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Murray Close

Raging Waters: Tom Cruise takes a dive in "Mission: Impossible."

Tom Cruise attempts the impossible

By Richard von Busack

THE National Lampoon once asked how many members of the Impossible Mission Force it took to change a light bulb--first Cinnamon has to seduce the superintendent and convince him to cut the power to the building, then Rollin has to disguise himself as the owner of a hardware store, and on and on. Mission: Impossible ran seven years on television, from 1966 to 1973, and it will no doubt be remembered how the Impossible Mission Force, armed with disguises and machinery, would perplex spies and dictators, while somehow team leader Peter Graves maintained his furniturelike composure.

In the new movie version, the IMF group, led by Jim "Mr." Phelps (Jon Voight), is ratted out during a routine mission. Officially "disavowed" agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is left to his own devices with the only other member of the IMF force to escape the trap, Claire (Emanuelle Beart), who is also Phelps' wife. Hunt traces the team's woes back to an Internet information dealer, "Max" (Vanessa Redgrave), although he suspects that the real architect of the betrayal is CIA liaison Kittridge (Henry Czerny). Now underground, Hunt recruits two other ex-IMFers--computer expert Luther (Ving Rhames) and Krieger (Jean Reno, of The Professional)--to break into the CIA headquarters.

Director Brian De Palma makes this thriller appropriately stylish and exciting, with a smashing ending on top of the London-Paris train. There's also a crafty confrontation between Phelps and Hunt at a London train station, during which we're not sure who knows what and when he learned it. The subtext-free quality of the TV show is darkened for the movie; here, the trickery backfires on the spooks, and loyalties are as easily donned and removed as the rubber masks that fooled so many spies. De Palma's films in recent years have taken on a technical complexity worthy of the IMF, as in the three-level shootout finale of his much-derided Raising Cain. He brings all the force of his craft to bear on the big-movie ending and masterfully deploys dizzying angles to suggest the all-night ordeal of Hunt in the aftermath of the original botched job. Throughout the film, the gadgets are used not just as lucky charms to get the heroes out of a bad situation but as elements of genuine surprise.

The problem is the human scale. The incidental dialogue clunks like a dropped wrench during a hushed burglary. When we're supposed to see how avuncular Phelps is, Voight plays him as so reptilian that he practically catches flies with his tongue. Redgrave's omniscient spy Max is rather old-lady gaga. Her comment, just on the basis of flirting with Hunt, that it would be worth $10 million to meet the man sets one's teeth on edge. True, Cruise's body is obviously in superb shape for the stunts here. Still, he has a huge star's problem: he holds the screen when he's on it, but he won't share it with anyone else. Thus, Rhames' thoroughly believable easygoingness is wasted in a scene during which he and Cruise down pints at a London pub; the scene is every bit as awkward as the stunts are graceful. It's these little differences that stand between an intriguing but forgettable summer entertainment and a franchise you'd like to see more of.

Mission Impossible(PG-13; 11 min.), directed by Brian De Palma, written by David Koepp and Robert Towne, photographed by Stephen H. Burum and starring Tom Cruise, Jon Voight and Emanuelle Beart.

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From the May 23-29, 1996 issue of Metro

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