure that feels strange, and some critics have argued that it feels out-of-place and inconsistent. I myself would argue that it’s simply unexpected, but for the most part, works well enough to keep me engaged.

Once the film does change tone, though, it really kicks into high gear and it’s weird how good De Palma is at crafting these scenes. The CIA break-in is iconic for a reason, and that stunt will forever be immortalized in its pop culture references. The chase atop the bullet train is genuinely thrilling, and its culmination with the exploding helicopter and rallying music cue is expertly crafted. De Palma has essentially explained that his reasoning for doing films like this is simply to bankroll the smaller, weirder films he likes doing, but his dedication to the craft of good storytelling here is nevertheless impressive, and in fact incredibly influential as a precedent for the franchise moving forward. The weirdest part about his involvement in this film isn’t in his initial hiring, but in how effective he is in its execution, even to the point where at some point we seem to lose sight of his influence in how well he stages the big action/adventure scenes of the film that have now become the defining characteristics of the franchise’s DNA. Ultimately, it would seem that–for the time being–De Palma was a director incapable of making bad cinema, no matter what genre he worked in.

Even if he himself wasn’t entirely dedicated to whatever genre that may be.

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One thought on “The Relative Strangeness of Brian De Palma on Mission: Impossible

  1. Fantastic article. I’ve often found the film to be a black sheep in the Hollywood/action/adventure hemisphere, a rare occurrence. However, I take it you’re not a fan of the original tv series? I am. And I have to say, when I saw the film in theatres in ’96 my excitement and expectations were quickly abolished 20 minutes in witnessing the portrayal and murder of the IMF team at the hands of Jim Phelps – the hero of the show… A obvious and petty stunt to give way to a one man ego piece; a Tom Cruise piece. To me this was like killing off James T. Kirk after he decided he hates Starfleet.

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