Summer of ’96: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, The Masterpiece of 90s Summer Cinema

Tom Cruise was already an international superstar when he assembled a team to adapt Mission: Impossible for the big screen. Ever since he slid across the floor in his tightie-whities and blossomed into an A-list actor, Cruise aimed high, teaming up with the likes of Barry Levinson, Oliver Stone, Tony Scott, Ron Howard, Rob Reiner, Sydney Pollack, and Neil Jordan to deliver a consistent string of heavy-hitting hits. By 1995, Cruise was in the middle of seven consecutive $100 million blockbusters. Now, he was teaming up with rookie producer Paula Wagner, and he wanted to work with the best possible directors he could for his upcoming projects. His first choice: Brian De Palma.

Choosing De Palma, a commercially hit-or-miss stylist with a gleeful approach to cinematic storytelling, was a curious choice for Cruise; on the outside, the pairing didn’t seem like the most apt duo to bring the Peter Graves starring television show to theaters. De Palma had been on a rollercoaster in recent years; from the overwhelming success of The Untouchables to flops like Raising Cain and Casualties of War – and one spectacular disaster in Bonfire of The Vanities, the auteur had moderately rebounded with Carlito’s Way in 1993 before taking on a summer tentpole. It didn’t make sense, at least at first, but the end result is arguably the greatest summer blockbuster of its era – and it is still, 25 years and six entries later – the best entry into the immutable franchise.

Fans of the TV series, which ran from 1966-1973 on CBS, were the target audience for Mission: Impossible prior to its release, so imagine their surprise when the first act of the film involves completely wiping out the Impossible Missions Force team, ostensibly killing Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) and leaving Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt (an entirely new character made for Cruise) the last man standing. De Palma, Cruise, and screenwriters David Koepp and Robert Towne dismantled everything audiences expected in the first half hour, a bold stroke for a summer blockbuster; fortunately, the plans they had in the aftermath of the IMF purge told a florid, fascinating story, full of twists and turns, and almost instantly iconic in its set pieces.

As with many Brian De Palma pictures, the set pieces are the allure, and the most revered in M:I is the Langley heist where Hunt is left dangling inches from the white pressure-sensitive floor, sweating, in the shaky grasp of the most unreliable and, ultimately, villainous Jean Reno. The final showdown in the tunnel between bullet train and helicopter, again with Reno, which ends with Hunt being propelled through the air via fireball, was inexplicably shown in every teaser and trailer leading up to the film’s release. While they are both terrific and tense, Ethan Hunt’s early escape from Kittridge in the Prague restaurant is the most thrilling and dynamic set piece. It is quick and exciting and the first of many awe-inspiring stunts Tom Cruise executes across six movies. The lead up to the explosion is a clinic on ramping up tension:

At the time, the labyrinthine plot, and especially Hunt’s internal navigation through what really happened in Prague once Jim Phelps reveals himself to be alive, was a major source of audience consternation. I remember as a fifteen-year old, completely losing the thread when Hunt is laying out what Phelps wants to hear, all the while going over what truly went down in his mind at the same time. Now, the scene works exactly as it is intended, it doesn’t seem as complex as it once did, but in 1996 this was an issue for general audiences.

Mission: Impossible opened on Memorial Day weekend in 1996, and the extended holiday-weekend haul was over $50 million before raking in $74.9 million when the dust settled Tuesday morning. It was the biggest opening weekend of all time to that point, nearly recuperating the film’s $80 million budget in one weekend – for comparison, 2018’s Fallout had a $178 million budget. Mission: Impossible ended its run with $180.9 million in the bank, and a franchise starter that has been going on for a quarter of a century with the same star. Think Sean Connery in James Bond films all the way through the 1980s.

Mission: Impossible is sleek, smart, and it remains the most aesthetically beautiful film of the franchise. It was the pinnacle of what summer blockbusters could be at the time, and it’s arguably superior to just about any summer blockbuster this side of Spielberg’s shark. The combination of Cruise and De Palma outmatched any combination of director and star at the time, relatively speaking, and the De Palma stamp on this franchise starter is one of the main reasons why Mission: Impossible is still the best entry. So many people in 2021 sing the praises of M:I 4, 5, and 6, in particular, and while I do love those sequels wholeheartedly, nothing will sway me from the original being the pinnacle of the franchise, and quite possibly the peak of blockbuster filmmaking. In the middle of a decade when summer blockbusters were only getting bigger, louder, and dumber, De Palma and Cruise took Paramount’s money and crafted a smart, suspenseful, brilliant classic.

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