At the end of the apocalypse, after the sun has fried every flower and tree, as the last skyscraper turns to dust, when each extant cockroach has gone belly-up with x’es for eyes, there will be one man standing tall, or somewhat tall: Tom Cruise is forever, and if that idea may have seemed mortifying 40-odd years ago, when he was mugging his way through thinly disguised navy recruitment ads or grinning and grinding in his skivvies to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll,” it’s more palatable now. Cruise has never been a great or subtle actor, but he has grown into a perfectly watchable one, and that has come to mean more at a time when the movies are shrinking, literally and metaphorically. He’s the star attraction of the seventh Mission: Impossible film, Dead Reckoning Part One, and he carries the film ably on his back, along with his always-at-the-ready parachute. Cruise, still in love with what big mainstream movies used to be, has become a chivalric dreamer, striving to ensure their survival by sheer will. Maybe he can pull it off and maybe he can’t. But at least there’s some pleasure to be had in watching him try.
If you’re fond of MacGuffins, you’ll love Dead Reckoning Part One, whose central thingie is a two-piece key that can be used to control an instance of artificial intelligence gone rogue, a manmade smarty-pants that has beehived into an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful entity known, cleverly, as the Entity. Basically, it’s all just an excuse for Cruise—returning as Impossible Mission Force veteran Ethan Hunt—to do stuff like ride motorcycles off cliffs and drive teeny-tiny cars down Rome’s Spanish Steps. Cruise’s devotion to practical action and his insistence on doing most of his own stunts, many of them quite dangerous, are already the stuff of legend, or at least a bunch of press releases, and it’s not giving too much away to say that the plot of Dead Reckoning Part One—directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who has been pulling the franchise’s various strings and levers since 2015’s Rogue Nation—is virtually unfollowable after about the first third. The story exists only as flimsy interstitial tissue between the Tom-centric stunts, but maybe that’s enough. Ostensibly greater movies have given us less.
All you need to know going in, really, is that every woman for whom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt expresses even the tiniest bit of affection is doomed. But not right away, which means that Dead Reckoning brings back Rebecca Ferguson’s silky-steely Ilsa Faust, of the most engaging characters from the franchise’s last two entries, Fallout (2018) and Rogue Nation (2015). She, apparently, has one-half of the much-desired-by-many-parties key, which makes her a target of, well, everybody: We first see in her in the corner of the world where she’s been hiding out, the Arabian Desert near Yemen. Ethan shows up on horseback, a dazzling sight wrapped in scarves and goggles designed to shield him from the swirly, sandy wind. There’s an encounter, and an event. Shortly thereafter, the action shifts to IMF headquarters (“the other IMF,” as one character quips wryly), where zillions of workers in suits are rushing to make hard copies of digital information—on typewriters. You could make a whole movie about that and plenty of people would be happy, but admittedly, it would be rather low on action.
As it is, the action in Dead Reckoning zips from the desert to the office to Rome to Venice to the Austrian Alps—the locations alone are transportive, even if the plot is a mess. Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames return as Ethan’s sidekicks Benji and Luther, and the three of them make almost as many solemn pronouncements about loyalty and family and friendship as Vin Diesel does in the Fast and Furious movies. Ethan stands by his team; he’s willing, he reminds us more than once, to die for them, and that includes any newbie who might enter the fold. In this case, that would be Hayley Atwell’s Grace, a pickpocket extraordinaire and sleight-of-hand expert who, at any given point in the movie, may or may not have the all-important half-key. The point is to keep it out of the hands of Ethan’s adversaries, which include Vanessa Kirby’s Alanna, AKA the White Widow, and an acrobatic assassin, Paris, played by Pom Klementieff. Ethan’s biggest enemy, though, is evil silver fox Gabriel (Esai Morales), who seeks the key to unleash chaos upon the world. Or something.
And the stunts! Isn’t that really what it’s all about? They include, but are not limited to, a gorgeously staged duel between Faust and Gabriel, set on a slender Venetian bridge: Faust wears a silky topcoat whose tails whirl about her as her sword slashes through the air, intensifying the already intense aura of Venetian mystery and drama. There is that business with the almost-miniature vintage Fiat 500 and the Spanish Steps, though rest assured, no Spanish Steps were harmed in the making of this film. The movie’s last third or so takes place in and around—but also, of course, atop—the Orient Express as it steams through the Alps. That section, already detailed in promotional videos for the film, also features Cruise speedflying—not to be confused with skydiving—over jagged mountain terrain. It’s beautiful, and it does look pretty dangerous.
Cruise has invested a great deal of emotional energy in making sure we know it’s really him doing these stunts, and you can’t blame him. In a green-screen movie world, where the idea of excitement, if not the thing itself, can be filled in long after filming is done, it’s rare to be able to watch a human being move like this. Cruise is muscular, feisty, nimble—but he does have bones, like everyone else, and those bones are now 61 years old. He’s the last survivor of his generation of action stars. Nicolas Cage and Bruce Willis have moved on, by necessity or choice, but Cruise still wants to do some version of what he has always done, whether it’s flying, running, or wrestling down random baddies on top of a moving train. Ethan Hunt is a grave presence—a recurring flashback in Dead Reckoning features snippets of a murder that looms large in his psyche, apparently influencing his every move. But Cruise doesn’t have a naturally grave persona; he has to work at it, and so he does.
At a certain point in Dead Reckoning, Ethan is required to smile at one of the women in his orbit. She has just said something nice to him, or about him, and he must respond appropriately. So he stiffens his jaw ever so slightly, and his eyes crinkle like those of a painted Santa. This expression of veiled gratitude, of being a sturdy guy who knows it’s better not to show much emotion, takes some effort, and you can see Cruise working to deliver. But even this not-quite-a-smile takes muscle and nerve. Think of it as a microstunt, less dangerous, certainly, than riding a motorcycle off a cliff, but a bit of risky business in its own right.
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