The First ‘Mission: Impossible’ Is Crazy And Confusing — And That’s Why It’s Awesome

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Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible premiered 23 years after the original television series went off the air (not counting the short-lived 1988 revival). And, now, here we sit 22 years after we first met Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt in that 1996 film, with a sixth installment opening this week in the form of Mission: Impossible – Fallout.

This movie, when compared to the rest of the 1990s, is a bit of an anomaly. Right now, there are only two studio franchises that started in the ‘90s that are still going today with the same main characters: Toy Story and Mission: Impossible. This is a strangely low number, especially when compared to the 1980s and the 2000s. Which makes that first Mission: Impossible movie just a strange, strange entity. (Before I get emails: Jurassic Park and Men in Black now mainly exist with new casts. I doubt there will ever be a third Independence Day movie. And there are a couple outliers that still could come back, like Scream).

Rewatching it today, it’s pretty insane that Mission: Impossible spawned a franchise that’s six movies deep now. Not that it’s bad – personally it’s still my favorite Mission: Impossible movie – but just because it’s so confusing and everything about it existing is bizarre.

Paramount recently released a new 4K transfer of this film (which I bought to replace that awful Blu-ray we’ve been forced to endure for the last 10 years) and it looks so gorgeous. It’s strange to watch one of the newer Mission: Impossible films, then go back and watch this one because De Palma shot it in such an interesting way. There are a lot of Dutch angles in this movie. And De Palma films with a lot of dark rooms, so if the transfer isn’t done properly, it’s going to look bad, like the aforementioned Blu-ray.

And, yes, even rewatching today, it’s still pretty confusing. First of all, it’s funny to remember how mad people were in 1996 about the treatment of Jim Phelps. Now, Phelps was played by Peter Graves in the original series and was replaced in the film by Jon Voight. Phelps had been the face of Mission: Impossible for almost 30 years up to that point and then along came Brian De Palma and this slick new Tom Cruise movie and all of a sudden Phelps is a traitor. This weekend, I would love to overhear someone buying a ticket to Mission: Impossible – Fallout saying something like, “I can’t believe I’m giving these people my money after what they did to Jim Phelps.” (My point is: very few people today remember Jim Phelps.)

The film starts (surprisingly similarly to Fallout; that’s all I’ll say for now) with our new Impossible Missions Force all in action. And for a couple minutes there we all thought Emilio Estevez would have a huge role in this movie. In what turned out to be a “mole hunt” involving a NOC list, the whole team sans Ethan and Claire (Emmanuelle Béart) are killed. Ethan knows he’s been set up as the mole, so to find out who the real mole is Ethan assembles a new team of disavowed agents (which is where we meet Ving Rhames’ Luther Stickell for the first time; the only other actor other than Cruise to be in all six films) to steal the real NOC list so that the mole will reveal himself. (Spoiler: it’s Jim Phelps.)

At no time does Mission: Impossible care if you’re confused. Why would Ethan risk the identities of hundreds of agents just to save himself? When does Kittridge start to trust Ethan again? What if Jean Reno’s Franz Krieger doesn’t buy Ethan’s little magic show and doesn’t throw his (real NOC list) disc in the trash? Yep, it doesn’t care. It just keeps going. And for all the stunts Tom Cruise does in the later films (which, to be clear, are insanely fun to watch), nothing can beat the tension of Cruise hanging an inch above a weight sensitive floor at CIA headquarters. (Again this scene is awesome. Does it make any real sense why they are there or why that room would exist? No, but holy crap it’s a great scene. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the scene where Ethan tells Kittridge, “You’ve never seen me very upset,” then throws the explosive gum at the aquarium. This scene is gorgeous.)

Also, the craziest thing is just the fact that Brian De Palma directed this movie. Yes, De Palma has directed some movies before that could qualify as “action,” like The Untouchables and maybe even Scarface, but Mission: Impossible is his only true “big blockbuster type movie” (as we define it today) and, not surprisingly, by far his highest grossing movie.

But it was such a strange time in De Palma’s career for this movie to come along. We were only six years out from The Bonfire of the Vanities debacle (if you’ve never read The Devil’s Candy you should, as there will likely never be anything quite like it again) and the only two films in-between were Raising Cain and the sort-of cult favorite, Carlito’s Way. Anyway, this would kind of be like if all of a sudden it was announced Francis Ford Coppola were directing a Mission: Impossible movie. I’d for sure want to see that but at the same time it’d still be a strange choice.

That all said, De Palma and Mission: Impossible turned out to be a good mix. The stylistic director and the action movie produced one of the oddest starts to a franchise in history. And this is why Mission: Impossible 2 was so disappointing. The second film felt like what the first film could have been: stylish in a bad ‘90s way (I realize it came out in 2000, but it’s got that ‘90s vibe), straightforward, and all about Tom Cruise instead of being more team-oriented.

Brian De Palma made a great, weird, very confusing, stylistic Mission: Impossible movie and I love it for all of those reasons. There’s no way an action movie like this could come out today. And I write that sentence in a week we are getting a sixth Mission: Impossible movie.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.