New Mission: Impossible action aims higher and higher 2
This fly-by-the-seat-of-your-motorcycle modus operandi shows how seriously and enthusiastically Tom Cruise still approaches the business of spectacle. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Culture

Review: New ‘Mission: Impossible’ has a few things in common with new ‘Indiana Jones’

Tom Cruise’s latest is also packed with action set pieces that will thrill audiences as the star just keeps aiming higher and higher
ANDREW PAREDES | Jul 12 2023

The good news: I’m guessing you’ve seen—along with a few other billion people—that video which inaugurated the marketing push for Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. You know, that behind-the-scenes diary of Tom Cruise driving a motorcycle up a ramp and then over a cliff in the Austrian Alps. Well, I’m here to tell you that stomach-flipping stunt doesn’t even come close to the vertiginous heights of action tomfoolery that Dead Reckoning comes up with. Not by a long shot.

The not-so-bad/it-probably-won’t-matter-much news: The cast and crew of Dead Reckoning have been circulating stories in the media about how these set pieces are usually dreamed up by Cruise and writer-director Christopher McQuarrie during the development phase, who then retcon plot machinations around them.

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One
Tom Cruise with Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, and Simon Pegg 

On the one hand, this fly-by-the-seat-of-your-motorcycle modus operandi shows how seriously and enthusiastically Tom Cruise still approaches the business of spectacle. At 61, you would expect Hollywood leading men to be trolling for character parts, fishing for that first or second Oscar. But in customary Cruise fashion, the star burned through that career playbook early in his showbiz life, playing amputee vets for Oliver Stone and misogynistic self-help gurus for Paul Thomas Anderson.

Oddly, jumping off buildings and running like a 200-meter sprinter is now Cruise’s version of settling into his twilight years. He’s done courting Academy voters for that Oscar; he’s found his middle-age vocation being the savior of movies from the rapacious, spectacle-shrinking clutches of streaming. If only that indefatigable energy went into building the mechanics of plot.

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One
Hayley Atwell describes the dynamic between Grace and Ethan as flirty, fun and spontaneous.

In this seventh entry in the Mission: Impossible film franchise, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and his two-man, handler-hacker team (Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames) are going up against a villain that is all too of-the-moment: AI. A Russian artificial intelligence program installed in a submarine and originally designed to elude the world’s navies has grown sentient, and a two-halved, cruciform key that’s meant to activate and shut it down is now being hotly pursued by governments and terrorists alike—including by the AI itself, dubbed throughout the movie as *cringe* The Entity.

The mission—should the team choose to accept it—is to retrieve both halves of the key, thus exerting control over The Entity’s power to infiltrate global intelligence systems and basically destroy truth and democracy. Of course, Ethan Hunt being Ethan Hunt, the team soon goes rogue, not certain that the key belongs in the hands of the government (led by returning cast member Henry Czerny, who plays CIA director Eugene Kittridge) who hired them to find it.

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One
Esai Morales, as Gabriel, and Tom Cruise

The MacGuffin-y nature of the action franchise isn’t really my quibble. You can’t really illustrate the end goal of an adventure with an abstract or philosophical object—you need to turn it into a tangible Holy Grail to aid the imagination. But seven movies in, the Mission: Impossible franchise really should start coordinating with rival studios to make sure their narrative engines don’t start looking like each other.

The idea of a world-ending tool whose two halves need reuniting bears an unfortunate resemblance to the central artifact in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. And the similarities don’t end there: New franchise entrant Grace (Hayley Atwell), a thief who inserts herself into the race for the key and brings some sass to the hijinks, seems cut from the same cloth as Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s attitude-copping Helena. And Dead Reckoning’s central set piece—a climactic battle situated on the Orient Express—would have had more brio had Dial of Destiny not situated its own train fight at the very beginning of its story.

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One
Jumping off buildings and running like a 200-meter sprinter is now Cruise’s version of settling into his twilight years.

There are also elements which supposedly define Hunt and the ethos of his Impossible Missions Force that start to look generic when taken within the confines of the action franchise genre as a whole. When Pegg’s Benji Dunn admits under pressure that his friends are what matters most to him, or when Hunt solemnly tells a character that “Your life will always matter more to me than my own,” it’s hard not to hear Vin Diesel’s basso profundo voice talking about family in any of the ten Fast and Furious movies. You can’t help but think that the parameters of the genre seem to be shrinking as well.

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One
Director Christopher McQuarrie returns for both Part One and Part Two of Dead Reckoning.

There’s also the danger of these movies picking up characters like a rolling snowball and being at a loss over what do with them. There’s Vanessa Kirby’s Alana Mitsopolis aka The White Widow, who still does not get a stroke of character delineation since her debut in 2018’s Fallout. (At least Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust and Ethan Hunt have progressed into a definite item here—in an endearingly awkward display of affection with Venice serving as a backdrop. But the sequence, cute as it may be, feels a tad off-kilter for two ghost operatives who have stared down the megalomaniacally worst that humanity has to offer.)

Among the newcomers getting short shrift are the two CIA agents played by Shea Whigham and Greg Tarzan Davis (who is improbably named Degas), who seem to exist either as foils to Hunt or secondhand stand-ins for Henry Cavill, and Pom Klementieff’s silent assassin Paris, whose sudden garrulousness at the climax does little to distinguish her from the long line of femmes fatales that have preceded her.

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One
While Dead Reckoning doesn’t reach the emotional peaks of Fallout, its action set pieces keep aiming higher and higher.

But the biggest question mark is Gabriel, played by Esai Morales. As the putative villain, he is shoehorned into the story as a nemesis from Hunt’s past before he joined the Impossible Missions Force, but his existence is never really justified. Supposedly he’s there to do the bidding of The Entity. (I’m sorry, I will never stop cringing at that name—it has to be one of the lamest sobriquets for an apocalyptic force ever devised in the history of action adventures.) But mostly Gabriel’s reason for being just seems to be as the plot’s punching bag. The audience needs someone to hate, and an algorithm that keeps outsmarting our heroes just won’t do the trick.

But let’s get back to the good news: While Dead Reckoning doesn’t reach the emotional peaks of Fallout—which gave Hunt’s ex-wife Julia a definitive and lovely ending—its action set pieces keep aiming higher and higher. No action franchise injects as much humor (a cartoonish car chase through Rome’s claustrophobic, cobblestoned streets) or high drama (a nighttime knife fight on a Venice bridge) into its action sequences.

And again, that climactic train sequence is a wonder to behold: Structured in chapters like, well, the attached cars of a locomotive, the climax just keeps hopscotching from one outlandish stunt to another. It is breathtaking, insane, and methodically designed to make you cheer. If only a little more of that method had gone into the madness of the plotting.

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Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One opens in Philippine cinemas Wednesday, July 12.

Photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures