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A Haircut, a Heist, and a Helicopter

Twenty-two years after its release, the first ‘Mission: Impossible’ remains a perfect action movie with a perfect Tom Cruise

Paramount Pictures/Ringer illustration

At the 18:56 mark of 1996’s Mission: Impossible, Emilio Estevez’s character (technology expert Jack Harmon) has his face caved into his head by a jagged metal bar in an elevator shaft. It happens because there are spikes that point downward on the ceiling of the elevator shaft that come out any time the elevator goes up toward the top floor. The spikes are there to prevent anyone from trying to hide on the top of the elevator, which is a thing people always do whenever an elevator is shown in an action movie, and what Harmon was doing in Mission: Impossible. (He was up there because he was supposed to be hacking into the security system of the building while the rest of his team—the IMF, otherwise known as the Impossible Missions Force—infiltrated the building and got what it was they were trying to get.)

This is what it looks like when it happens, and it’s very gnarly to see but it’s important that you see it because it gives weight to a point I’m going to make in a moment:

Paramount Pictures

But I point out Harmon’s death here for four reasons:

  1. I can think of no greater indictment of a man who is supposed to be the technology expert in a group than that man losing control of the system he’s supposed to be hacking and getting a pointy bar rammed through his face. It’d be like if you were a dentist and all your teeth had cavities, except worse than that, because cavities in your teeth are tiny and a cavity in your whole fucking head is not.
  2. If you watch the clip, Jack stares up at the spikes for a solid five seconds before the front of his face gets pushed to the back of his head. He didn’t try to slide to the side or move back or lay down flat or anything. (There was a gap between each row of spikes that he definitely could’ve fit in between.) Instead, he just looked up, saw the spikes, waited to hit them, and then let them mash the worst part of his body he could’ve chosen them to mash.
  3. I rewatched Mission: Impossible recently (because I’m rewatching all of them to get ready for the newest one, Mission: Impossible—Fallout, which comes out this Friday) and somehow, SOMEHOW, I had completely forgotten about the elevator death scene, and watching the coach of the Mighty Ducks get his head turned into a bowl is only the kind of thing that can happen in a franchise that has had as many iconic moments as the Mission: Impossible franchise (remember the dangling-from-the-ceiling scene or the rock-climbing scene or the motorcycle fight scene or the skyscraper scene or the underwater-with-no-tank scene). Which leads to the last thing, which is probably the most important of all of this …
  4. Despite the bigness that the Mission: Impossible movies would eventually grow into, the first Mission: Impossible remains the closest to perfect that any Mission: Impossible movie has ever been.

Paramount Pictures

A Case for Perfection

Tom Cruise’s haircut

It’s actually the best haircut he’s ever had in any movie he’s ever been in. It’s stylish and angular enough that it lives as its own thing but still somehow never interrupts or intrudes on the flawlessness of Cruise’s face. It’s a top-level haircut, really, on par with Brad Pitt’s haircut in Fight Club and Uma Thurman’s in Kill Bill. (There’s also a section in the final third of the movie when we get to see Cruise’s Ethan Hunt a little beaten up and worn down from all of the spy moves he’s had to make and he has juuuuuuuust a tiny amount of stubble and it’s very nearly breathtaking to see how perfectly he wears it.) (Brian De Palma directed Mission: Impossible and he knew exactly how to most effectively weaponize an in-his-prime Tom Cruise.) (Tom Cruise is so handsome in Mission: Impossible that you could probably argue that it’s actually a porno and not an action movie.)

The villain

Jon Voight, who plays Jim Phelps, leader of an IMF team and Ethan Hunt’s mentor, has forever had villainy running through his veins and arteries. If you’re ever watching a movie and Jon Voight shows up in it your first thought should be, “Oh, OK. That’s the bad guy. Cool, cool, cool.” I’m honestly still waiting to see how he double-crosses Nic Cage in National Treasure, because I just know it’s going to happen. (Watching Jon Voight pretend to be a sweet and sincere and well-meaning dad in National Treasure is like watching a great white shark try on a cashmere sweater.) (The only villain that’s ever been better in a Mission: Impossible movie was Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mission: Impossible III.)

The origination of an unbeatable gag

Do you know how many times I’ve fallen for someone wearing a mask in a Mission: Impossible movie? And how many times I’ve incorrectly declared that someone who was not wearing a mask of someone else in a Mission: Impossible movie was wearing a mask of someone else?

