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'Mission: Impossible' Flies High

Tom Cruise brings energy and charisma to his role in the espionage thriller

'Mission: Impossible" is coming in as one of the big summer juggernauts, opening at more US screens than any other film in history, and it's no wonder. Just a few seconds of that classic Lalo Schifrin theme music, and the audience is pumped up in a primal Pavlovian response.

The film, which is the inaugural effort from star Tom Cruise's own production company, represents his bid to become the American James Bond, and by most measures it succeeds. A franchise is born.

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"Mission: Impossible" is the latest in a long line of big-budget films derived from popular television series of the past. Cruise, who is one of the world's highest paid and most popular movie stars, plays Ethan Hunt, the "point man" of a team of espionage agents whose missions, should they choose to accept them, are all about saving the world from disaster.

Led by Jim Phelps (the only character retained from the television show, here played by Jon Voight), the Impossible Missions Force agents embark on a complicated scheme involving a computer disc. The disc contains the real names of all the covert and double agents in the world. In a long and involved opening sequence set in photogenic Prague, things go disastrously wrong for the group, and Hunt finds himself branded a traitor and pursued by his own agency.

Directed by Brian DePalma, the film contains two bravura sequences that are alone worth the ticket price. In the first, Cruise and his team set out to steal information from no less than the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. This involves breaking into a computer room that has been secured through every possible measure.

Cruise is suspended from the room's ceiling (the slightest pressure on the floor or tiniest rise in temperature will set off an alarm), and proceeds to get to work. This brilliantly filmed segment achieves more tension and suspense from a drop of sweat perched precariously on a pair of eyeglasses than most films get from blowing up entire cities and rivals DePalma's baby-carriage scene from "The Untouchables" as one of the best things he's ever done.

The other highlight comes at the end, in a fight and chase sequence aboard a fast-moving train that is a marvel of stunt work and special effects. Anyone who's seen the film's trailer already has a sense of this scene's spectacular energy.

The rest of the film's running time is concerned with a convoluted and confusing espionage plot that is made bearable by Cruise's charisma and a superb group of international actors. They include: Canada's Henry Czerny, no stranger to the genre, having made Harrison Ford's life miserable in "Clear and Present Danger"; France's Emmanuelle Bart, one of the most beautiful women in films today, in her first major English-language film, and Jean Reno, last seen in "The Professional"; England's Kristin Scott Thomas, whose character makes too quick an exit, and American Ving Rhames, bringing his quiet-voiced intensity to his role as a computer expert. Emilio Estevez has a brief and unbilled part, and, in a delicious piece of casting, Vanessa Redgrave appears as the mercenary information trader "Max."

The enjoyment between Redgrave and Cruise in their scenes together is palpable, and it's a great deal of fun to watch all these performers, many of whom have previously worked only in artier projects, wallow in the film's big-budget excesses.

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"Mission: Impossible" doesn't really bear DePalma's trademark style, and it's easy to believe the reported rumors about the clashes between director and star.

Still, there's a real intensity to the filmmaking, with lots of tight close-ups and off-kilter angles that give an audience the feeling of being as off-balance as the characters.

The screenplay is the work of David Koepp ("Jurassic Park") and the legendary Robert Towne ("Chinatown," "Shampoo"), but the only evidence of the latter comes from the film's unusually dark tone; it is set in a world where betrayal is the norm, even from the most unexpected places.

One of the chief disappointments comes from the movie's jettisoning of the team concept, which made the TV series work so well, to concentrate on Cruise's character as a sort of superhero. But that's not a surprise in a movie culture where the only thing more dominant than special effects is star power.

*'Mission: Impossible' is rated PG-13 for violence and vulgar language.

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