The Spy Who Left Me Cold

Peter Graves, star of TV's Mission: Impossible, who has since retired to stately voice-overs on the A&E network, is not the sort of actor one thinks of as an old master. Yet he might have shown Tom Cruise, the star of the current feature version of MI, a trick or two.

Graves was, at best, competent as an actor, but his presence, his bearing as superspy Jim Phelps, was so commanding that that didn't matter. Cruise works his tail off as an actor, but his presence is so lightweight that if you look at him long enough, he begins to seem for all the world like a 10-year-old kid playing spy--just as he seemed like a 10-year-old kid playing lawyer in The Firm or A Few Good Men.

Or playing vampire, or race-car driver, or fighter pilot . . . Come to think of it, the first role in which Cruise gained wide notice was in the melodrama Taps, as a military-school kid who goes nuts playing soldier. Cruise is reputed to be a nice, decent human being, and he might have worked as a male ingenue in '60s TV--say, as a Cartwright boy on Bonanza. Onscreen, however, he has no weight, no substance, as a grown-up. In Mission: Impossible, when he warns his superior, "You've never seen me very upset," you think he's threatening to fall down and hold his breath until he turns blue.

This does not suit him well for leading-man duties in this particular vehicle. It's doubtful that series TV ever had a greater triumph of style over substance--of pure, unsullied cool--than Mission: Impossible. Bruce Geller's show involved a circle of U.S. espionage operatives who, by means of absurdly elaborate ruses involving high-tech gadgetry and disguise, would trick criminals and other threats to national security into neutralizing themselves; it had a Skinnerian confidence in the predictability of human responses.

Graves led the gang (for most of the series; Steven Hill had a brief tenure), a stony-faced bunch which included, at one time or another, Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, Greg Morris, Leonard Nimoy, Sam Elliott, Lesley Ann Warren, Lynda Day George and Peter Lupus, among others--all of them foxy and impeccably styled.

Most of the episodes consisted of lengthy, dialogue-free sequences, edited to soft, nerve-racking music. The regular characters almost never interacted with one another and we rarely found out anything about them (the few times when the show did experiment with more "personal" stories, it fell apart). Geller managed a rarity in TV, especially for the time: a show with a truly distinctive style. It rose out of two elements: First, the show subtly--covertly, one might say--made this sort of espionage work seem vaguely sinister, and, second, it made the work seem oddly sexy.

Every week, Graves would get an assignment from a tiny reel-to-reel tape recorder, always followed by the disclaimer "Should you or any member of your Impossible Missions Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge," establishing that these assignments probably weren't strictly legal. But even more inspired was the tape's throwaway line "should you decide to accept it," referring to each mission; it gave Graves the creepy air of a hobbyist, a covert-ops dabbler.

The sexiness rose out of the show's role-playing conceit. All those attractive actors would have to assume other identities--craven traitors, seductive vamps, degraded gun molls, uptight apparatchiks--during the course of a mission, but when the trap was sprung at the end, they would lapse back into cold-fish mode, pile into a car together and drive off into a freeze-frame. It was all rather kinky and alluring.

Seen in reruns today, the series still entertains, though its patent silliness is more evident now than it was back then. Conversely, the feature-film version is well-crafted, watchable and, until a hokey action-movie finale, even reasonably plausible. But it has little of the old show's charm.

This is regrettable, since the team that accepted the mission of making the picture is promising. Director Brian De Palma is a genius at the meticulous presentation of amorality, and he made another vintage TV show, The Untouchables, into a splendid opera bouffe gangster cartoon. The writing team of Steven Zaillian, David Koepp and Robert Towne is no slouch, either.

Yet these lads don't seem to have grasped the appeal of this material. Within the first couple of scenes, they have the IMF ops expressing personal opinions about their targets, and then--grievous error!--engaging in jocular banter with one another. Didn't De Palma, Zaillian, Koepp and Towne recognize that the minute these characters are warmed up, "humanized," they'd lose their mystique and turn into standard action-movie figures? Nor should the MI team be given to outbursts of slobbery emotion when things go wrong. Faced with a glitch in the plan, the TV characters would furrow their brows, wipe a little sweat, and calmly improvise their way out of it.

Setting aside the inevitable presence of poor Cruise, the cast had promise as well. Jon Voight--as Jim Phelps, no longer the star role--and Jean Reno both suggest some of the chilly aloofness of the series, and Kristin Scott-Thomas has the perfect cool, clammy sexuality for an MI babe, but her part is far too small to capitalize on it.

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