A defining action moment for the franchise

Eight things here: (1) The team breaking into Langley to steal the real NOC list still stands—even to this day, more than two decades later—as a great pick if you’re talking about one of the most tense and expertly choreographed moments in an action movie. (2) I remember watching Mission: Impossible in a theater when I was a teenanger. It was the first time I’d ever been to a movie in which the biggest and best part was one that was silent. It was captivating. (3) Watching it at home, there are still parts in it when I can feel myself holding my breath because I don’t want to make any noise and set off the alarms in the room. (4) WHERE THE FUCK DID THAT RAT IN THE VENT COME FROM AND WHY WAS FRANZ SO SET ON KILLING IT? (5) The part when Franz Krieger loses his grip on the rope and Ethan drops down to nearly touching the floor and has to flatten himself out to keep from touching it is, no questions asked, no debates about it, no qualifiers needed, totally and entirely and unbelievably great. (6) THE BEAD OF SWEAT. (7) A big part of the heist is the team has to poison an employee to make him extremely sick extremely quickly. It happens in several heist movies. All I hope for in life is that I am never the guy that a heist crew has to make sick so they can successfully complete their heist. (8) Franz accidentally dropping the knife as he takes the disk from Ethan and trying to say some slick shit to him after Ethan has just pulled off this amazing feat is the most I have ever identified with anyone in a movie. (Mission: Impossible is so good that we’re nearly done with this article and we’ve still not talked about the exploding gum, the fish tank run, the thing when Hunt tells the guy that he clocked the backup IMF team as soon as he walked in the party, the scene when Hunt first meets Max … )

A very weird but cool thing

After Franz and Ethan and everyone are back at their home base following the Langley heist, Franz demands that he go with Ethan to meet the person who is going to buy the NOC list they’ve just stolen. Ethan brushes him off. Franz tells him that he gets to make the rules now because he’s the one holding the disk with the NOC list on it. And Ethan—and I’m so happy I get to write this—and Ethan, in response to finding out that Franz is holding the NOC list and now using it for leverage, starts doing fucking sleight-of-hand magic tricks. He’s like, “Oh, what’s the matter? You’ve never seen this trick … ” and then makes the disk vanish while Franz stares at him in amazement. Ethan makes the disk reappear and then disappear a few more times, and Franz, who I guess believes in magic, snipes, “Where is it?” Ethan brings it back and Franz storms off, throwing the disk he was holding into a trash bin as he walks out of the room. (And of course it turns out that Franz was holding the actual list the whole time and Ethan bluffed him out of it.)

A neat plot trick and twist

Ethan figures out that Phelps, who was supposed to have been murdered by the same operational mole who killed Harmon, is actually still alive and the true bad guy because he accidents his way into a Bible stamped by the hotel where Phelps talked about staying earlier in the movie. And what’s better: In the very next scene, we see Phelps reappear, make contact with Hunt, and the two of them are sitting at table while Phelps tries to convince Hunt that a different person is the mole. But Hunt, because of the Bible, has already figured out that Phelps is lying. So he’s talking to Phelps about the guy that Phelps is trying to set up, but all the flashbacks we see while Hunt is talking are of Phelps. And I know that it’s a little confusing reading that, and honestly it’s a little confusing in the movie when you’re watching it the first time, too, but that’s to the benefit of Mission: Impossible because every good spy movie needs to be at least 15 percent confusing the first time you watch it because that’s how you know that spies are cooler than you and smarter than you.

A defining moment for action movies

When Phelps gets exposed as the mole and Ethan is chasing after him, Phelps attempts to escape off of a high-speed train to a helicopter flying behind the train (that’s being flown by Franz, who we find out is working with Phelps). As Ethan and Phelps fight one another, Ethan manages to hook a cable from the helicopter onto the back of the train. The train approaches a tunnel and it becomes very clear that Franz is about to get blown the fuck up because the train is going to pull the helicopter into the concrete barrier around the tunnel’s entry point. Except what happens is Franz, at the last possible instant and in a moment of desperate innovation, dips the helicopter down and flies INTO THE TUNNEL right behind the helicopter. The sequence ultimately ends with Franz (the perpetual fuck-up) accidentally crashing the helicopter while trying to use the helicopter blades to slice the top of Ethan’s head off, killing not only himself but also Phelps, who gets crushed underneath the helicopter when it smashes onto the floor and explodes. It’s all very ambitious and very creative and very wonderful to watch. (Watching Franz accidentally kill himself and his friend because he was trying to be petty is the second-most I have ever identified with anyone in a movie.)