Whatever your personal opinions may be when it comes to Tom Cruise as a person — and believe me, I have some issues — it’s still important to note that over the last few years, he’s been the driving force in saving the theatrical model of the film industry. When he insisted that Top Gun: Maverick be held until it could be released in actual movie houses rather than being relegated to streaming, he gave audiences across the country and around the world a reason to get back into those seats and enjoy the communal experience of the cinema. A large part of the reason why it became one of the highest grossing pictures of all time is because more than any other A-lister, Cruise emphasized the importance of presenting the artform the way it was intended to be seen, on the big screen. Thousands of hard-working professionals didn’t toil away for years just to have the fruits of their labor shunted off to an online service on your TV, and he not only understood that, he became the championing face of the revival. However else you come to judge him, he can at least be appreciated in regard to that specific aspect. Actual, real-life people made that film (as well as every other one out there), and they deserve acknowledgement in the proper space.
It was an essential message coming out of the COVID pandemic, an unexpected microcosm of the collective angst we’d all experienced for over two years, and it helped to save an institution of our shared culture. Now, Cruise — along with writer/director Christopher McQuarrie — finds himself on the frontline of yet another timely threat to entertainment as we know it: artificial intelligence. Whether intentional or not, it’s very hard to watch a movie like Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One and not see it as a statement of purpose for the latest existential crisis of the industry.
In this seventh installment of the franchise, itself something of a feat considering the level of quality its maintained for nearly three decades, the danger to the world isn’t a rogue agent or a terrorist organization, but instead a sentient computer program known as The Entity, one that is able to infiltrate networks around the globe, calculate countless possible outcomes to every scenario, and act accordingly through its human liaison, Gabriel (Esai Morales), an unfeeling assassin as cold and deadly as his controller. This keeps our nemesis constantly one step ahead of the heroes, as it banks on the greed and ambition of world powers to fight over the quixotic dream of controlling it. The longer people are willing to fight each other for possession while it continues to grow, the more unstoppable it becomes.
Simply from a narrative standpoint, this is a risky proposition, as it relies on the audience being just cynical enough to believe that only Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his Impossible Mission Force allies realize the ramifications of The Entity’s potential enough to want to destroy it rather than harness it, making him the only threat to its digital domination. Thankfully, Cruise and McQuarrie are more than up to the task of keeping the viewer engaged through the film’s world-building, thrilling action sequences, and surprisingly brisk pace for a nearly three-hour half-story to make the premise not only pay off, but stand as one of the most exciting movies of the year.
The actual “mission” of the film, so to speak, is to retrieve two connecting parts of a cruciform key (which as MacGuffins go, it has a pretty cool design) that unlocks the physical servers of The Entity itself, housed on an advanced Russian submarine scuttled in the Bering Sea when the malevolent AI turned on the crew and caused them to kill themselves. The pieces of the key floated to the surface with the bodies of the officers, and have since gone missing. One of them has wound up in the hands of Hunt’s erstwhile friend Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), and the U.S. government (led by Henry Czerny as IMF chief Eugene Kittridge and Cary Elwes as the Director of National Intelligence) has put a sizeable bounty on her head to retrieve it. Hunt is the only one with a chance to get it from her in the Arabian Desert and ensure that she makes it out alive.
When Ethan refuses to simply hand over the key without question and decides to kill The Entity, he’s disavowed, and a worldwide chase ensues, filled with tons of fun heist sequence switcheroos and betrayals, courtesy of newcomer Grace (Hayley Atwell), a pickpocket hired by someone willing to pay a big price for the ability to play computerized kingmaker. Things come to a suspenseful head for the first time in the Abu Dhabi airport, where Hunt goes back and forth with Grace, is pursued by CIA agents Briggs and Degas (Shea Whigham and Greg Tarzan Davis, respectively), and is stalked by Gabriel, all while his closest companions Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) pull double duty to obscure Ethan from surveillance and disarm a nuclear bomb in a suitcase that was planted by The Entity itself as a test.
This is an absolutely brilliant sequence, keeping both the tension and the comedy levels high without relying on choppy editing or even much in the way of fight choreography (though of course we do still get our obligatory “Tom Cruise running” bit as he evades Briggs and Degas from the roof of the airport). In the same way that The Entity uses all the technology at its disposal to create this first proving ground, so too does the movie show how even a purely cerebral obstacle can have catastrophic consequences. It’s rare when you can watch an action movie that fully develops its cast and sets the stakes for everything to come, basically without throwing a punch or firing a gun. Showing the crowd that you’ve got brains as well as brawn is a great thematic counterpoint to the in-universe antagonist.
And of course, the brawn has always been done well in this series. The martial arts, weapons fights, stunt work, and car chases are top notch, especially a lengthy pursuit sequence in Rome where Ethan and Grace are relentlessly tailed by Briggs and Degas, local authorities, and Gabriel’s main lieutenant, another assassin named Paris (tell me that Pom Klementieff is going to play a French Harley Quinn with a katana, and you already have my money). By the time we reunite with Vanessa Kirby’s White Widow from Fallout, the action and storytelling have been woven together so well that you’re basically ready for anything, which again parallels our villain. The Entity asserts its power through Gabriel by declaring that it already knows how everything will turn out, allowing Gabriel to confidently walk away from a conflict without repercussions for himself. By extension, while we can’t necessarily tell exactly where it’s all going, we’re running every reasonable outcome in our own heads, eagerly anticipating what’s to come.
