Wednesday, June 11, 2008

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: Blu-ray (Casey/Werner 1996) Paramount Home Video

The popularized cinematic cannibalization of classic TV shows for big screen entertainment reaches its zenith with Brian De Palma’s Mission Impossible (1996); a relatively faithful adaptation of the long-running serialized exploits of a group of highly trained federal espionage experts. 

The original show was a springboard for stellar ensemble acting, headlined by Peter Graves's stellar performance as Jim Phelps. The film, however, is little more than a star vehicle for Tom Cruise; arguably his last memorable movie to date. David Koeppe/Robert Towne's screenplay shifts its focus from Phelps (played in the film by Jon Voight) to his crackerjack point agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). This rewrite wouldn't be so disquieting, even with Phelps made over as a double agent and the villain of the piece, if only Voight's performance had risen above mediocrity now and then. Regrettably, it does not. Nevertheless,  audiences flocked to see this big budget update, ringing registers to the tune of $456,494,833 in worldwide box office receipts.

De Palma’s utilization of the split screen – a devise (arguably gimmick) that the director is justly famous for utilizing almost to the point of cliché – crops up sparingly in this film, most effectively, when illustrating simultaneous action taking place at various locations. After a very Bond-like pre-credit sequence has fellow IMF team member, Claire Phelps (Emmanuelle Bearte) nearly poisoned to death in Hunt’s ambush of a Russian Mafia member, the film moves into a frenetic montage of snippets from the rest of the story over Lalo Schifrin’s classic 'Mission Impossible' theme, ever so slightly re-orchestrated by film composer Danny Elfman.

The action moves to an Embassy gala in Prague, where Ethan impersonates an American senator in order to gain access to some top secret computer files containing the covert names of undercover agents. The IMF team helmed by Jim (Voight) begins their infiltration with considerable stealth. Unfortunately, their cover does not last for very long.

As Ethan helplessly observes from his various monitors, operative Sarah Davies (Kristin Scott Thomas) is stabbed to death near the Embassy’s wrought iron entrance gate while pursuing a Ukrainian couple. Techno-genius, Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez) is gruesomely impaled inside one of the Embassy’s elevator shafts. Claire is blown up with a car bomb just outside the Embassy's parameters, while her husband Jim is briefly glimpsed toppling off a nearby bridge, the victim of an apparent stabbing.

Aborting the mission, Ethan calls in his casualties to the home office. He is met at a posh after hours club by CIA director, Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny), who reveals to Ethan that not only was the ambush suspected and actually planned for to expose a mole named Job, but that the U.S. government now considers Ethan the mole who arranged for the rest of his colleagues to meet with their untimely ends.

Escaping incarceration, Ethan decides to contact Job’s paymaster; illegal arms dealer 'Max' (Vanessa Redgrave) in the hopes that by apprehending her he will learn the truth about the real Job and therefore clear his name and restore his reputation. Ethan reveals to Max that the NOC list in her possession is a government fake but offers to steal the real list for her since he is now a rogue agent working against the United States. Max agrees to Ethan's venture and the race for the truth begins.

Ethan is reunited with Claire inside their Prague safe house. Although Ethan believed Claire was murdered along with the rest, she explains that she managed an escape the car bomb at the last possible moment and has since been in hiding. Taking Claire at face value, Ethan assembles a team of experts from a group of disavowed intelligence agents that include computer genius, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and hotshot pilot Franz Kreiger (Jean Reno). Together, they break into CIA headquarters at Langley - the now utterly iconic moment when Ethan precariously dangles from wires inside an ultra-sterile safe room surrounded by a grid of electronic eyes - and successfully steals the NOC list.

Retreating to London, Ethan learns that his uncle and mother have been arrested as supposed drug dealers in a feeble attempt by Kittridge to smoke Ethan out of hiding. Contacting Kittridge and allowing his phone call to be traced, Ethan is next reunited with Jim, who confides that Kittridge is the mole. Ethan contacts Max to arrange for the swap and sale of the NOC list aboard a high speed train en route to Paris. However, Ethan has already developed a theory of his own about the real identity of the mole and is merely baiting the rest of the players to get to the truth.

Having been sent a video watch by Ethan, Kittridge boards the train, able to view the events as they unfold through Ethan’s eyes, but from a distance. Upon receiving the NOC list, Max attempts to download the files onto her laptop. She quickly discovers that the signal is being jammed, though she remains unaware it is Luther - seated across from her on the train - who is blocking her.

Claire recognizes Kittridge on the train and moves to the baggage car where Jim awaits. Ethan follows and Jim finally confronts him with the truth – that he is Job, the mole and the man responsible for his team’s demise. Ethan reveals to Jim that his entire confession has been filmed through his video glasses and that Kittridge is waiting outside to arrest him.

Panicking, Jim shoots Claire and pummels Ethan before escaping with the NOC list to the train's roof. Ethan makes chase and the two men become locked in a perilous battle.
Kreiger, also revealed as a double agent, attempts to save Jim by lowering a rescue winch attached to his helicopter flying overhead. Instead, Ethan seizes and attaches the cable to a hook on the train’s roof, thereby dragging the copter into the Chunnel along with the train. In the ensuing struggle for possession of the list, Kreiger’s chopper crashes against the Chunnel walls and Jim is thrown under the speeding train's rails.

Max is arrested by Kittridge and Ethan and Luther are reinstated as active IMF agents. The film ends with Ethan on a plane – presumably bound for the U.S. only to have a faux flight attendant inform him that his next mission in the tropics is about to begin.

Mission Impossible is heartily realized, heart-palpitating entertainment. The Koeppe/Towne screenplay is intricately balanced with just the right amounts of action, suspense and drama to legitimize what could so easily have become just another popcorn action/adventure yarn for the mindless and easily satisfied. Instead, we are treated to a stylish thriller of considerable substance.

The film does have its flaws. Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt is a petulant pretty boy driven to almost mad pursuit by a series of unforeseen circumstances. Though he excels at playing glib in the scenes between Ethan and Max – the more dramatic confrontations, particularly between Ethan and Kittridge take on the flavor of two insolent school chums sparring over the latest Game Boy cartridge.

Voight is perhaps a weak-kneed villain in the final act – unable to convey an adequate level of menace. It is also a pity that Kristin Scott Thomas’ Sarah has been done away with so early in the film. Nevertheless, the stealth with which director De Palma moves all of his chess pieces into play more than makes up for these shortcomings. In the final analysis, Mission Impossible is an exercise in good writing and solid directing trumping mediocre delivery. It’s a great summer film to revisit.

Paramount Home Video’s Blu-ray rectifies the shortcomings on the studio’s DVD transfer. The 1080p image is superior in all aspects. We get vibrant colors, exceptional contrast levels and fine details that positively pop. Overall, this is a great example of Blu-ray's capabilities fully realized. The audio is 7.1 DTS with a pounding bass and phenomenal spatial separation.

Extras include no less than 7 featurettes covering the making of the movie, casting, marketing, etc. as well as a look back at the original television series that inspired the movie. All of these extras are direct imports from Paramount's Collector's Edition DVD. There’s also some theatrical trailers, television spots and other junket materials slapped together for those interested in such things. Bottom line: recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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