His is an impossible mission–to save movie theaters, once again, but Tom Cruise will always choose to accept it.
If last summer’s Top Gun Maverick made a case for Cruise as the gold standard of modern movie stars, its head-spinning global success propelled by the promise of watching the actor soar higher and faster than anyone before or after him, the latest installment in his death-defying Mission: Impossible franchise seeks to build upon that momentum by all but officially top-billing Cruise as Hollywood’s last man standing (and sprinting, flying, speed-racing, and riding a motorbike off the edge of a cliff).
With his megawatt smile and trademark dedication to doing his own stunts, no matter the cost, Cruise is an assuredly rare breed, one of the few working professionals whose bankability and unassailable personal brand still go hand-in-hand, and whose commitment to releasing movies in theaters is only rivaled by his near-fanatical devotion to making movies viscerally awe-inspiring enough to sanctify the big-screen experience for a new generation.
With film studios crashing and burning at the box office with one empty occupation of IP after another, there’s something undeniably cinematic about Cruise’s authentic commitment to his craft and the breathtaking thrill of watching him hang from the side of a plane or scale the Burj Khalifa. And he knows it. To hear it from the actor himself, via audio leaked from M:I’s set after crew members flouted COVID-19 safety regulations, “That’s what I sleep with every night — the future of this fucking industry!”
And so it makes sense in his exhilarating Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One that Cruise’s opponent is an actual algorithm, a sentient viral intelligence called “The Entity” that’s capable of controlling and manipulating the truth as soon as it exits reality and enters a digital realm. Nothing that passes through a computer screen can be counted upon, in other words. The only solution is to figure out where the AI’s source code is housed and manually pull its plug, ideally before it makes use of all the military weapons systems and intelligent networks it’s hacked into. (Not since Sex Tape has so much dialogue been dedicated to our distrust of the omnipresent Cloud.) Hitting theaters after years in development and various pandemic-related delays, Dead Reckoning is strikingly well-timed in its affirmation of in-camera stuntwork and real locations as Hollywood’s only counter to, and defense against, AI-assisted annihilation.
Luckily, for the future of humankind, its most practically minded super-spy is on the case, having already received his mission the old-fashioned way–via self-destructing cassette, naturally–and accepted it without hesitation. In IMF agent Ethan Hunt, Cruise has found a hero who can embody his fabled willpower, a perpetual running man whose races against time and frequent face-offs with the laws of physics carry literal, existential stakes; if his fuse burns down, if he fails to stop the clock or beat the odds, the ensuing explosion will be of the world-ending variety. Although cutting-edge AI’s increased presence in the plot brings Mission: Impossible toward a more speculative resonance, much else remains the same in this reliably slick seventh entry in the franchise, now far and away Hollywood’s most well-oiled blockbuster machine.
Skillfully shifting between exotic locales and orchestrating one impressive action sequence after another, the film surrounds the actor with an ever-expanding array of elegant, ass-kicking women (franchise faithful Rebecca Ferguson, plus Hayley Atwell, Vanessa Kirby, and Pom Klementieff), techie sidekicks (Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames), and clandestine ne’er-do-wells (Esai Morales, Henry Czerny, and Cary Elwes). And it precisely calculates a ratio of dramatic twists to familiar thrills that infuses the proceedings with a real sense of consequence, one absent from Mission: Impossible‘s devil-may-care early installments but that complements Cruise’s recent on-screen confrontations with his own mortality, and the specter of a future he might not be able to outrun.
Credit returning co-writer and director Christopher McQuarrie, over a decade into his creative collaboration with Cruise and on his third film in the series, with keeping all of these players in motion, and moving at the breakneck pace required by such a breathless undertaking. If the tone and feel of earlier Mission: Impossible entries flowed from their filmmakers’ established styles — Brian de Palma‘s twisted Hitchcockian suspense, John Woo‘s gloriously stylized action, Brad Bird‘s cartoonish action-comedy — McQuarrie’s lasting contribution is a style of intensely pressurized efficiency. His films push the Mission: Impossible franchise away from espionage melodrama and toward a spectacle of function, of situation and action over emotion and impact; each bravura sequence doubles as a celebration of the derring-do involved in its making, most of all a legitimately heart-pounding scene in which Cruise — not a stuntman, as befits his mantle as the greatest showman — rides a motorcycle off a cliff and turns its descent into a base-jump, in one flawlessly executed shot.
Dead Reckoning Part One adds as well a climactic trainwreck sequence and a handcuffed chase across Rome in a tiny yellow Fiat, both of which amplify Cruise’s physicality to near-comic proportions and position him alongside such fleet-footed virtuoso performers as Jackie Chan and Buster Keaton. Amid all the swiftly moving commotion, and the steady whirring of plot mechanics audible within it, Cruise delivers another performance built to exaggerate his enduring stamina and sense of superhuman determination. Even so, he finds humanity in this action avatar and manages to offset Ethan’s deadly-serious purpose with self-deprecating wit and a puckish, knowing foolhardiness.
In this respect, the film’s stacked supporting cast is among its essential assets, providing Ethan with a revolving door of allies and enemies who willingly cede the spotlight to his unparalleled bouts of high-octane athleticism without entirely vanishing from view, and who represent the kind of collateral damage that Ethan cannot sanction. As quick-fingered pickpocket Grace, Atwell supplies the easy, free-flowing charisma and mock incredulity of a future franchise lead; Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust, introduced back in Rogue Nation, gets slightly less to do in this installment, but the actress brings to her interactions with Cruise a wearied recognition and, within that, the sense of a meeting of equals.
The best performances come, however, from Kirby as the glamorous, scene-stealing arms dealer Alanna Mitsopolis, whose unnervingly diamond-hard facial expressions can flicker moment-to-moment between mischief and menace, and Klementieff, whose ludicrously costumed and mostly silent assassin is the type of adversary so wonderfully outsized she can throw even a spy as seasoned as Ethan off his game.
Perhaps one result of Cruise’s evident compulsion to up the stakes dramatically with each installment is that Dead Reckoning feels like the most self-conscious of the Mission: Impossible films, both in its stylistic homages to earlier entries (such as De Palma’s intense close-ups and canted angles) and in its hat-tips to classics as wide-reaching as The Hunt for Red October (a clever prologue on a Russian submarine) and Battleship Potemkin (a riff on its Odessa steps). That the film concludes with a cliffhanger — albeit one more satisfyingly full-circle than those seen in other recent Part One blockbusters — adds to the sense of a franchise taking the long view of its legacy and pulling out all the stops in preparation for next year’s supposed grand finale.
After all, the tension of these films has never been dependent upon the outcome of Ethan’s mission, instead building as the odds of this character’s success dwindle and his bouts of bravura showmanship offer palpable, flesh-and-blood reasons to keep the faith. It’s a sensible equation to split in half, and Dead Reckoning Part One delivers its spectacle smartly, without shortcuts. The series serves now to set a continually high bar for craft in Hollywood filmmaking, holding out against the remainder of the industry’s audience-alienating digital detritus, restoring a certain level of trust in the potential of the blockbuster to push limits and earn your admiration.
With McQuarrie and Cruise hard at work on Part Two, the new Mission: Impossible leaves the fate of the world at once hanging in the balance and in improbably safe hands.
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is now playing in theaters worldwide courtesy of Paramount Pictures.