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Mission accomplished

Sometimes a movie opens with such a whoosh that you have to stand back and ask yourself what it represents - whether it has touched a nerve. "Mission: Impossible" has surprised everyone, even its makers, by scoring opening-week receipts in the vicinity of $75 million, a figure rivaled only by Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park."

The movie was expected to be big, but not that big. "Paramount shouldn't expect `Twister' business," predicted Variety, the show-biz bible, just a few days before "Mission" whizzed some $20 million past the opening performance for "Twister." Sherry Lansing, president of Paramount, gave a press conference in which she did her best to conceal her surprise at the movie's opening numbers, which were considerably beyond her own expectations.

And how do we know what those expectations were? Because of the movie's opening day, May 22. Hollywood studios traditionally save their really big summer blockbusters for the period between the middle of June and the middle of July - catching the kids when they're fresh out of school. Movies that are considered just a step down in box-office possibilities are opened in mid- to late May, when kids are still in school.

Last year, for example, "Braveheart" opened on May 24, "Die Hard With a Vengeance" on May 19, and "Casper" on May 26. All were expected to do well, but not that well, and so they opened early, to grab some box-office coin before the summer blockbusters "Batman Forever" and "Pocahontas" (both June 16) and "Apollo 13, "Judge Dredd" and "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" (all June 30).

Of course, "Dredd" and "Power Rangers" tanked, but the studios didn't foresee that when picking their opening dates. This summer, a look at the release schedule indicates Hollywood's best guesses about the real summer blockbusters: Jim Carrey in "The Cable Guy" on June 14, Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Eraser" and Disney's new "Hunchback of Notre Dame" on June 21, and the attack from outer space in "Independence Day" on July 3.

It is quite possible that "Mission: Impossible" will leapfrog past all of those contenders to grab the 1996 box-office crown. This despite the fact that it was inspired by a TV series many younger viewers hardly remember, and many older viewers can easily contain their enthusiasm for. So why did the movie open so well?

Two reasons, I think: Tom Cruise, and the movie's preview trailer and ads. Cruise is a major American star, which will not come as a surprise, but he is also a certain guarantee of quality. His name on the movie means it's not all smoke and mirrors. And the trailer gave more evidence, with its sensational shots from a high-speed chase through the Chunnel beneath the English Channel.

The box office got one additional boost from the weather. It was rainy on its opening weekend across much of the United States, and so there were fewer options for outdoor entertainment, and crowds headed for the theaters.

When they arrived, they saw a film of craftsmanship and polish, with a strong Cruise lead, but without the easily understandable plot elements of a summer thriller in the Schwarzenegger-Willis-Stallone tradition. I'm not sure, in fact, that I could pass a test on the plot of "Mission: Impossible." My consolation is that the screenwriters probably couldn't, either. The story is a nearly impenetrable labyrinth of post-Cold War double-dealing, but the details hardly matter; it's all a setup for sensational chase sequences and a delicate computer theft operation, intercut with that most reliable of spy movie standbys, the midnight rendezvous under a street lamp in a chilly foreign capital.

Tom Cruise plays Ethan Hunt, professional spy, whose assignment, which he chooses to accept, is to prevent the theft of a computer file containing the code names and real identities of all of America's double agents. It's not enough to simply stop the guy; Cruise and his team (also including Jon Voight, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Emmanuelle Beart) are asked to photograph the enemy in the act of stealing the information, and then follow him until he passes it along. This process involves a checklist of Cold War spycraft and cliches: eyeglasses with built-in TV cameras, concealed microphones, laptop computers, agents in elaborate disguise, exploding cars, knifings, shootings, bodies toppling into a river, etc. Of course the whole sequence centers on a diplomatic reception in Prague.

Because "Mission: Impossible" was directed by Brian De Palma, a master of genre thrillers and sly Hitchcockian wit ("Blow Out," "Body Double"), it's a nearly impossible mission to take the plot seriously. He is more concerned with style than story, which is wise, since if this movie ever paused to explain itself, it would take a very long time. There are so many double-reverses in the first half hour that we learn to accept nothing at face value (not even faces, since they may be elaborate latex masks). And the momentum of the visuals prevents us from asking logical questions, such as, is physically copying a computer file onto another disc the only way to steal it? (My colleague Rich Elias has written that the obvious solution for the CIA would have been to hire Robert Redford's team from "Sneakers" to commit an online theft.)

