Mission Impossible / Casualties of War
Some auteurists prefer the later films of directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, because by the time those guys reached the end of their careers, they were proficient enough to distract audiences with technique while they focused on formal minutiae. But Brian De Palma didn't wait until he was grizzled to start dicking around. Right from the start, in "comedies" like Hi Mom! and "thrillers" like Sisters, he used the visual grammar of classic Hollywood cinema to build movies that had the look of crowd-pleasing entertainment, but were filled with bravura sequences that didn't so much pay off as let go. All the while, De Palma explored his pet themes: the thrill of voyeurism, the fear of helplessness, and movies' paradoxical power to make sense of the real world through blatant artificiality.
His run of not-so-popular "pop" movies is all the more impressive given that he could easily be cranking out blockbusters. He was more or less a hired gun on the mammoth hit Mission: Impossible, on which his biggest task was staying out of Tom Cruise's way while the actor mugged through a set of twisty secret-agent conspiracies. In the movie's preposterous train-versus-helicopter finale, De Palma's touch seems totally absent, replaced by the vision of the various special-effects houses. Still, each of the Mission: Impossible directors to date has used the franchise to explore his own preoccupations. J.J. Abrams looked at the personal toll that living an extraordinary life extracts, while John Woo wigged out on the idea of "false faces," and De Palma put his heart into scenes of people monitoring each other from a distance, unable to stop tragedy.
De Palma dealt with that theme more explicitly in his 1989 Vietnam thriller Casualties Of War, a pulp classic that bombed at the box office because of post-Platoon Vietnam fatigue. Michael J. Fox plays an idealistic private who protests Sean Penn's plan to kidnap a local girl for some recreational rape. Given the seriousness of the subject matter, it's surprising—and ballsy—that De Palma makes Casualties Of War a full-on De Palma movie, with stylishly suspenseful action scenes, heightened performances, and plenty of moments where Fox takes on the role of a typically impotent De Palma voyeur. Fox gets a little too shrill, and the movie is too on-the-nose about the moral vagaries of combat zones, but regardless, De Palma says most of what he means to say in fluid compositions that hold in a single frame everything the audience needs to see, even if they don't want to.
Key features: A rash of in-depth featurettes on both discs, and an extended cut of Casualties Of War.