Unlike most action films, Mission: Impossible’s distinct appeal operates not so much on suspense but on improbability. Obviously we are immediately tempted to correct this sentence, to change improbability to impossibility, but this is to miss the point. Viewers will notice that Mission: Impossible’s entire premise is that within its confines the impossible becomes merely improbable. And the improbable, as a driving force behind action pieces, takes precedence over suspense—compare to car chases and the like in Ronin, or the race against time in more Michael Bay climaxes than this writer cares to count. It’s not that something has happened at breathtaking speed, read in the “nick of time,” that matters in M:I. It’s that something has challenged our judgments, altered our perceptions—“our” referring not only to viewers, but to the characters who are themselves on a mission.
Most films along these lines are about catching up with someone: time is of the essence! The timing in Mission: Impossible feels almost preordained by contrast—everyone is already “in place” (e.g., in Prague, or on the train entering the Chunnel), it’s merely a matter of defiant spectacle after defiant spectacle. As a helicopter crashes within the Chunnel late in the film, its charred husk and blades come swinging at Tom Cruise, who holds for dear life onto the back of a train. Of course he’ll be safe: but look at how close that one revolving razor-sharp blade comes to his jugular! So very improbable, or, in the language of marketers, so very impossible. (John Woo, not to be outdone in Mission: Impossible 2, had that fight scene where the knife blade came within a millimeter of Cruise’s pupil.) We’ve got a film that exists, first, to make a lot of money for Paramount; second, to offer a compendium of unlikely situations. Nicole Brenez, writing for Senses of Cinema a few years back, has already provided the definitive catalogue of this film’s wonders. No other writer could do it better. We are still trying to figure out the meaning of these impossibilities and their prominence as such, as a parade of wonders, almost distinct from their narrative functions.
In narrative film there are two basic ways of delaying and eliding narrative and not having to pay too much for it. One is the difficult climb to the cultural status of “high art”; after some stumbling in the 1990s and before, filmmakers like Hou Hsiao-hsien, Abbas Kiarostami, and Claire Denis can now make films on a regular basis which don’t bother to give elementary narrative information (or event), or which explicate on-screen assumptions and occurrences only later in the film (rewarding patience). The other method is to bank on, well, the bank. The box office. Corporate suits rely on young men and women to disregard narrative as long as there are adequate amounts of fistfights, gunfire, explosions, cars, T&A, sentiment, sensation, kinaesthesia, fashion, etc., etc., ad nauseum. Mission: Impossible is no clear narrative: it’s a fairly labyrinthine and cynical yarn without much underlining for emphasis. In full-on, high-volume, popcorn mode, nobody’s going to really follow the plot on first go-round. Some people probably don’t totally follow it the 10th time around. Brian De Palma and two of Hollywood’s smarter screenwriters (David Koepp and Robert Towne) know this, so they are able to open up gaps only to patch them in later (e.g., Cruise’s Ethan Hunt recognizes secret agents that no viewer but a De Palma-phile would likely have picked up on) or not at all (e.g., a mask is so effective that a wife cannot recognize that her husband is not her husband).
Ultimately this is what Mission: Impossible is about, and is probably one of the only valid reasons why this TV-into-film remake (so fashionable these days, of course) should still be revisited 10 years or more from its release. By dint of the fact that it is in some way a meta-action film, it is also therefore an introductory analysis to its own genre, and the pleasure comes not only from our viewing of its plot and pacing, but also the unforced chutzpah with which it produces sequence after sequence. Is ballsy self-awareness enough to sustain such a film, such a project, as a postmodern Hollywood masterpiece? Perhaps not completely. But then again, the pleasures of Mission: Impossible’s other aspects are fickle, too; as far as star power, each actor in the film has far better vehicles for the videophile’s pleasure, and star Cruise himself is a laughing stock for celebrity gossip blogs, not a Secret Agent type. Stunts and special effects are better had in innumerable films; so is storytelling based on “intrigue”; and obviously there are even more appropriate Brian De Palma films for admirers of the director. In the end, though, a slightly perverse and non-fanboyish analytical reading of this mega-product may prove to be what will keep Mission: Impossible alive and lively.