19 Years Ago, Mission: Impossible Took Tom Cruise To Charming But Unfocused Territory

19 years later, Paramounts epic spy franchise Mission: Impossible is not only still around, it’s in the best shape of its life. The last film, Ghost Protocol, was only the second entry to make over $200 million domestically and became the highest grossing picture in the saga on a worldwide box office basis. And to think it all started with the 1996 feature promptly titled Mission: Impossible, which would become the only movie in Tom Cruises career that would get a sequel (though Jack Reacher is likely to become the only other movie of his to get a follow-up).

The plot of this first M:I film is pretty simple; on a major mission, all of the members of Ethan Hunts (Tom Cruise) team are killed, leaving him in turmoil. Realizing the deaths of his teammates are related to a larger nefarious plot, he teams up with three other agents to take down those responsible for the demise of his comrades. I wish the movie just stuck with that plotline, as there are one or two plot detours that needlessly convolute the story, which, as you can imagine, becomes quite distracting.

It’s a pity that the film loses itself at a couple points, as there are a number of sequences in the feature show the sort of engrossing action that the Mission: Impossible movies have managed to excel at. Look no further than an intricate scene where Ethan has to get into a heavily guarded room at the CIA, with numerous factors (for example, if the temperature in the room increases at all, alarms will go off) at play that could make the entire affair crumble under the weight of its simultaneous story elements.

But the heists dramatic potential goes off without a hitch, with even a drop of sweat gliding across Ethans glasses providing enormous amounts of tension. It’s a testament to director Brian De Palma that this and other suspenseful moments work as well as they do. The way he transitions into certain scenes had me yearning for a bit more pizzazz, but he has a great handle on how to properly use visual storytelling to make all of the spy antics feel as compelling as they can be. I also like the nice touch of having two scenes be shot from Ethan’s POV, which helps to heighten his emotions in those individual moments.

In the context of the franchise as a whole, it’s interesting to note how the Ethan Hunt we meet here is not the assured figure seen in Ghost Protocol. In fact, Hunt, at the start of the story, is just another member of the IMF team, and only through the course of the events of the movie does he become a more capable fellow. Tom Cruise plays this transition decently, delivering some lines flatly, but excelling in moments relying on action (shocker, I know). The rest of the cast rarely rises above serviceable, sans Ving Rhames as an entertaining agent/hacker that Hunt recruits.