By Marc S. Sanders

Brian DePalma directed the first installment of Tom Cruise’s film adaptation of the Mission: Impossible series. It’s good, but not necessarily the best of the bunch.

DePalma’s approach with a script by screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown) & David Koepp opens with last ditch effort at a Cold War setting. (By 1996, Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond had already abandoned that point in history.)

Cobblestone streets in Prague glisten under wet street lamps as a team of spies, led by Jim Phelps (the “Captain Kirk” of the original series) with Cruise’s Ethan Hunt as point man. They are attempting to prevent a buy/sell exchange of a disc containing identities of undercover agents spread across the globe. There are shadows. People walking covertly and other people watching people through cameras on eyeglasses and computer monitors. Everything is going according to plan, until as we expect, nothing goes according to plan, and Tom Cruise seems to be the only one surprised by it all. Now he’s accused of being a traitor having gotten his whole team murdered and he must go rogue (he does this a few times in the M:I films). DePalma’s opening is straight out of a John LeCarre novel. All good stuff.

More good stuff appears in act 2 when Ethan Hunt has to infiltrate CIA headquarters to retrieve another disc and allow himself to cable down into the most high tech secure room in the…well lets just say the world, that is conveniently run by the most incompetent dweeb in the…well let’s just say the world…again. The primarily silent sneak is as beautifully choreographed as a Russian ballet. It’s spectacular.

Even more good stuff occurs in act 3 in a high speed super train crossing through the Chunnel in Europe. There’s a helicopter and Tom Cruise on the roof of the train and even some exploding chewing gum. Act 3 is where DePalma, Towne & Koepp opt to leave the Cold War behind because let’s face it, no spy can remain covert when a helicopter gets tethered to a high speed train in a tunnel.

So yeah, there’s lots of goodies in Mission: Impossible, but it falls terribly short because Tom Cruise produced the film with his ego in the way. For example, he sets up a team of four, all with different specialties. They get properly introduced and then they are given not much to do except watch Tom Cruise “Ethan Hunt” his way out of one dangerous situation after another. Ving Rhames seems like an especially interesting character but all he’s reserved to is typing on a keyboard. Vanessa Redgrave puts on a charming mystery about herself for one short scene as an arms dealer only to do nothing else but sit on the train later on.

Lots of talent was assembled for this film including Jon Voight, Emilio Estevez, Jean Reno and Kristen Scott Thomas but they’re only here to be a live studio audience for Cruise’s heroics.

Compare this film to Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop. Murphy is no doubt the centerpiece, but he does not own every scene. Big moments come from the supporting cast as well. There’s more variety to that picture, which Murphy produced, than Cruise’s production.

A well utilized cast can be the difference between a good picture and a great picture.


By Marc S. Sanders

Brian DePalma directed the very loose cinematic adaptation of Eliot Ness’ squad of treasury agents during the 1930s prohibition era. The movie is The Untouchables, based on the famed TV show starring Robert Stack. It’s a gorgeous picture with incredible set designs, props, and Georgio Armani costume wear. It’s also bloody as hell.

Kevin Costner solidified his leading man status as the righteous Eliot Ness who swears by the law he promises to uphold, while making efforts to topple Al Capone’s (a convincing looking Robert DeNiro) massive Chicago empire that thrives on the buy and sell of illegal alcohol. Capone controls the city on all levels, from government officials down to the police force. His power is unlimited, but he has not filed his tax returns in four years. It’s crazy, but that just might bring him down.

Ness teams up with veteran beat cop Jimmy Malone played by Sean Connery, in one of the most celebrated and winning roles the Academy Awards ever bestowed. Malone knows where the underground liquor operations are located. He knows who accepts the bribes and kickbacks too. The question is how involved does he want to get. He’s the grizzled Irish mentor for Ness, and his timing is perfect for David Mamet’s script.

Memorable additions to the team also include a young and tough Andy Garcia and nerdy Charles Martin Smith as the IRS agent happy to pick up a shotgun for the cause.

DePalma’s film carries the epic look. There’s much splendor in the art direction of the film. It’s a glamorous piece of film, but it’s also just a movie.

Mamet’s script takes lots of liberties against the actual occurrences that came through historically. I do not recall hearing that The Untouchables ever took down a deal while riding horseback alongside the Canadian Mounties, for example. A villainous henchman for Capone is Frank Nitti (a happily slimy Billy Drago), always dressed in bad guy white and putting on the bad guy charm. His demise in the film never happened and most certainly not so adventurous or violently, but DePalma and Mamet clearly don’t care. This is lean entertainment for action sequences set in a gorgeous gangster period. The Untouchables is a slick looking gangster flick and nothing more.

A real star of the film is the Oscar nominated score of the film from The Maestro, himself, Ennio Morricone. His opening piece of drum beats with quick piano keys during the credits will get your pulse going. He also has great horn sections that capture the four heroes in tight shots of shining cinematography from Stephen H Burum. For me personally, this is my favorite soundtrack of Morricone’s massive career.

Costner is well cast. He has the handsome hero look to him. Garcia became a well-known and sharp looking tough guy. Smith did not move on to more celebrated material beyond this. He was remembered comedically here, just as he was in American Graffiti. He also directed since this film. As a team though, Costner, Garcia, Smith and Connery have wonderful chemistry together.

DeNiro actually took a step back from the spotlight here. His Al Capone is not so much a character as he is an every so often antagonizing appearance with a couple of well paced lines from Mamet’s famed dialogue. He’s got a memorable moment with a baseball monologue that convinces you of Capone’s strong arm, but his villain does not get too personal with the hero.

The Untouchables holds a special place in my heart. It was the last film I saw before my life changing move from New Jersey to Florida in 1987. Because the move was hard on me from a teenager’s perspective, I found great escape with this film as I memorized the lines of the enormously colorful characters along with getting absorbed by the violence and emotional variety of tones in the score. Having watched the movie many times since it was released, it’s become a kind of therapeutic experience for me. I take in the gorgeous craftsmanship of the film, the humor and the surprise moments many of the beloved characters face.

The Untouchables is not a perfect film I thought it was at age fourteen. It’s almost proud of its admitted inaccuracies, but it remains a favorite and very personal piece for me. I still love the film, all these years later.