In ‘Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning – Part One’, Tom Cruise Continues His Quest To Save Cinema

Tom Cruise and Hayley Atwell in Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One (2023)

The Mission: Impossible movies are an exercise in maximalism — James Bond spy thrillers if they starred a crazy man (Tom Cruise) who seems determined to risk life and limb with each installment. They’re also, fittingly, an ode to the majesty of moviegoing itself: The stunts, the spectacle, the impossible (heh) things you can see in a motion picture and must catch in a darkened theater, with no phones or lights or distractions. Where most modern blockbusters soak you in special effects, Cruise is the special effect: A mercurial, magnetic, deeply strange man who’s over sixty yet spits in the face of death while someone else rolls a camera.

And so it goes with the Mission: Impossible movies, a series of ever-more-ridiculous spy thrillers whose plots are as ridiculous as the stunts and almost as inconsequential. Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning – Part One has a blinkered script that befits its clunky title, and yet…. And yet…. It’s still one of the boldest spectacles of the series, the year, and its star.

Your Mission, Should You Choose To Accept It…

The third movie in the series under the helm of Cruise-whisperer and deft journeyman Christopher McQuarrie, Dead Reckoning Side A senses the end is nigh for super-spy Ethan Hunt and his plucky support team (Ving Rhames, ever-seated as franchise mainstay Luther Stickell; Simon Pegg’s Benji, still the comic-relief hacker who bristles at his skillset overlap with Luther; Rebecca Ferguson’s mysterious double-agent Ilsa Faust). But where previous films in the series did the post-drone-era thing of questioning old-school spycraft in an age of digital espionage, Dead Reckoning takes on cinema’s greatest current foe: an ultra-smart, sentient AI whose slipperiness and malice gives it the ability to tear apart the public’s own sense of truth.

It’s goofy stuff, even for a series that has had super-viruses and secretive organizations and rogue nations; you can see it in every dead-serious monologue from the stuffed suits at the CIA (led by Cary Elwes, drinking up the camp) about how this thing might bring about the end of the world. How? No one knows, save for the tip that it’s on the hunt for a mysterious key that activates a Mysterious Thing that, whatever it is, will bring about Armageddon.

But don’t worry, Ethan and his team are on it. Except, of course, their first attempt to intercept it leaves them broken and scattered, thrown to the four winds by the AI’s interference. Ethan’s only clue? A plucky thief (Hayley Atwell) who’s after the thing too for her own reasons. In so doing, she finds herself trapped in the middle of a decades-long feud between Ethan and an old nemesis (Esai Morales, all salt-and-pepper menace) who’s allied himself with the AI.

Cruise Control

In the middle of it all is Cruise, sailing through this thing with all the gritted-teeth intensity of the star at his prime. There’s something a bit crazy about Cruise, a real-life weirdness that bleeds through those matinee-idol looks and into the characters he plays. It’s most acute with Ethan Hunt, a guy who can seemingly do the impossible but often finds himself frazzled in crazy situations (like a car chase through the streets of Rome in a dinky yellow Fiat mini, handcuffed awkwardly to a passenger who can’t drive very well).

And yet, as these latter movies try to sell, Hunt is now a figure of immense melancholy, a lifer who’s seen virtually everyone around him die and refuses to let it happen again. Hunt et al. make much ballyhoo of the fact that they’re a team, a family if you will (he’s been taking notes from Dom Toretto, and not just on the best ways to destroy the Spanish Steps), and Hunt winces with decades-old wounds we only hear about seven movies in. It’s fitting that McQuarrie infuses these latter installments with such overt Catholic imagery — a key in the shape of the cross, a villain named after the archangel Gabriel, action scenes that threaten the seat of Catholicism in the world — because Hunt, and Cruise as an extension, feels like a Christ figure of his own making.

This Franchise Will Self-Destruct in 5…

But oh, what sacrifices he makes for us. Cruise, with McQuarrie and cinematographer Fraser Taggart pointing the camera, throws himself with reckless abandon through one expertly-crafted, deliriously escalating action sequence after another. With help from Eddie Hamilton’s slipstream editing, Cruise paces his way through airport switcheroos, claustrophobic alleyway brawls, and more. (In an attempt to bring the series full circle, McQuarrie delights in the steep Dutch angles Brian De Palma deployed in the first film — doubly fitting when they center on Henry Czerny’s returning spymaster Kittridge.)

But it’s the climax, a high-wire act on, in, and around the Orient Express, that feels like the apotheosis of everything Cruise and the series have been working towards. It’s a dizzying mixture of practical stunts and heart-in-throat tension, as Cruise Evel Kneivel-s his way over an Alpine cliff (shaped, in I’m sure no small coincidence, like the Paramount logo) on a motorcycle onto a speeding train. It’s great spectacle, to be sure, but it also feels like Cruise continuing his chosen mission to restore and maintain the glory of classic cinema. His motorcycle jump evokes The Great Escape; a slow-motion train crash that follows mirrors Buster Keaton’s classic The General.

That’s the world that Ethan Hunt, and Tom Cruise, is trying to save: a world where we ooh and ahh at the things we see together on a big silver screen. Not because it’s showing us things that could never happen, courtesy of deepfakes and CG and heaps of green screen. But because it can happen, and did, and we can’t believe they pulled it off.

RATING: 8/10 SPECS

Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning, Part One crashes into theaters on July 14.

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Author: Clint Worthington

Title: Contributing Writer

Bio:

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as a Senior Staff Writer for Consequence. He is also a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and Critics Choice Association. His byline is also available at RogerEbert.com, Vulture, The Companion, FOX Digital, and elsewhere.