Where would we be without Tom Cruise?
What is it about this crazed cinematic daredevil in his early 60s that keeps us coming back to the movies in droves? Hollywood is now a minefield of bloated empty vessels for IP awareness that rewards cheap reverence and tired nostalgia over creative innovation, where films can be erased from existence simply for the sake of a tax break. We’ve needed Cruise and his insane commitment to the art form of pure cinematic spectacle more than ever. Top Gun: Maverick proved that last year, becoming the 12th highest-grossing film of all time and sending a much-needed defibrillator to the dying heart of the Hollywood blockbuster. He’s someone that understands the power of people in this industry that is beginning to increasingly favor technology, a notion that is so intrinsic to his recent work and is reflected within its not-so-slight subtext. The opening of Top Gun: Maverick saw Cruise’s eponymous pilot prove he can outperform a machine after his flight program was canceled in favor of funding for drones, and the Mission: Impossible franchise is a collection of films where technology fails and people succeed, showing they are incredibly capable of accomplishing…well…the impossible!
Cruise re-teams with director Christopher McQuarrie to complete a cinematic hat-trick with the Mission: Impossible series in its seventh epic installment, Dead Reckoning Part 1, where Cruise gets to express his Boomer contempt towards technology once more. This time around, Ethan Hunt and the IMF team come up against a timely new foe: a rogue Artificial Intelligence with the ability to infiltrate any operating system in the world without a trace, bestowed with the ominous moniker of “The Entity.” A wild globetrotting MacGuffin chase ensues as Hunt and co. are in pursuit of two halves of a key that will unlock control to the entity when combined. So naturally, there’s a new rogue’s gallery of allies and adversaries hot on their tail.
On one side of the coin is the sleek and seductive Grace (Hayley Atwell), a professional thief hired by an anonymous benefactor to retrieve the keys that becomes reluctantly entangled into an uneasy alliance with Hunt. On the other side is the villainous Gabriel (Esai Morales), a grizzled, mysterious figure who has a history with Hunt, armed with a knowledge of the entity’s abilities and his deadly sword-wielding French assassin sidekick Paris (Pom Klementieff). Shea Whigham and the impeccably named Greg Tarzan Davis are also thrown into the mix as enforcers for a shady Government alliance, determined to track down and detain Hunt for refusing a mission for the U.S. government.
Similarly to the Daniel Craig era of James Bond, McQuarrie’s entries into the Mission: Impossible series have seen a stronger shift towards a greater serialized narrative, emphasized with this 163-minute behemoth of an action film being just part one of two. The first four films were more anthologized, both in narrative and form, where only Ethan Hunt and a handful of elements carried over from film to film. And each director, whether it be De Palma, Woo, Abrams, or Bird, for better or worse, brought their own distinct and (depending on who you ask) memorable tone and style to each film. McQuarrie has certainly followed in these auteurial footsteps and has put his own directorial stamp on this franchise, but has also given it some real balance.
Dead Reckoning Part 1 feels old-fashioned, but very modern. Henry Czerney’s return to the franchise as Agent Kittridge is emblematic of the old and new sensibilities coming together, while also tying this film back to the ’96 De Palma original. McQuarrie has also brought a stronger narrative through-line and a greater focus on character. Removing the rotating roster in the rag-tag IMF squad and cementing a strong core ensemble surrounding Cruise has made the series stronger and makes you so much more invested in these characters. Though these characters have proven over six films they are able to accomplish the impossible, there’s still a real palpable sense of perilous danger at every turn, accentuated not just by the franchise’s dedication to practical stunt work but also the development of the characters.
Dead Reckoning Part 1 feels like the culmination of what McQuarrie has wanted to do with the franchise since took the reins. Every single action set-piece is pure gold, as each successive high-octane sequence progressively makes the knuckles whiter and the heart thump harder. The much-publicized motorcycle jump off a mountain is just a delicious morsel of adrenaline fuel on offer in Dead Reckoning Part 1. The tense cold open on a Russian submarine. The Jason Bourne-esque manhunt at the Abu Dhabi airport. A car chase through the streets of Rome where Cruise and Atwell are cross-armed and handcuffed driving a teeny, bright yellow Fiat 500 that features some superb visual comedy. A foot chase through the narrow alleyways of Venice that results in a kinetic, close-quarters confrontation between Cruise and Klementieff. And, of course, the incredible climax onboard the orient express that not only holds a candle to the 007 classic From Russia With Love, but allows Cruise to gloriously channel his inner Buster Keaton. This franchise’s extraordinary ability to continually raise the bar for Western action cinema is unparalleled, and Dead Reckoning Part 1 doesn’t just hit that bullseye while blindfolded, riding sidesaddle with one arm tied behind its back, but does so every 20-odd minutes.
However, in typical Mission: Impossible fashion, the time between these propulsive action set pieces where Tom Cruise commits some elaborate stunt of death-defying insanity that moves audiences closer and closer to the edges of their seats is spent with characters standing in circles and explaining the plot to each other, bombarding the audience with exposition. It’s done almost out of necessity to take a breather after the breakneck pace of the action, even if it can appear slapdash and some details aren’t always clear. However, the ethos of Dead Reckoning Part 1 and, by extension, the entire Mission: Impossible franchise can be boiled down to a single exchange in the film. Hunt gives a rundown of a mission they are about to attempt, but doesn’t give many details to Grace about the role she has to play in it. So when she asks for more details, Simon Pegg’s Benji immediately interjects with, “They tend to just get in the way.” When the action is as exhilarating and enthralling as it is in Dead Reckoning Part 1, overthinking and getting bogged down in the details is a superfluous exercise, so just sit back and watch in awe as McQuarrie and Cruise go to the absolute bombastic extremes in the name of entertainment.
Though Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1 is only half the story, it feels like the complete package of action cinema. Another spectacular entry into what has become a foundational action franchise doesn’t look like its self-destructing anytime soon. And if this is just the entrée, lord knows what kind of mayhem McQuarrie and Cruise have cooked up for Part 2.
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