To be sure, crying "foul!" at a big, expensive load of fun is the occupation of the killjoy, and by and large the narrative machine of Mission: Impossible zips along untroubled by such foolishness. (In one scene, Cruise performs old-fashioned sleight of hand with a computer disk. It's a small emblem for the film as a whole: the swiftness of the editing is meant to deceive the brain.) And yet a faint air of disappointment clouds all but the best of the film's gimmicks, as it used to shadow the cheating cliff-hangers of Saturday morning serials. When the basic wheeze is to set up an action that can't be done, and then somehow to do it, the real pay-off ought to be a triumph of plotting ingenuity rather than a coup of film-maker's cheek.
As in the old television series, with which it otherwise hasn't a lot in common apart from that groovy theme tune, the storyline of Mission: Impossible exists to justify a string of set-pieces - most of which seem to culminate with people tearing off their faces to reveal that beneath all the prosthetics they are actually Tom Cruise. There's almost nothing in the way of back stories for the leads, only the most perfunctory sketchings of motive, and though there are some vague shuffles in the direction of a romance between Ethan and Claire (Emmanuelle Beart), his fellow agent in the IMF (that's Impossible Missions Force, not International Monetary Fund), their one prospective clinch is covered by a chaste fade to black; it's a Bond film without Bonding. Instead, you get stunts, some of which are first-rate, and twists, most of which aren't.
Mission: Impossible's McGuffin, as disposable as anything in North By Northwest, is a file containing the names and locations of every major undercover agent in the world. After a Bond-style pre-credit sequence in Kiev which concludes with someone ripping off his face to show that he is actually Tom Cruise, we cut to Prague, where the IMF team, including Kristin Scott Thomas (who looks radiant in formal wear, as if born to play a slinky intelligence operative), set out to swipe the McGuffin in standard baroque fashion. It would be unsporting to give away much of what happens in this heist, but try not to get attached to any of the characters too hastily.
Ethan discovers that the raid was a set-up by his own side as part of an elaborate mole hunt, and that it has left him "disavowed" - isolated and on the run as the chief suspect. Then comes some malarkey involving the rounding-up of some other renegades (Jean Reno of Leon, Ving Rhames from Pulp Fiction), Vanessa Redgrave in mischievous form as an intelligence queenpin called Max and a passage from the Book of Job. But this is just so much preamble to the bit designed to make boys enthuse endlessly to their mates: an Impossible raid on the computer room at the CIA headquarters in Langley. (Keyboard skills count for much more than gunplay in Mission: Impossible, which isn't all that bloody, especially for de Palma.)
You may already have spotted this sequence in trailers: it's the part - a visual pun on the word "suspense"? - where Cruise is lowered upside- down and silently into a room lit with the surreal harshness of an interior from 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the faintest sound, the slightest change in temperature or pressure, even a bead of sweat falling to the floor, will trigger an alarm. Ethan sweats. So will most viewers: this is one of de Palma's jewels of montage, and the point at which the film's fitful humour meshes most smoothly with its thrills, so that you cease to care about plausibility and just get high on cross-cutting.
Having reached a plateau from which it can only descend, and having fleetingly relocated to a safe-house opposite Liverpool Street station, the storyline grows more twist-ridden and the action more fanciful. Though the press show audience applauded good-naturedly at the final slug-out, which involves a helicopter, a high-speed train (with unusually convincing wind effects) and someone pulling his face off to reveal that he is really Tom Cruise, it doesn't bear pondering. Nor does much else: occasionally, cinematic equivalents of fast food can be made nutritious by their cast, but the actors here stay flat. Cruise doesn't show us any grins and twinkles we haven't seen before, and Beart is squandered, with nothing to do except be delicious. As the film opens, she is playing a corpse, and doesn't grow a great deal more animated in what follows.
Perhaps this material, with a careful eye to the family audience, is simply too perky and clean- cut for de Palma to get a lot of juice out of it. The only sections which seem to chime with his earlier obsessions (and obsession is, or was, his master theme) involve the gadgetry of surveillance, and lots of edgy, uneasily gliding point-of-view shots. Or perhaps he's given up caring about making genre material his own, and relapsed into that glacial expertise and misanthropy of which he's been accused. In either case, the result is glittering, heartless fun - the kind of mission you should choose to accept only on your own terms.
What are the chances against the simultaneous release of two eccentric westerns featuring John Hurt? Mighty slim, but here they are: Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man (18) and Walter Hill's Wild Bill (no cert). The former, by a long chalk the weirder, stars Johnny Depp as a prissy city boy who heads out west to an industrial frontier town, fails to land a job, is caught in a shoot-out and heads, bleeding, for the hills, aided by an Injun (Gary Farmer) who, on learning that this naif is called William Blake, assumes that he is the visionary Romantic poet and painter of the same name, about whom he had read in a period of captivity in England.
Sharply filmed in an elegant, nuance-sensitive black and white by Robby Muller (the images are less reminiscent of familiar old western portraiture than of certain types of nature photography: the forests and hills look particularly fine), Dead Man begins in a vein of poker-faced grotesquerie, like Dickens re-imagined by David Lynch. Its first half-hour or so manages to be at once wittily spooky - with Hurt as a wheezing, raddled clerk and Robert Mitchum, armed and heavily bewigged, as a murderous tyrant of a boss - and strangely charming. The remainder, which modulates into a vision quest, heavy on native-American lore, light on incident (though the outlandish spectacle of Iggy Pop wearing a Granma Clampett dress and bonnet should not pass unmentioned), is less certain. If you yield to its druggily unhurried rhythms, as I did, you may be too ravished to give a hoot about what Jarmusch is driving at, or rather meandering towards. If not, you will probably want to shoot yourself.
John Hurt wears neater clothes, and has rather more to do in Wild Bill, in which he plays the educated English pal of Mr Hickok (Jeff Bridges), and furnishes an incongruously literate voiceover. Wild Bill is so fast-moving that it makes Dead Man look like a still, with umpteen shoot-outs and punch-ups in its first 10 minutes alone. The reason it failed to connect with American audiences, and is having only a limited release here, must be less to do with boredom than bewilderment: Hill zooms pell-mell from incident to incident in Hickok's career before settling down to one extended action, in which a young would-be assassin takes an inordinate amount of time to steel himself for Hickok's death. It's an odd, complex biopic, haunted by flashbacks and opium dreams (these shot in grimy monochrome, on the tilt), and deserves this rescue from neglect: Geronimo apart, it's the best thing Walter Hill has done for many years.
Another limited re-release is for one of the best things Francis Ford Coppola ever did: The Godfather (18, 1971), the film that launched a thousand bad Brando impersonations and a million hours of waltzing muzak, and superglued a phrase ("I made him an offer he couldn't refuse") into the English language. Oh yes: it's also, in the contemporary words of Pauline Kael, "the greatest gangster movie ever made in America" - or was, until the release of The Godfather Part Two in 1974 retrospectively transformed it into the launch pad for one of the greatest epics.
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