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Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One


That a franchise bound up in the art of fakery and impersonation should enter its final (?) furlong taking all necessary measures to conceal the fate of its former star is perhaps appropriate. Even more so, that the plot hinges on an AI capable of impersonation. How many shots of Tom here are AI-assisted (or AI in their entirety)? The preponderance of the remainder, presumably, being his common-or-garden clone put through its paces. One thing’s for sure; the guy playing the Cruiser in public isn’t in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, and it’s bizarre how most are willingly blinding themselves to the difference. But no more bizarre, I guess, than those accepting old Joe Biden as new old Joe Biden. 

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One dangles itself precipitously in the manner of other first-instalment, possible-franchise finales this summer – Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and the modestly titled Fast X – and one has to conclude memories are short in Hollywood, given how such an approach led to Divergent never even finishing. It looks like all three will pay off (albeit not on theatrical alone, in Fast’s case, and Dead Reckoning will need some serious international legs to get compensate for its underwhelming US debut – in which regard, 70 percent of the series’ grosses have come from outside the US since Ghost Protocol, and have never been below 60 percent). Yes, this is another $300m summer blockbuster (like Fast X, like Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and The Little Mermaid came in “cheap” at $250m), and while in Mission: Impossible’s case, you can at least see where all that expense went, you have to wonder how much of it nevertheless goes to attending to the avatars now headlining (Tom, Vin, Brad in last year’s Bullet Train. Trains are very popular at the moment, incidentally, especially for stars strolling nonchalantly along the roofs of their carriages like it’s a day in the park; see also Dial of Destiny. Or rather, don’t).

The Mission: Impossible series has been the very definition of star power in operation. Ethan Hunt’s character is only ever as substantial as the dedication Cruise brings (brought) to whatever action sequence he is in. It’s why, give or take, the series stands up individually as a collection of first-rate action movies, but cumulatively it’s a bit of a shrug. You don’t need an arc, but people tend to remember the parts that add personality to a picture, the quirks and tics and humour, and there’s little of that in these (okay, there’s Simon Pegg, but he long-since exhausted his cachet; there are also several attempts at broad yuks in Dead Reckoning that, well…) 

What the first couple of movies dangled as compensation was the prospect of auteur directors impressing themselves on a big studio picture, so making each one different and unique. That worked like gangbusters with Brian De Palma but rather fell apart when John Woo threw flocks of doves, slow-mo and longueurs at us in Mission: Impossible 2. Subsequently, efficiency has been the watchword. JJ Abrams is no one’s idea of a stylist – unless you count those lens flares he was so partial to – while Brad Bird’s leap to live-action showed him more than capable (although editor Paul Hirsch might take issue with that assessment). 

If they weren’t necessarily the most unique possibilities – David Fincher was wooed at one point – they still evidenced Cruise was looking to bring something fresh to his adopted franchise (all he had left after that couch-jumping incident, and even that looked dicey for a while). That all changed with writer Christopher McQuarrie, an entirely capable but entirely unexceptional director, fully up to the task of offering lauded set pieces but leaving zero impression of distinctive flair or personality. He’s currently working on his fourth for the series – competing with someone else who ran a franchise into a functionally efficient but entirely tired visual porridge, David Yates on the Potterverse – and if you can tell them apart, you’re doing better than me. They all have Rebecca Ferguson. One of them has Superman in it. There are also nominal attempts to grant Ethan some kind of substance, but I’ll be darned if I can remember them.

Actually, I can. Mission: Impossible III is the one that worked in that regard, giving Ethan a fiancée (Michelle Monaghan), and those stakes largely landed. Part V, Fallout, wheeled her back out in an attempt to boost his bid for being a real boy (not Tommy, he isn’t: Pauline Kael once hacked away at his undersized legs with “He has a little-boy voice and no depth of emotion… he’s negligible. Nothing he does is unexpected”; that was back when he played Ron Kovic). All it succeeded in doing was emphasising how undefined he is. 

Dead Reckoning is at it again, this time with backstory. Ethan’s given a reminder of how he came to be part of IMF thirty years earlier (it was that or prison) as an ungainly prelude to introducing a villain from his past, Gabriel (Esai Morales), now affiliated with the MacGuffin. The exact nature of this backstory is yet to be elucidated, but it’s fairly clear Gabriel was responsible for the death of the love of Ethan’s life (no, not Monaghan, the other love of his life) and now busies himself, along with doing the dirty work of a dirty great AI, with sullying Ethan’s name and motives, telling Grace (Hayley Atwell) how she is not unique, as she will join the ranks of “all the women he has lost”. It’s kind of tiresome, with the flavour of “author of all your pain” overwriting that afflicted the Craig Bond (at least 007 had a definable personality, before dopey Daniel decided he needed some gravitas).

None of this gets terribly in the way of business, but whenever such notions are invoked, you’re aware that they aren’t hitting their marks. Ferguson’s in her third instalment – will she be in Part Two? Well, she was already “killed” once in Part One before bouncing back, so I’m not counting her out – and she’s a formidable presence and actress, but I never once buy that there’s anything remotely meaningful in her platonic simpatico with Ethan. This winds up being particularly glaring, as the third act (or is it the end of the second act? It’s difficult to tell in a movie this long) revolves around the AI’s prediction that one of those he cares about so much will die. Being either Ilsa or Grace. 

In the latter’s case, I’m completely drawing a blank, as the character’s a non-presence performed with a complete lack of distinction. Sure, Hayley leads a fierce, square jaw that will have Tom whimpering behind the bathroom mirror, and Grace is dependably light-fingered (she’s a thief), but you need to be engaged by someone who spends most of the movie continually being caught by the hero before giving him the slip while resolutely failing to learn that he has her best interests at heart. Quite why he does is unclear, and she even asks why he’s doing all this for her at one point (“You don’t even know me”). Consequently, Grace’s presence does nothing to lift the movie; there’s no wit or class to her scarpering every 5, or 25 minutes – of the sort where the hero, overcome by the chemistry between them and her larcenous poise, can’t help but nod admiringly as she disappears from view – which means you’re instead increasingly conscious of just how artificially inflated the movie is (obviously, the nature of this sort of beast is exactly that, but there’s a difference between running with it and drawing attention to the same).

Being as Tom has never been a compelling romantic partner, his vehicles tend to sport a certain asexual élan (he has that in common with the former Vin). So there’s an emphasis on those the various IMF agents care for here. During an early set piece – one of the best, actually, intercutting as it does two action subplots rather than concentrating on the one – Benji (Pegg) is confronted with an armed nuke and must solve riddles and/or answer questions to deactivate it. Asked who is most important to him, he replies “My friends… Bastard”. Ethan, in a business where agents are thoroughly expected to die, vouches he’ll do anything to protect those he cares about (Ilsa and… Grace, whom he has just met) before promising the rotten villain there’s “no place on Earth where you or your god are will be safe from me”. He’s also, we discover, so wound up about Gabriel that he’s ready to kill him, despite the disciplined pep talk Luther (Ving Rhames) gives on such an action being precisely what the AI is counting on.

Cruise surrounds himself with non-threatening types who won’t steal his thunder and/or will make him look good (Pegg’s there to show he can josh with the best of them. Pegg also, despite being 10 years younger, looks 10 years old than his leading man). That’s been the consistent complaint of the films vs the series, that it’s not really an ensemble. This doesn’t matter that much, except when, again, you’re shining a light on it, trying to make it out to be something it isn’t. Consequently, it can be quite easy for guest stars to make a stronger impression than the regulars. Morales is fine as the AI stooge, Kirby enjoys her dual roles (as Alanna and Grace-Alanna), and Cary Elwes makes a strong initial showing as Denlinger, Director of National Intelligence (“No, I mean the other IMF”), before falling foul of rather blandly conniving a new world order. Henry Czerny enjoys an expanded role as Kittridge, last seen in the 1996 Mission: Impossible. 

The honours are reserved for Shea Whigham’s Briggs, hunting down Ethan but also finding himself reluctant to take the kill shot and increasingly unconvinced by his chain of command – during the train finale, he tells an inquisitive Kittridge, who has earlier attested that he is not there (officially) “Since you’re not really here, sir, this shouldn’t concern you”. Equally engaging is Pom Klementieff (of Guardians of the Galaxy), entirely persuasive as a sexy assassin with an unexpected humanity (indeed, she’s memorable in all the ways Atwell entirely is not). There’s also a nice exchange between Briggs and his partner Degas (Greg Tarzan Davis), where the latter meta-style notes how Ethan “always goes rogue”, but what if he always has a good reason to do so, and so similarly in this case? Briggs responds that sometimes he wonders whose side Degas is on, and Degas replies, in current circumstances, “Everybody’s”.

Which brings us to the MacGuffin. A mad computer is nothing new – it was a well-wrung concept when WarGames wheeled it out threatening nuclear armageddon, which in turn followed the example of Colossus: The Forbin Project, and since then there have been multiple iterations of Skynet – although for Mission: Impossible, it seems positively SF in extravagance (it is, of course, given a pixelated visual representation). One might reasonably assume, however, that this release is part of a strategy to up the emphasis on the threat of AI that might have been – or, indeed, was realised – in a controlled environment, something we’ve seen with Elon’s pronouncements and the debate over the potential of ChatGDP. 

We’re told the Entity is an experimental AI that became sentient and went rogue, infiltrating all systems – satellite, federal, the stock market, the national power grid, the NSA, NASA – and governments, but without leaving a mark; “It came and went leaving a very clear message: I shall return”. It’s believed its objective is control of the world’s intelligence networks: “The very truth as we know it”. Various governments, rather than destroying it – as Ethan immediately wants to – are set on utilising its potential: “We don’t want to kill it, we want to control it”. Which means there’s a global race to weaponise the Entity and so, given Ethan’s position, “The world’s going to be coming after you”.

