A couple of weeks ago, the abysmal “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” provided a depressing overview of everything wrong with modern blockbusters, exhuming America’s favorite archeologist for an indifferently staged, crushingly cynical exercise in forced nostalgia and corporate brand extension. Film critic turned filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once said that the best way to criticize a movie is by making another movie, and as a welcome corrective to “Indy” and the rest of this summer’s rash of sludgy, unasked-for sequels, along comes “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One” to show us how these things are supposed to be done.
The irony should not be lost on anyone that the freshest movie in multiplexes right now is the seventh installment of a decades-old franchise based on a 1960s television program. But as its star reminded us last summer, “It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot.” The tireless Tom Cruise and company have outdone themselves again. This is a preposterously entertaining picture, pulling off stunts that have never been seen before onscreen. Crisply shot in beautiful locations with elaborately clever action scenes that are ludicrous in conception and even better when they pay off, it’s a gloriously extravagant and luxuriantly silly movie.
Cruise is back as Ethan Hunt, the go-get-'em superspy whose can-do recklessness saves the world time and again. In the fifth film, Alec Baldwin’s obstreperous department director memorably referred to him as “the living manifestation of destiny.” This time, Shea Whigham’s amusingly exasperated fellow agent calls Hunt “a mind-reading, shape-shifting incarnation of chaos.” The point of all this purple prose is that our hero doesn’t often wait for orders to follow, especially now that the planet is endangered by the sinister whims of a sentient artificial intelligence program known only as The Entity.
The subtext is a semiotician’s dream: Analog Tom versus an evil algorithm. The Entity has infiltrated and corrupted all the usual high-tech tools of spycraft, so Hunt and his pals are stuck doing everything the old-fashioned way. Their dilemma doubles as a declaration of principles for Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie, who famously eschew CGI trickery and modern moviemaking shortcuts in favor of practical stunts and classical craftsmanship. The rows of manual typewriters transcribing sensitive CIA files and the sleight of hand, close-up magic tricks performed by the actors are indicative of the movie’s old-school ethos. The Entity is Cruise’s ultimate adversary because it’s capable of manipulating the reality we perceive through all of our screens, while the star has spent the past dozen years putting himself at considerable personal risk to make us believe our eyes.
He wasn’t still supposed to be doing this. It’s easy to forget how far Cruise’s star had fallen back in the mid-2000s when his strange couch-jumping escapades on “Oprah” and bizarre, Scientology-fueled feuds with Brooke Shields and Matt Lauer had alienated his longtime fanbase. (Though Cruise turned out to be right about the “Today Show” host.) Paramount head Sumner Redstone famously fired him in 2006, temporarily banning the star from the studio lot following the commercial disappointment and artistic failure of J.J. Abrams’ crummy “Mission: Impossible III,” the lowest-grosser of the series and still one of the cheapest-looking $150 million movies ever made.
The mandate for 2011’s “Ghost Protocol” was for Cruise’s Ethan Hunt to retire and pass the torch to series newcomer Jeremy Renner, then white-hot off “The Hurt Locker.” Instead, Cruise brought on McQuarrie to rewrite the script during production and clawed back control of the franchise by executing one of the most spectacular stunt sequences in modern movies — dangling a hundred stories high from Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper with a gasp-inducing “holy crap, that’s really him” verisimilitude. McQuarrie and “The Incredibles” director Brad Bird reconfigured the series into an intricately slapsticky “Spy Vs. Spy” cartoon, with Cruise’s Ethan Hunt envisioned as a Nietzschean Übermensch pitted against the laws of physics. A star was reborn when Jerry Maguire became the American Jackie Chan, and Cruise stuck with the winning formula for the following three "Missions,” plus an upcoming eighth installment, all directed by McQuarrie. (“Dead Reckoning Part One” is dedicated to the late Sumner Redstone, “Film fan and friend,” so I guess there were no hard feelings.)