"Mission: Impossible" is all slick surface and technical skill. The characters are not very interesting (except for Vanessa Redgrave, as an information broker, and Jon Voight, who expresses a touching world-weariness in a film too impatient for weariness of any kind). The plot is incomprehensible. The various strategies of Cruise and his allies and foes don't stand up under scrutiny. And none of that matters. This is a movie that exists in the instant, and we must exist in the instant to enjoy it. Any troubling questions from earlier in the film must be firmly repressed.

De Palma is expert at sustained nonverbal action sequences, and there are three in the film: The opening scenario at the diplomatic reception; a delicate act of computer theft, and a chase in which a helicopter follows the high-speed London-Paris train into the Chunnel with Cruise and a bad guy clinging to the top of it.

The computer theft scene will ring a bell with anyone who has seen "Rififi" (1954) or "Topkapi" (1964), both by Jules Dassin, who became famous for his extended theft sequences done in total silence. "Topkapi" also used the device of suspending a thief from a hole in the ceiling, to avoid anti-theft devices on the floor. This time, De Palma gives us a computer "safe room" rigged so that alarms will sound at any noise above a certain decibel level, any pressure on the floor, any change in temperature. Cruise hangs in a harness while carefully inserting a blank disc and making a copy of the file.

Of course it's convenient that the decibel level is set high enough that it isn't triggered by the noise of a computer copying a disc - which is precisely what it should be guarding against. Convenient, too, that the infrared rays guarding the ceiling hatch can be so conveniently dealt with. And very convenient for the audience that the rays are made visible to a normal eye. If you want to see infrared rays really exploited in a heist movie, have a look at "Grand Slam" (1968).

If the heist has been done before, and better, not even the James Bond films have ever given us anything quite like the ending chase sequence, with a bad guy in a helicopter flying into the Chunnel linking Britain to France. Earlier it's been established that the train through Britain is traveling so fast that Cruise, clinging to it, might easily be blown off. This will cheer the film's British viewers, who can forget for a moment that the Chunnel train goes that fast only on the French side, since the high-speed tracks on the British side have not yet been completed. (Inaugurating the Chunnel, former French President Francois Mitterrand wickedly described a traveler "speeding through France and then enjoying a leisurely view of the British countryside.")

No matter. The train goes fast, and the helicopter follows it right under the channel, and De Palma's special effects (by Industrial Light and Magic) are clever for obscuring the scale involved, since a helicopter's blades would obviously not fit into the tunnel - but then why am I quibbling, since the whole stunt is obviously impossible?

The bottom line on a film like this is, Tom Cruise looks cool and holds our attention while doing neat things that we don't quite understand - doing them so quickly and with so much style that we put our questions on hold and go with the flow. When the movie is over, it turns out there wasn't anything except the flow. Our consolation, I guess, is that we had fun going with it.

Will the movie's box-office triumph have a lasting effect? It will have two, I think. It will put Brian De Palma's career back on a sound foundation. After the success of "The Untouchables" (1987), he's had a string of box-office disappointments: "Casualties of War" (1989), the disastrous "The Bonfire of the Vanities" (1990), "Raising Cain" (1992) and the splendid but unsuccessful "Carlito's Way" (1993). "Mission: Impossible" will give De Palma clear sailing for at least a couple of years.

And for Cruise, the success means he now has, if he wants it, what Hollywood calls a "franchise." That means he can grind out a "Mission: Impossible" movie every two or three years, like Willis makes the "Die Hard" movies or Stallone made "Rocky" and "Rambo" clones. Cruise has always shown taste and imagination in choosing his projects, and he might not want to get locked into a franchise, but the rewards could be considerable. And you can bet that on the morning after the record-breaking opening, Paramount's Lansing was on the phone to suggest a sequel. If they make one, their mission, should they choose to accept it, might be to make a movie we can understand this time. That might really set some records.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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