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Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One review: Cruise vs the machines

Tom Cruise takes on a rogue AI in the latest Mission: Impossible, whose elaborate set pieces are delivered with humour and meticulousness

Tom Cruise in 'Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One'. Image via AP
Tom Cruise in 'Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One'. Image via AP

About 20 minutes into the new Mission: Impossible, I found myself gazing up at the screen in a way I hadn’t in some time. Instead of standard mainstream Hollywood framing, the screen was suddenly a succession of giant faces. The architecture was unusual too, a lot of canted angles, the editing betraying the 180 rule. Even as I reoriented, it occurred to me that Christopher McQuarrie was doing this for a reason: to put viewers in the mind of the first M:I film.  

It's become standard practice for film franchises that are winding down to remind audiences of the journey they’ve been on (Dead Reckoning One and Two were supposed to end the series, though there's talk now of possible further films). McQuarrie, on his third M:I film, allows himself the luxury of nostalgia, though he takes an unusual route. Instead of doing what most films do—flashbacks, bringing back old characters—he borrows wholesale Brian De Palma’s style from the first M:I film. Because McQuarrie has no particular visual style of his own beyond finding the cleanest, clearest way to capture Tom Cruise in motion, the canted angles and giant faces are a jolt, and also a way of saying, this is where it all began.

Also read: Film Review | Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

There’s another, more direct indication that Dead Reckoning is bringing this journey full circle. Former IMF director Kittridge is back for the first time since De Palma’s film (still played by Henry Czerny), this time as a member of the Community, one of those nutty M:I organizations comprised of members of various intelligence services. McQuarrie could absolutely have introduced a new character, so Kittridge is as deliberate a nod to the first film as Cruise hanging off the roof of a speeding train. 

The Community is worried about an ominous experimental AI called The Entity, which has gone rogue and is infiltrating defense systems. The only way of stopping it from some world domination is a cruciform key in two halves. Ethan Hunt (Cruise), Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) are tasked with finding this key, one half of which is conveniently with old ally Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). The other half is with master thief Grace (Hayley Atwell)— brunette, quick-thinking, and up to no good, clearly an Ethan sort of girl. Also in pursuit is a lethal ghost from Ethan’s past, Gabriel (Esai Morales), assassin Paris (Pom Klementieff), arms dealer Alanna (Vanessa Kirby) and a bumbling bunch of Community agents led by Jasper Briggs (Shea Whigham).  

There are times when the practicalities of an invisible enemy start to weigh the film down (knowing there’ll be something real to punch at the end is a right that should never be taken away from audiences). Gabriel isn't fleshed out either, and Morales is too reserved for a primary antagonist. But the setup is irresistible: Tom Cruise, savior of the theatrical experience, versus evil AI. The set pieces are incredibly long pieces of choreography, lovingly conceived, the initial gag and the payoff often separated by 10, 15 minutes. One series of events goes on for what feels like the good part of an hour, starting with Hunt on a bike and Grace on a train until they’re united in the silliest, most spectacular way possible. A car chase through Rome is made even more challenging by Hunt and Grace being handcuffed together. It’s a Cruise film, so this isn’t sexy but instead comic, with Grace forced to race a tiny yellow Fiat 500 through the crowded streets (Klementieff’s deranged enjoyment in pursuit adds to the fun).  

While the John Wick series’ debt to silent film is often mentioned, I'd wager McQuarrie was also thinking of Lloyd and Keaton while making Dead Reckoning. With the exception of a charged encounter in Venice, the set pieces all have comic touches, but more than that they have the meticulousness and logic of great silent sequences, one thing triggering another and then another until all hell breaks loose. There's a famous shot out of Keaton's The General. Whigham and Greg Tarzan Davis are perfect Keystone Cops. Even the huge closeups reminded me of The Passion of Joan of Arc

The Mission: Impossible films had a great idea at the outset: each film passes to a different director, who puts their own stamp on it. This worked brilliantly for a while—the switch from tense spy thriller (De Palma) to gun ballet (John Woo) was head-spinning. Brad Bird brought a bizarro quality to the stunts that has remained. But this practice was discontinued after Rogue Nation—which has resulted in three quite similar films. This is not because McQuarrie imposes himself on the material. What he has done, instead, is remove the clutter and unlock Cruise. The plots are largely incidental—I couldn’t tell you what happens in Rogue Nation or Fallout. Everything is geared towards helping Cruise do the most outlandish stunts he can dream up, and presenting these in the clearest way possible so we can see he's actually doing them. McQuarrie is self-effacing and extremely good at what he does. But the ringmaster, the auteur, is Cruise, whose late-career crusade for the big screen experience now suffuses everything he does. 

Also read: Film Review: Mission: Impossible—Fallout

 

 

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