What makes it work to the highest levels is the human element running the machine. We live in a world where artificial intelligence is growing, corporations and governments are using it to spread misinformation and profit from it, and right now, every union actor and writer in America is on strike to prevent studios from replacing them with soulless automation. Seriously, read some of the stories about what entertainment executives are trying to shove down these people’s throats. Among the worst are virtual “writers” that create screenplays completely from data with actual human writers only hired as glorified proofreaders for subsequent drafts, and a proposal to pay background actors for one day of work so that their likeness can be scanned into a computer and edited into a shot without future pay or even consent. That is lunacy, but that’s where we are right now, and it’s why the industry may be in for a world of hurt over the next few months.
But it’s also why someone like Christopher McQuarrie makes his films the way he does. Despite The Entity’s ability to simulate and calculate, it can’t replicate free will. In the end it always comes down to our choices. The Entity has power because governments choose to believe it can be controlled. Grace is forced to choose between her own self-preservation and the well-being of others. Ethan, Benji, Ilsa, and Luther all emphasize the choices they made — and the consequences thereof — to be a part of the IMF. Even the most frustrating moment of the film, where Gabriel can easily be neutralized but isn’t, comes down to a person making a choice based on personal knowledge, gut instinct, self-interest, and a whole slew of variables that cannot be accounted for in ones and zeros.
McQuarrie (and Cruise by extension) makes this movie with the same deliberate commitment to human ingenuity. Realizing how much of a hold The Entity has on the digital world, Benji and Luther (as well as Kittridge and DNI Denlinger back in Washington) revert to analog technology to solve their problems. Half of the tension in the action set pieces is derived from the simple act of slipping something in or out of someone’s pocket rather than some bombastic display of weaponry or computerized obfuscation, underscoring the importance of interpersonal contact over remote algorithms. From a filmmaking standpoint, the camera angles are kept tight on the players with minimal editing, using CGI only when necessary. And of course, Cruise keeps doing some insane stunts despite being in his 60s.
The high-octane motorcycle jump off a cliff that we’ve seen in the trailers (and was demonstrated in a behind-the-scenes featurette leading into Avatar: The Way of Water last year) is a perfect example. The only thing fake about that entire sequence is the addition of CGI textures to create the cliff and some of the scenery below, removing the practical ramp and any visible filming equipment from the shot. The stunt is very real, dangerous, and breathtaking, and that’s what’s important. The actual human vaulting himself hundreds of feet in the air takes precedence over the computer that creates some digital rocks and trees.
That’s what sets a movie like this apart from other franchise fare. The Marvels of the world are content with phoned-in dialogue, a vomitous glut of cheesy background animation in place of characters, and presenting the whole thing as a walking commercial to watch whatever bullshit they put on Disney+ next week. For Dead Reckoning, however, the priority is to tell an impactful, compelling story that has real meaning to the audience (especially if they watch the news), and then supplement it with over-the-top spectacle that’s still grounded in a sense of reality. Sure, it has problems like any other, like the fact that Briggs and Degas keep popping up out of nowhere to be continually on Hunt’s tail like the world’s most inconvenient deus ex machina without ever contributing to the plot, or the fact that high-target fugitives can easily travel around the world without incident, or the fact that the facial recognition for chase purposes bit was done better in Minority Report, or the fact that Pom Klementieff is not my girlfriend, but when you get so much right, it’s okay to get a few things wrong. Again, that’s all part of being human, something this film understands, and something that AI, at least for the time being, does not.
One more meta note just for fun. Back in 2011, on The Ricky Gervais Show podcast, Karl Pilkington pitched a movie idea that was eventually dubbed Bryan’s Brain in jest by Stephen Merchant and Ricky. It was later animated into the HBO show that illustrated some of the podcast’s highlights. In it, Karl fantasizes about a situation where an out of work actor gets into a massive car crash at the same time that Tom Cruise dies in an on-set accident. With the other actor, Bryan, still being alive but with a broken body, his brain is transplanted into Cruise’s body, and he resumes his life as a new form of Tom Cruise, using the famous face to finally get the Hollywood opportunities he’s been denied throughout his career.
The idea was monumentally silly, but there are ways it could work. For instance, instead of a brain transplant, which can’t actually happen, you could just as easily have a transplant of Cruise’s face onto Bryan’s to get the same effect. The main theme of the film was sound, though. It was meant to be an exploration of what makes a person who they are, their looks or their actions, seen through the eyes of a man who has been forced to become the symbol of what he despises most (Bryan always thought Tom Cruise was an incredibly overrated actor). Technology can make him look like the world’s biggest star, but where do his choices lead him, and do they distinguish him from the man whose visage he now wears? It’s an intriguing idea once you get past the initial absurdity.
Why do I bring this up? Well, in Karl’s pitch, all of this happens after the release of Mission: Impossible 7, while Cruise is filming Mission: Impossible 8. The seventh one is officially out now (notably 10 years after Ricky’s joking prediction of a 2013 debut), and the eighth one is underway (though now delayed by the SAG strike). I’m just saying, we can make it happen, and I guarantee you it’ll still be better than any script an AI could spew out.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How many franchises find ways to keep getting better as they progress? What would you do if you had the key to The Entity? Let me know! Also, don’t forget to follow me on Twitter and YouTube!