If you heard my appearance on CJAD's Tommy Schnurmacher Show last week, you'll know that I did a little live-action comparison between what you have to do to retrieve the data from a highly protected server in a Mission: Impossible movie, and what you have to do in humdrum real life, when the most confidential foreign-policy secrets of the United States are kept in some toilet in Colorado. So I thought we might as well spend Saturday night with Tom Cruise hanging off a train/plane/skyscraper/Colorado toilet in the M:I franchise - and simultaneously wish a happy 75th birthday to Brian De Palma, who, after an illustrious career including Carrie and Dressed to Kill, somehow wound up as the director of the first Mission: Impossible film.
If you had told me in 1996 that the series would still be around two decades later, I would have scoffed very scoffily. Which shows how much I know. I happened to see the first Mission: Impossible the same week I saw Spy Hard. One of them is a parody of every spy-movie cliché in the book whisking its vain hero from one preposterous situation to another; the other is a comedy with Leslie Nielsen, Both begin with an assignment tape — "your mission, should you choose to accept it" — that subsequently self-destructs, and from then on it's hard to shake off the feeling that Mission: Impossible is merely Spy Hard with 62 million bucks' worth of special effects and a less plausible plot.
The big-screen Mission retains nothing from the old TV series except the self-destructing tape and the super-groovy 5/4 Lalo Schifrin theme-tune, which is all most of us can remember from the show anyway. The old Mission was about teamwork: an ensemble of equals led by a determinedly unflamboyant man called Jim Phelps. The new Mission is a star vehicle for Tom Cruise, who happens also to be the film's producer and thus arranges for the rest of the team — including even the Phelps character — to be killed off ten minutes in, during one of those spies-in-tuxedoes-undercover-at-an-embassy-ball- in-Eastern-Europe scenes beloved of spy thrillers. (In this as in so much else, the genre's response to the collapse of the Iron Curtain was to carry on regardless.)
This strange opening foreshadows the film's act of betrayal. For we learn as the movie proceeds that Jim Phelps was not the good guy he was assumed to be. Which, in essence, tells all the fans who spent years watching the telly show that they wasted their time for six years in the late Sixties/early Seventies plus a couple more during the Eighties revival. Several original cast members had been asked to return for the film, but loathed what the script did to their characters. Peter Graves declined the role of Phelps in disgust, and left it to Jon Voight. Martin Landau also passed. Greg Morris hated the "reinvention" of his old show so much he walked out of the theater before the movie ended. But so what? Who needs you guys? It's a Tom Cruise property now - and has remained so ever since.
So, Cruise, on the lam from his own agency, passes the first film happily enough shuttling from one set-piece to the next with a minimum of plot to connect them up. Back in 1996, this was because Brian De Palma had rejected a couple of screenplays and was busy focusing on the lavish production numbers while Robert Towne was brought in to figure out hastily a plot that could string 'em together. De Palma, master of the psychological thriller, was making the best of a non-ideal situation. But it worked so well that they've basically turned the who-kneeds-a-plot? approach into a formula: every movie Tom Cruise does amazing set-pieces with a bit of perfunctory narrative to glue them together. In fact, the plot, such as it is, is usually the same in every film: Mission: Impossible IV? Ghost Protocol. Wait a minute, wasn't Tom a "ghost" in Mission: Impossible I? Why, yes, he was! Mission: Impossible V? Rogue Nation. But didn't he go rogue in Mission: Impossible I ? Golly, so he did.
So, if you've spent 20 years watching the series go round in circles, this is where it came in. In no particular order, this first film gives us the bit where the two agents meet on a park bench and exchange the secret password, the bit where they sit at a screen and try to hack into the top-secret computer, the bit where they try to keep the guy on the telephone long enough to trace the call, and, of course, there's a big fireball. There was a lot of it about. Cruise plays a super-secret agent known as a "ghost", as indeed does Arnold Schwarzenegger in his film Eraser, which opened at almost exactly the same time. Cruise is pitted against a mole on his own side, as is Arnie; Cruise is trying to stop the mega-super-secret computer disc from falling into the wrong hands, as is Arnie; and it all winds up on a high-speed train — likewise Arnie. But somehow the clichés gave Cruise a two-decade goldmine, and merely accelerated Schwarzenegger's wan fade-out to the impotence of Californian politics.
As for the film's high point, in which Cruise is lowered into the ultra-mega-super-secret vault at CIA HQ in Langley, Virginia, Brian De Palma pretty much lifted it wholesale from Jules Dassin's Topkapi. And, to go back to where we came in, I'd much rather see the scene recreated in Hillary's server's minder's bathroom's closet.
Incidentally, it's lucky for Tom that, even for its state-of-the-art secure vault, the CIA continues to install air ducts the entire Radio City Rockettes could comfortably tap-dance down. A couple of years ago, at a loose end in a skyscraper, I tried crawling down a ventilation shaft and got as far as my shoulders. Possibly you could have got Kate Moss down there if you'd greased her up with a tub of Vaseline. But, in the CIA duct, there's room for Tom and his accomplice, a camera team and maybe a couple of other film crews:
"ArnieI Quelle surprise! What are you doing here?"
"I'm breaking into the CIA for my new movie Eraser, Tom. Vot brinks you?"
Personally, I missed Kristin Scott Thomas, who gets bumped off in the opening embassy scene. Even at the time, as irritating as it was to see her continually wasted in crummy supporting roles, you sensed this was somehow how it would always go: as Four Weddings and a Funeral fades from memory, the brief exchange where she confesses her love for Hugh Grant seems more and more the truest moment in the picture, and a zillion times better than any of his scenes with Andie MacDowell. It's the same here. Once Scott Thomas is gone, we have to make do with Emmanuelle Béart as the gal sidekick. It's no wonder their erotic interlude was cut from the movie: they can send Cruise flying along the side of a high-speed train, they can deck him out with high-tech laser-beam neutralizers, but no one in the special-effects department can invent a gadget which would make him look as if he and his leading ladies have any sexual chemistry. In the latest, opposite Rebecca Ferguson, they don't even bother.
And yet stripped down to the essence - no plot, no characters, no sex - Tom Cruise has managed to make the whole thing work for him and keep him in the game as every other Nineties star has dwindled away. The films have action and sheen, and are hugely enjoyable. They are, indeed, the state of the art: immense skill in the service of no story whatsoever.
As for the star, compared to the insouciance of 007, Cruise is foursquare and earnest. In this first film, his most expressive features are his curiously overdeveloped arms. When droll arch-villainess Vanessa Redgrave shows up looking to close a big arms deal, you know she's wasting her time: in this picture, Tom's big arms have got the best deal going.