Dir: Brian De Palma
Star: Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Emmanuelle Béart, Henry Czerny
There were only a couple of things I could remember about this one. It had a bit at a strangely deserted Liverpool Street Station, about 200 yards from where I worked at the time in Devonshire Square. And it had Emmanuele Béart, who was top-tier EuroTotty back then. Oh, yeah, and the bit with the vault heist, Cruise descending on a wire to a heavily-guarded room inside Langley. It’s still inspiring knockoffs 25 years later. What I really couldn’t recall was anything about the plot. There’s good reason for that. The final credits have just rolled… and I still couldn’t tell you the plot in detail. It’s a convoluted mess of cross, double-cross and betrayal in which nobody except square-jawed hero, Ethan Hunt (Cruise), is what they seem.
Basically, the Macguffin is a list of undercover operatives, which Hunt and his team, under Jim Phelps (Voight), is supposed to stop being stolen. Except, it’s a mission they are intended to fail, with Hunt and Phelps’s wife Claire the only survivors. Hunt is “disavowed” as a suspected traitor, and puts together a team of similarly burned agents to obtain the real list, in order to lure out the real traitor. As you can imagine, this inevitably leads to him dangling off the back of a train, trying to fight the real traitors. The train is whizzing through the Channel Tunnel, with a helicopter (piloted by Jean Reno, whom I’d forgotten entirely was in this) tied to it.
The funniest stuff here is definitely the technology on view. It may have seemed cutting edge at the time: floppy diskettes, searching Usenet groups and monitors the size of tank engine blocks, have not dated well. I had also forgotten this was a De Palma movie (it was originally going to be Sydney Pollack), though compared to much of his work, it’s considerably more restrained. In terms of what was to come, the stunts are restrained, with the green-screen work on the train sequence very obvious. These days, Cruise would likely be, “Get me a train, I’m doing that shit for real.” Here, the riskiest bit of action is probably him avoiding 16 tons of water, after blowing out a mammoth fish-tank with some explosive chewing-gum.
There’s no doubt that the vault scene remains iconic, and is a masterclass by De Palma in the generation of tension. The entire Langley heist is well-assembled, using the skills of the entire team (even the generally underused Claire),reaching a peak as Hawke descends into the noise-, heat- and pressure-sensitive chamber (top). One of the factors that makes it stand out is the silence in which it largely unfolds. If you do not find yourself holding your breath during it, you may well be dead already. The rest of the film, though? Largely meh. De Palma seems to want it to be Hitchcock with giant fireballs. Not a combination I was personally demanding, but I guess close to half a billion in worldwide box-office revenue can’t be wrong.