Review: "Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One"

The "M:I" movies never get old. Weirdly, neither does their star.

Review: "Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One"

As I often do during summer blockbuster season, I find myself dwelling on the curious paradox of Tom Cruise, or the pop-culture construct that goes by that name. Last year around this time, I let fly at Cruise and “Top Gun: Maverick,” because the film’s release happened to coincide with one of the more awful of the gun massacres that plague this country – not that Cruise was personally responsible for what happened in Uvalde, Texas, but the movie and its star represented the kind of sanitized, thumbs-up attitude toward violence, masculinity, and conflict resolution that is at the root of our very particular American disconnect, and it pissed me all the way off.

But it’s hard to hold anything against Cruise for very long, because he’s only as meaningful as his latest movie. Which in this case is a new “Mission: Impossible” installment, the seventh – “M:I – Dead Reckoning Part One” (in theaters today, ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2), as absurdly, exhilaratingly entertaining as its title is corporate boilerplate. Otherwise, there’s no there there with Cruise – or, if there is, it never bothers to stick. The couch-jumping; the weird black box of his marriages; his career-long involvement in one of the sketchiest spiritual rackets of modern times – none of it matters when we watch him motorcycle off a cliff without a moment of hesitation. That totality of assurance – the Tom Cruise hero may be stymied but he never, ever knows doubt – is one reason he’s possibly the purest movie star in the 130-year history of the medium. I once described Cruise as possessing “maximum charisma with minimum depth,” and that’s the secret to Teflon Tom, what he does that no other star does, which is exist in the nanosecond of filmed action and nowhere else. The traditional mystery of stardom is that it pulls us in, wanting to puncture the two-dimensional screen of presentation and know more. With Cruise, there’s nothing to know. He’s a persona without a backstory.

This makes him easy to mock, and mocking Tom Cruise has been a national pastime over the years. Anyone can do it, and most of us do. Mocking Tom Cruise is a way of virtue signaling that we value substance in our cultural diet and not the empty, tasty calories he represents. If you’re anything like me, of course, you still fill up on the “Mission Impossible” movies, and irresistible junk like “Edge of Tomorrow” (2014, ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2 and no arguments), and gleaming Pavlovian contraptions like “Top Gun: Maverick,” maybe hating yourself a little or maybe not. Cruise is the midnight snack of movie stars – the pint of Phish Food that’s always at the back of the freezer, always delicious, always the same.

He's 61 but moving beyond age thanks to his own unshakeable self-belief and the kind of enhancements available to the wealthy. The face work he had a few movies back that we’re not supposed to talk about has settled in by now, leaving him a little airbrushed, a tad putty-faced, but otherwise unchanged. (Whoever’s responsible for the “Dead Reckoning” poster must not agree, since they’ve elongated Cruise’s face beyond recognition; he looks like John Krasinski’s older brother.) The hair and hairline have the slightly manufactured look of Astroturf, and I was reminded of the coiffures of certain late-period studio stars – Cary Grant’s perfect part, for instance, unconcerned with any breeze that might happen by. I am becoming more certain with the years that in a back-office drawer at the Church of Scientology’s L.A. headquarters there is a Polaroid of Tom Cruise in which he’s a wizened, rotting old man.

That’s the very opposite of the brand, which is not so much forever young but forever on, always on mission, doing his own stunts because to pay a stunt man would establish a line between who Tom Cruise is onscreen and who he is in life, and the brand is very much about that line being as blurred as possible. Remember when Cruise was involved in several real-life rescues, swinging in on the vine of his celebrity to pull people off burning yachts? One of the reasons the “Mission: Impossible” movies work – including the new one – is that Ethan Hunt is a self-willed extension of the man playing him. Other characters say things about the character that are both over-the-top melodramatic and howlingly funny. Alec Baldwin had a ham actor’s field day in 2015’s “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” when his CIA director told the Prime Minister of England, “Sir, Hunt is the living manifestation of destiny and he has made you his mission!” Honestly, the entire scene is pop-art Nietzsche and well worth watching:

Does anyone doubt that Tom Cruise says some version of this to his mirror every morning?

The dialogue in “Dead Reckoning” is just as purple, but most of the heavy-breathing adjectives are directed toward the villain, which in a timely twist, is The Entity, an artificial intelligence computer program gone rogue that is described as a “mind-reading, shape-shifting instrument of chaos.” Which, to be honest, doesn’t sound all that visual, so there’s a two-piece cruciform key that serves as the MacGuffin everybody wants and a sleek Esai Morales as Gabriel, the Entity’s human factotum for Ethan to battle atop a high-speed train roaring through the Alps.

We also visit the Arabian desert, Venice, Rome, and other tourist traps, and there’s the usual business with the face masks and self-destructing cassette tape – the makers of the “M:I” series know which aspects of the mythos to lean on. The film surrounds Cruise with rumpled actors playing fallible characters: Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames returning as Ethan’s wingmen in the field and given more to do than in some previous installments; the eternally annoyed Shea Whigham and Greg Tarzan Davis as two CIA men trying to catch an uncatchable hero; Pom Klementieff, usually under heavy make-up in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films and here allowed to assume human shape as a snarling French assassin; Vanessa Kirby returning as the arms-dealing White Widow; and two, count ‘em, two action heroines to accompany Hunt: an enjoyably game Hayley Atwell (below with Cruise) as a pickpocket far in over her head and Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa, a love interest from the previous films (and you know how that usually turns out).

The director is Christopher McQuarrie, making his fourth tour with this series and there’s no reason to change horses. He ably varies the momentum so that a 163-minute movie is engaging but never exhausting – even the latest “Indiana Jones” installment had its slack spots – and the script resolves enough plot points that you don’t mind the cliffhanger ending the way the recent animated “Spider-Man” felt like a cheat when it screeched to a stop. On the contrary, you look forward to the sequel.

Most tellingly, they’ve added more comedy to this “Mission,” including a high-speed chase through the streets of Rome that puts Cruise and Atwell in a tiny yellow Fiat and sends them backwards in a panic down the Spanish Steps. The climactic set-piece on that train in the Alps nods to everything from “The General” to “The Italian Job” while playing its own form of comic one-upsmanship. The audience laughs and even some of the characters are allowed a guffaw, but Hunt only shakes his head in disbelief and addresses the latest obstacle at hand. Has Tom Cruise ever laughed in a movie? Would it break his face? I doubt we’ll  find out, and if the movies continue to be rich ice cream like this one, I doubt we’ll need to. He’s the living manifestation of destiny, and we’re just his mission.

What are your feelings about this popular, divisive star? Don’t hesitate to weigh in with any thoughts, stray or otherwise.

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