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'Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1' and the Friends We Made Along the Way

In two hours and forty-seven minutes, Tom Cruise’s master spy Ethan Hunt and his merry band of circus freaks chase two halves of a Cruciform key around the world in a desperate attempt to stave off the end of transparent humanity as we know it. As with every Tom Cruise vehicle, it can’t help but also be about Tom Cruise. Audiences are immersed in the chase for two halves, and we as audiences are forced to wait another year for the second half of what seems to be Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie’s epic to end all epics, a behemoth in scope and scale that hopes to tackle every fear in the system of Hollywood right now.

The end result is an unwieldy and monstrous caper that rides a thin line between slapstick and mythic storytelling. If Fallout was the adrenaline-fueled and dreamlike epilogue to the sleeker Rogue Nation, Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One is the postscript of the franchise that puts everything on the table for all to see. It’s the most ambitious mission yet.

In the wake of Fallout’s hazy grandiosity, McQuarrie and Co. are going bigger yet, even while subconsciously floating the notion that they may have already passed the franchise peak. Fallout may have been the culmination of Cruise and McQuarrie’s careers in a critical sense, with Top Gun: Maverick offering itself up as the statistical equivalent. Two sides of the same coin, those films suggest that Tom Cruise, demigod, may be the only thing keeping the world – the movies – safe anymore. If Spielberg can put aside the War of the Worlds press cycle to tell Cruise he “saved the movies,” then maybe that safety is worth a five-hour saga.

It’s an idea that’s been driving Cruise’s career for a few years now, and Dead Reckoning offers something different: Tom Cruise, not as demigod, but as god-killer and thereby… God? In a delightfully literal sense, the villain of this seventh installment is AI itself, ominously dubbed “The Entity.” Its motivations are unclear, but it is certainly inhuman, and to believe in the inhuman is to blaspheme not only in a religious sense (its human evil-doer vessel is literally named Gabriel) but also against the sanctimony of the cinema. McQuarrie and Cruise envision the end-all-be-all enemy of this franchise to be the antithesis of what it stands for. Practicality against artificiality, the hard way vs the easy way. It’s in this odd dichotomy that the movie’s most interesting contradictions come to light.

Dead Reckoning Part 1 is a near-perfect time at the movies, which means it’s a subpar Mission: Impossible movie. Taken at face value, it’s a note-perfect summer movie that should knock every audience back in their seats with its audacious set-pieces and gorgeous vistas blown to bits by the propulsive action mania everyone has come to expect from Ethan Hunt and his team of bomb-diffusers. Digging a bit deeper, however, some cracks emerge. Balancing tone becomes a bit of an issue as the movie has the touch of a caper, high-octane Buster Keaton meets Ocean’s. It’s therefore odd that McQuarrie imbues the film with a grander sense of mythos than ever before, weighty and burdensome where it used to be cheeky, our collective recognition of Cruise’s apotheosis to cinematic nirvana writ large on IMAX.

Hunt’s unerring dedication to his friends, the driving force of the last few movies and a key unlocked by McQuarrie, is less sweet this time around. Instead, the characters exhibit a histrionic self-awareness, an inevitable if somewhat distracting quality for a franchise on its seventh chapter. Such awareness is also a bit of a curse, as one-liners about the International Monetary Fund and Hunt’s habitual rogue behavior don’t land, and the magic trick these movies always pull, convincing audiences that they knew what they were doing the whole time, feels flimsier here – the card is so clearly up the sleeve.

Following three of the best Western action movies of the last decade is a monumental task, and most would be let off the hook for not meeting that standard if it weren’t for the fact that they’re the same ones who set that bar so high. However, as a straight summer movie, it delivers. The action is breathtaking and the stars are shining. Franchise favorites return with charm and reliability while Pom Klementieff fashions an iconic henchwoman and Shea Wigham and Greg Tarzan Davies shine as the movie’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, here as agency stiffs on Hunt’s trail.

Mystery and spycraft espionage make grand returns to the franchise – its Orient Express climax is something of an all-timer – and a car chase through Rome is similarly spectacular. Both instances exemplify the movie’s best qualities. They are analog alternatives to the CG bombast of summers past, trading in pixels for parachutes and stick shifts. Cruise has been chasing Buster’s shadow for a few movies now and almost catches up to him and other screwball comedies of the past while never sacrificing the moment for reverence. Every bit of effort is up on the screen and the vision feels complete, if a bit jarring. In fact, it jars quite violently.

Self-awareness can be cute in its doses and this is a series that has known that, so to find this entry looking at itself in the mirror and trying to beat itself to some punches doesn’t sit quite right. In the same vein, when McQuarrie and Erik Jendresen look at Hunt (read: Cruise) and his history with women, something sticks in the gears. Spinning the plates of MacGuffins and setpieces is one task this crew is up to, but facing the reality of this protagonist's history of women is most certainly not.

There’s a vision here that I don’t jive with and that’s what the movie is fighting for: a human voice whose authenticity lies in its unpredictability. This is how the hallowed heroes win the first part of this installment – they do win, and that’s not a spoiler. Dead Reckoning, more than anything, comes off as a cry to fight for the right to make movies that might not land, but whose flubbed landings are not because of shoddy noncommittal effects and sequencing. There is a red-blooded, beating heart at the center of this unwieldy behemoth, and it’s a heartbeat that is hard to love. Its own beats are sporadic and often weightless, yet that beat, determined across the runtime, is exactly what’s worth fighting for amid the threat of artificial displacement.

Cruise and McQuarrie are star-crossed (film) lovers against the backdrop of an atrophying cinema whose fate they will prolong until they simply can’t anymore. If that’s dramatic, this movie knows that and plays into it. Cruise’s greatest romance is behind the camera; he is fifty percent of a pair of cinephilic thrill-seekers whose quest to entertain will never end so long as the fuse is still lit. This race, against the machine and time and studio machinations, is running on shaky foundations now – sometimes the stunts lack grace and sometimes the beat runs amok – but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Choose to accept this mission (in a theater) and fight for the choice to accept the next (awaiting Part Two).



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