‘Dead Reckoning’ Knows Exactly Who We Need Behind The Wheel
12:15 PM EDT on July 14, 2023
There’s a scene in the new Mission: Impossible that seems charmingly out of place, like a quaint little island in the middle of a stormy sea. In that scene, Ethan Hunt (does Tom Cruise still need an introduction?) and his soon-to-be new recruit, semi-pro pickpocket Grace (a glorious Hayley Atwell, who seems like she’s always been here), are switching vehicles mid-chase in downtown Rome, as you do. On a back street, they hightail it from an appropriately sporty looking (normal-sized) black beamer to a teeny-tiny, yellow, Herbie-adjacent Fiat. It’s a cute sight gag but that’s not the charming part. That comes when, in the midst of this maelstrom, Ethan is unable to figure out how to work this new gadget. This man who we will see at various points flying off a cliff, flying into a train and then nearly flying out of it, is suddenly stopped by this itty-bitty piece of technology. He runs the wipers. He presses buttons. As Cruise acts it, Ethan is a man undone by hubris. In his mortification, he apologetically explains to Grace that the agency doesn’t always show them how to use stuff, or something. It doesn’t matter. The point is this Superman secret agent has been brought to his knees and seems barely able to believe it himself.
The metaphor isn’t quite so simple that it is insulting, nor is it quite so complicated that its implications can’t have occurred to both the director (Christopher McQuarrie) and the star (Cruise) of Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. You got it, right? That Cruise is Ethan and the car is cinema? That this man, the biggest star in the world, is behind the wheel right now and not even he can figure out how to make it work? The publicity tour, both during production and during the release of Dead Reckoning, a film that was made during a crippling pandemic and the subsequent crumbling of the film industry, has pivoted around this fact: that cinema is at the risk of dying and that Cruise and his team are doing everything they can to try to save it. For us. But, you know, also for them.
And when I say everything, I mean everything. I swear to God, I barely had a handle on the plot of this installment—something to do with an AI “Entity” gone rogue and the missing two parts of a key that can shut it down, not to mention a Russian submarine that blows itself up (too soon)—because it truly seems to be the skimpiest of threads tying together Cruise’s stunts, which we all know from quarterly behind-the-scenes missives have gotten more outlandish as this franchise has gone on. Not only did he drive that little Herbie left-handed like a maniac through the slippery cobblestone streets of Rome, he also infamously performed the film’s centerpiece—jumping off a cliff on a motorbike, ACTING MID-AIR WITH HIS CHEEKS FLAPPING ALL OVER THE PLACE, before deploying his parachute (in the movie he of course ends up flying through a train window). He fights Esai Morales (who plays Gabriel, the bad dude who knows what the key unlocks) atop that moving train. He runs a fuckton (he’s 61 and he moves like 32-year-old liquid-metal Robert Patrick in Terminator 2) and looks just as at ease on a paraglider as I do on my bike. And you can tell he’s doing every one of these stunts practically, because he can defy his age all he wants but the effort of a sexagenarian performing various feats against gravity shows. And it makes them all the more compelling.
Despite the Dead Reckoning team mainly publicizing Cruise’s bike jump off the mountain cliff, my favorite sequence in the entire film is not that one. It comes right after. And it’s not any less spectacular for its obvious use of practical effects mixed with CGI. The train he just flew into is careening towards a bridge that is about to explode. He and Grace pull the brakes but, as happens in these things, it stops just short of keeping the train from going over. So, like a set of dominos, one after the other, the train cars plunge off the edge and into the water. The trick is, Grace and Ethan are on the wrong end, so every time a train goes vertical and is about to drop, they have to scramble up it and onto the next one and, you guys, it’s the coolest—seeing them hanging down over that huge drop below to the water, I don’t care if it’s digital effects, it just looks amazing. This is the Cruise Rube Goldberg variation par excellence. Seeing it in IMAX made it all the more magnificent, and, honestly, if this can’t save cinema, I don’t know what will.
At the end of that train sequence one character appears to be dying. It’s not Grace or Ethan, obviously. It’s Paris (Pom Klementieff, who you will recognize as the alien with the weird tentacles from Guardians of the Galaxy), a bleached-blond, smoky-eyed misfit assassin straight out of Sin City and a one-note maniac who laughs like crazy while plowing into traffic. Except she’s not one-note. And that’s what makes this movie more than simply a pulse-pumping action montage without any heart. The change here happens in an alley. It’s another great use of location (they also threw a desert battle sequence into the film simply because they were inspired by Abu Dhabi’s landscape), where Ethan fights Paris and some other dude within the confines of a narrow passageway. When Ethan finally beats her, he lifts up a metal bar to finish the job before the defeated Paris looks up at him from the doorway, spent and broken, and, instead, throws it to the side. Paris’s boss (Gabriel) will later attempt to kill her with a stab wound to ensure only he knows about what the key can do, predicting she will turn to Ethan’s side. And perhaps it’s the force of revenge, perhaps it’s the force of wanting to be part of something bigger and better, but the fading Paris eventually does as her ex-boss predicted and before passing out saves both Ethan and Grace from plunging to their deaths. Then, as she sits fading, she whispers to Ethan the secrets of the key he plans to use to destroy the Entity.
Dead Reckoning is certain not to make any character too extreme so as not to be believable as a real member of a team of human beings. Where the Fast franchise is always on about family, this movie actually does feel communal. When field agent Benji (Simon Pegg) is forced by the AI-controlled, riddle-based bomb countdown to answer who he cares most about (his friends) you see it. You also see it in the way Cruise handles Atwell delicately during their stunt sequences, a sort of paternal touch guiding this newcomer. Your life matters more than mine, Ethan assures Grace before recruiting her, and you believe it.
For all his faults, Cruise seems to understand that if he is to help keep cinema going, he can’t do it by himself. Remember that leaked audio from the start of the pandemic, the one of a monumentally pissed off Cruise reaming out members of the Dead Reckoning team who defied COVID-19 rules? “We shut down, it’s going to cost people their fucking jobs, their homes, their family—that’s what’s happening. All the way down the line,” he screams. “And I care about you guys. But if you’re not going to help me, you’re gone. OK?”
And, sure, Cruise handled that situation badly. A person in a position of power should not pull rank to humiliate those who are beneath him (because let’s be real, everyone on a Cruise set is beneath Cruise, even the director). At the same time, he is acknowledging that this is a collective undertaking. Just like Dead Reckoning’s direction, which is clearly a give-and-take between him and McQuarrie. Just like his stunts, on which he works closely with coordinator Wade Eastwood. Just like the script, co-written by McQuarrie and Erik Jendresen, with some gold-standard Super Channel action movie lines (“I’m the reason she’s dead,” Grace says of a departed character, to which she’s told, “No, she’s the reason you’re alive”).
With the first part lasting 160 minutes, you might ask what there is possibly left to say in the second part of Dead Reckoning. But, in case you forgot, Cruise is a Scientologist. And a devoted one. His job (well, a big part of it) is to solve problems. And you better fucking believe that this guy is going to make movies until he solves the problem of contemporary cinema. And if he has to kill himself to do it, well, the solution is more important than he is.