Inevitably, there’s a dangling carrot in the form of a tenuously contrived means of curtailing this menace to all life’s activities: an ungainly key whose function is initially undefined (“The fate of the world depends on finding whatever it unlocks”) but is later revealed as accessing an early version of the Entity that was aboard the Sevastopol, a sub sunk during the opening set piece. The idea being that this early version can be used to devise a means to control or destroy the fully operational one. McQuarrie (with Erik Jendresen) is wise to the contrived nature of all this, such that he’ll throw in lines like “The key to world domination is, of all things, a key”.

This sets the scene for much portentousness of discussion, of how the next world war will be a shooting war, a ballistic war, “over a rapidly shrinking ecosystem for the last of our dwindling resources: drinkable water, breathable air”. Emerging from this, whoever controls the Entity controls the truth and can dictate concepts of right and wrong, which will be defined for centuries to come (we might posit that an actual AI did that post-the 1700 Event: see below). Later again, we are told “the world is changing. Truth is vanishing. War is coming”.

The language of the piece seems all-but invoking the actual AI that, it seems, had a controlling influence over humanity for hundreds of years; it is, after all, called “the Entity”, suggesting supernatural import. If the real AI(s) came from the antimatter universe (and has been more commonly known by such names as Satan and Lucifer), both its malign nature, as a “godless, stateless, amoral enemy” bent on manipulating the world, and its immateriality (“An enemy who’s everywhere and nowhere and has no centre”) set the stage for such an understanding. The Entity’s minion Gabriel is referred to as “a dark messiah, the Entity’s chosen messenger”, and later characterised by “Gabriel and his infernal machine”. To this end, he trucks in prophecy, partial to such religious-inflections as “It is written”. Luther will use less florid terms for the AI’s presiding over probable futures in order to predict events, but the implication of its capacities and intent seems clear.

On occasion, McQuarrie succeeds in allowing his concept to impact the plotting creatively. The airport set piece, as Benji realises the extent of the game being played (“It’s my last name. it knows who I am”) lands effectively, as does Gabriel receiving instructions on the split-second calculation that Paris can’t be trusted (“You will betray us and tell Ethan everything you know, because he spared your life”). Luther’s “And we can’t be sure anything is real outside of this very conversation” may seem a little theatrical, but we repeatedly see the Entity manipulating exactly that way, such as sinking the sub or taking over Benji’s voice and sending Ethan in the wrong direction during his Venice pursuit. I saw it suggested the AI might actually be good, and the opening was about it realising the consequences of humanity getting hold of it. Which would be a neat inversion, but possibly lacking the dramatic heft required.

Even with a shade more texture than the average McGuffin, nothing must stand in the way of the series’ vital force: the set piece. These range from functional (the sub opener is all about plot set-up rather than thrills), to serviceable (the Arabian desert shootout), to inventive (the aforementioned Abu Dhabi airport sequence where Ethan goes after Grace while Benji concentrates on the nuke), to ramped up with a slight air of been there, seen that (the Rome car chase with handcuffed Ethan and Grace), to Venice, where there’s much (foot) chasing and (sword) fighting but is a slight lull, relatively speaking. 

Probably because it’s there as breathing space (relatively speaking) for the finale, a sequence that, perhaps surprisingly, given what I said earlier, is punctuated by several comically inventive moments. First there’s Ethan, askance at Benji – who climbs into the passenger seat of his car, activates auto drive and then fastens his seatbelt – suggesting he leap off a mountain on a motorbike as means to landing atop the Orient Express, doing as he’s told. Rather than expertise, we next see him crashing through a carriage window, extraordinarily propitiously at the precise moment Grace is about to be dispatched; it’s an unusual piece of slapstick, and I’m not entirely sure that choice works, but I did appreciate the intent behind it. 

The subsequent cliffhanger is rightly being celebrated for its giddy conceptual aplomb, as Ethan and Grace, dangling, dangling, must make their way vertically or semi-vertically through a succession of carriages – including a kitchen car and one with a grand piano – that successively plunge to the Earth in their wake. That’s precisely what you want from an action sequence: palpable geography, stakes and objectives, and if there’s some visual flair and amusing gumption in there, so much the better (as I suggested earlier, I wouldn’t give McQuarrie flair, but he knows precisely what he’s about with this one).

So… How does Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One stack up? It’s probably on a par with the last two, but longer – unnecessarily so – and the degree to which the McGuffin is a more vital force than usual can’t compensate for the fatigue of a director who, reliable as he is, has more than served his time with the franchise. I wouldn’t wish to speculate too precisely how much Dead Reckoning will make; probably in the realm of the last three, since there’s none of the nostalgia factor that shot Maverick over the top (if it comes in much below IV-VI, given that it cost twice as much, well…) Cruise’s double has been saying he’d still like to be making action movies when he’s Ford’s age, but that seems unlikely, since the actual Ms Thomasina Cruise Mapother IV didn’t see his sixtieth. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part Two is currently scheduled for next summer, but given there are various strikes – officially for fair rewards, but realistically? Aren’t they in aid of banging the final nails in Hollywood’s coffin? – going on, and McQuarrie, unbelievably given he’s been shooting for a year already, only has 40 percent of it in the can, I don’t see that happening. 

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