The Last Days Appendix II: Mission: Impossible (1996 – Brian De Palma)

mission-impossible-1996

So if Arnold Schwarzenegger is the penultimate movie star… then who is the last movie star?   Whilst there are still bankable, charismatic actors working today (Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington spring to mind) there are none who are able to get funding for their films on their name alone.  Even our subject has had to rely on building a handful of franchises (of which this film can retrospectively be seen as the first entry in one) in order to maintain the level of funding to which he is accustomed.  Tom Cruise is our last movie star.  In itself this is a curious statement; why are we assuming that there won’t be any more after him?  Star actors are so necessary to the success of movies.  Why is it that we have devalued them so?  I’m as big an auteurist as the next person, but that central, charismatic performance is what drives cinema.  You can choose your angles and edit your footage as much as you want, but we go to the movies to see the close-ups of these impossibly beautiful, deeply captivating actors.

It’s strange to think that as Cruise has got older, he has become a more physical performer.  Nowadays, the vast bulk of his career is consumed with action pictures, each one containing an extremely dangerous set-piece that Cruise performed himself.  He is one of the most reliable performers in the business, and even when the film as a whole does not add up to that much, there is a certainty that Cruise will be giving it his all, and watching him will be a pleasure.  But in the early days of his career, Cruise actively distanced himself from the action genre.  Instead, he chose to serve a form of apprenticeship, choosing to take parts in the films of notable, established directors such as Martin Scorsese and Sydney Pollack.  It was a bold decision, especially when we consider that the ideal of stardom (that of Schwarzenegger) was utterly concerned with stunts, explosions and running very fast.

Indeed, once Cruise finally took the plunge into the action genre he chose an established, New Hollywood director to helm it.  Even today, he prefers to work with stolid, workman-like directors (your Christopher McQuarries and Ed Zwicks), rather than anyone too flashy – Cruise has always been a classicist at heart.  Mission: Impossible was our first sight of Cruise pushing himself physically, and from this point, there would be no going back to understated supporting roles.  Cruise has a total commitment to verisimilitude; if there is a stunt or action he can do himself, he will.  This allows the directors he works with to have a greater freedom of shots – they can place the camera close to him during his performances, and in doing so, draw us closer in to him.  We are drawn to Cruise because on the big screen we can glimpse what he is capable of, and understand the genuine danger he is in during these moments.

Whilst the action sequences in Mission: Impossible may feature fewer explosions and car chases than the other films of the nineties, they annihilate them when it comes to inducing tension in the audience.  The meticulous planning and choreography of De Palma ensured that a simple act of Cruise abseiling down into a room became almost iconographic in its execution.  Using the heist sequence of Topkapi (1964 – Jules Dassin) as a launching pad (in itself a quiet rebuke to those who dismiss De Palma as a mere Hitchcock rip-off), De Palma ensured that a simple bead of sweat could cause us to grasp the armrests of our chairs.

And that is the great beauty of this film.  It does not fully reveal to us what Tom Cruise would ultimately become capable of in his career, but it does show us how pace, close-ups and the simple cut from shot to shot can cause us to be enthralled.  The first thirty minutes of this film are about as perfect a sequence in the history of cinema.  From the very start, a complex web of screens, masks and lies indicate that there will be a level of unreality to the film.  As the IMF team handle their heist upon the elite party, we realised as an audience that there are things going on in the background of shots that are as important as what is happening in the foreground.  De Palma cemented his use of the split-diopter lense into the very narrative of the film.  In doing so, he reminded us of the great pleasure of his films; that his tricks, his use of the camera, is the vehicle for telling the story.

Many of these tricks, particularly his use of first-person shots, lent themselves well to the spy genre.  And like all of De Palma’s method, it’s invisible until you start to look for it.  Mission: Impossible is one of many entries in this genre that occurred in the nineties; films such as Patriot Games (1992 – Philip Noyce), The Peacemaker (1997 – Mimi Leder) and The Saint (1997 – Noyce again) followed the form, or used the narrative tropes of multiple identities, double-crossing and isolated agents to tell their stories.  They also feature a retrospectively charming understanding of the still infant internet within their plots; Mission: Impossible has a sequence where Cruise posts on usenet bulletin boards.  But the constantly escalating narrative of ‘missions gone wrong’ became highly influential in itself.

(Indeed, one of the loveliest aspects of this movie was the fact that the masks worn by Cruise within the film ensured that the studio prevented Val Kilmer from using too many false identities in The Saint, thus denying us all of too much of a good thing…)

The emphasis on carefully constructed set-pieces in action movies was broadly rejected by the industry – one only has to watch Mission: Impossible 2 (2000 – John Woo) to see how little impact it made – but it did seem to open the door for Tom Cruise to explore how pure physical performance was essential to being a star.  In that sense, Cruise recalls the great performers such as Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.  For that we can be truly grateful.  But for a survey of the action genre in the nineties, Cruise simply did not have any great impact.  It would only be in the decades to come (perversely as he got much older) that we began to see Cruise emerge as one of the greatest physical performers of all time.

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