The series is now far enough along to be able to kid its own tropes with gags about just how often Ethan and his pals end up going rogue. If the original inspiration was to be the USA's 007, “Dead Reckoning Part One” finds our secret agent firmly in his Roger Moore era, staying just barely on the right side of self-parody with underplayed aplomb. We spend so much time talking about his compulsion to risk his life for our entertainment that I think people take for granted what a witty performer Cruise is. He has a shrewd sense of economy, understanding exactly how much to give the camera and that a quick glance with his arched eyebrows can serve as a comedic pressure relief valve for the audience during a grueling action scene. (He looks like he can’t believe he’s surviving this stuff, either.) I felt like the last “Mission: Impossible” movie, 2016’s “Fallout,” was missing that sense of humor, almost dour in its attempts to give Ethan an inner life. Hunt has never been an interesting character. We’re here to watch him run.
Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg are back as his trusty tech support sidekicks, though their computer skills are fairly useless in the face of The Entity. The key to shutting down this digital monster is, quite humorously, an actual little gold key. Hunt and his crew are tracking the item when it’s pickpocketed by a professional thief (Haley Atwell) hired by Vanessa Kirby’s international arms dealer Alanna Mitsopolis, who too-briefly appeared in the previous picture. (Kirby’s playing the daughter of the character played by Vanessa Redgrave in Brian De Palma’s original 1996 “Mission: Impossible,” and has a similar way of looking at Cruise like she’s about to sink her teeth into a juicy steak.) Esai Morales shows up as a dashing, devilish assassin from Ethan’s past, now working on behalf of The Entity, assisted by a silent swordswoman (Pom Klementieff) wearing Daryl Hannah’s “Blade Runner” makeup. Unimpressed by all of them is Henry Czerny’s Eugene Kitteridge, the expertly sour agency head from the first film, who, 27 years later, still says the name “Hunt” like it’s a swear.
A lot of characters are coming and going in this film. Cruise and McQuarrie like to shoot their action scenes first and write the story as they go along. (The two even shut down production on 2015’s “Rogue Nation” for a week or so until they could come up with a better ending.) The ungainly plotting of “Dead Reckoning Part One” occasionally shows the seams of such an approach. Pegg’s character brushes them off by saying —partially as a reminder to the audience — that “details tend to get in the way.” But he's got a point. Best to sit back and let it wash over you, savoring the lush locations and exquisitely tailored costumes. The pleasures of these films are in their propulsive energy and fluidity of bodies navigating tactile physical spaces. (Cruise has said he shows his stunt team “Singin’ in the Rain” for inspiration, trying to conjure the joy of movement that Gene Kelly inspired in him as a kid.) If you really need a story synopsis: A number of extremely attractive people in very expensive clothes are trying to get their hands on that key.
And good lord, what lengths they go to! A car chase through the cobblestone streets of Rome in a tiny yellow Fiat builds to “Blues Brothers” proportions. It seems like everybody in Italy is after Cruise and Atwell, who are hilariously handcuffed together for the entire sequence. (I’m still smiling about the precision timing of a gag in which their car flips over so many times that the passenger and driver switch seats.) The centerpiece of the film’s marketing campaign is a jaw-dropping stunt in which Cruise drives a motorcycle off a cliff in the Austrian Alps, parachuting away in an homage to “The Spy Who Loved Me.” But the ads don’t show you where he lands, which is one of the movie’s biggest laughs, kicking off a hellzapoppin’ finale on the Orient Express that plays like Buster Keaton’s “The General” crossed with “Titanic.” McQuarrie and stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood have pig-piled so many threats and obstacles onto the scene with such Looney Tunes abandon that I finally lost my mind laughing when a grand piano nearly fell on Ethan’s head.
One can’t help but marvel at the sheer, cocky showmanship of it all — at Cruise and company’s crazed commitment to showing the audience sights we’ve never seen before, six sequels into a series nobody ever expected to last. The “Part One” was a perhaps unnecessary addition to the title, as unlike the abrupt, cliffhanger endings that spoiled this summer’s “Across the Spider-Verse” and (I’m told) “Fast X,” “Dead Reckoning” comes to a proper, fully satisfying close. It feels like a complete story has been told, leaving us dying to see what these lunatics can possibly come up with for the next chapter. This may not be sophisticated art, but it’s serious artistry.
"Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One" is now playing in theaters.