Tom Cruise’s latest is full of stunts and “knowing laughs”, and pays homage to past crime capers, writes Nicholas Barber.
Tom Cruise’s seventh Mission: Impossible film is an unusual mix of high-tech and low-tech, of ultra-modern and defiantly traditional. The villain in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One (let’s call it Mission: Impossible 7 or M:I-7 for short) isn’t even a human being, but a sentient artificial intelligence called The Entity. It isn’t content with stealing jobs from hardworking journalists, like so many AIs. It wants to have total control of every scrap of information on Earth. This all seems horribly plausible, and, in one early scene, the threat is illustrated by one of the film’s few memorable images (stunts aside): a room full of typists hurriedly transferring the intelligence services’ data to paper so that The Entity can’t read it.
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Soon afterwards, though, the film’s director and co-writer, Christopher McQuarrie, establishes that M:I7 isn’t a story about tech bros or computer viruses. It turns out that the only way to defeat the AI is with a little metal key made of two pieces that slot together, and which people tend to wear on thin chains around their necks, as if they were no more important than the keys to their bike locks. Yes, it’s the kind of McGuffin that Alfred Hitchcock might have considered old-fashioned. Despite all the initial concern about an electronic super-brain conquering the world, the fate of civilisation is to be decided by pickpocketing and sleight of hand, riddles and puzzles, fist fights and knife fights, car chases and foot chases. The climactic sequence is set aboard a steam train which is chuffing its way through meadows and mountains, and the only technology that really matters is the device that makes the gang’s lifelike rubber masks.
Cruise and McQuarrie are paying sophisticated tribute to the glamorous European crime capers of the 1950s and 1960s
Maybe M:I7 doesn’t ultimately have much to say about our current fears, but that’s a relief. Cruise and McQuarrie are paying sophisticated tribute to the glamorous European crime capers of the 1950s and 1960s, and that’s a welcome choice at a time when we all have so much to worry about. The film’s signature stunt, the one on the posters and in the trailers, involves Cruise driving a motorbike off the edge of a cliff and then freefalling for a while before opening his parachute. But even this death-defying feat is played for knowing laughs. We’re not expected to believe for a second that the stunt is essential to the plot. But it is nice to see Cruise enjoying himself.
It’s nice to see an old friend, too. Henry Czerny played Kittridge, an Impossible Missions Force officer, in the first Mission: Impossible film in 1996, and he is back in this one as the head of the whole operation. After he explains the situation, Ethan assembles his usual crew, a confident computer boffin (Ving Rhames), a panicky computer boffin (Simon Pegg), and a rogue MI6 agent (Rebecca Ferguson). They soon discover that The Entity has an evil sidekick, Gabriel (Esai Morales), with links to Ethan’s past: we learn more about his pre-IMF days than we did in any of the previous films, although that’s not saying much. Gabriel has his own sidekick, a gleefully ferocious assassin played by Pom Klementieff (Mantis from Guardians of the Galaxy), and he works with the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), the seductive fixer from Mission: Impossible 6. Oh, and there is also an odd couple of CIA agents (Shea Whigham and Greg Tarzan Davis) who have the job of making a mess of things whenever they can.
They’re an amusing bunch of characters, but the fun doesn’t really get started until everyone is chasing everyone else around Abu Dhabi airport. Just when Ethan is about to get hold of the key, he is outfoxed by Grace, a sleek thief played by Hayley Atwell, and presumably named after Grace Kelly. From then on, she keeps giving him the slip, and she keeps giving the film a fizzy air of mischief and irreverence. The luminous Atwell also manages to have more humanity than anyone else in the series. If Ethan remains as grimly focused on his mission as ever, Grace actually has a character arc, as her encounters with the IMF stir feelings of terror and nobility that she’s never known before. You’d be tempted to say that she had a teasing romantic relationship with Ethan, but Cruise is no Cary Grant, and Ethan is too sexless for romance: only in the Mission: Impossible franchise could a film co-starring Atwell, Kirby, Ferguson and Klementieff be so chaste.
Still, Cruise and Atwell’s jokey interplay ensures that M:I7 is bright and likeable, and doesn’t feel as long as its two-and-three-quarter-hour running time. It’s not quite up there with Top Gun: Maverick, though. After all the delays, and all the reports of Cruise’s dogged labours to keep the production going during the pandemic, it isn’t the masterpiece that we might have hoped for. The doom-and-gloomy interludes jar with the breezier stuff, and the violence towards women is hard to stomach. The solemn exposition scenes are tedious, too: McQuarrie’s favourite technique is to have several characters taking it in turns to say a phrase each, so that their spiel almost sounds like dialogue, but he isn’t fooling anyone.
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Cast: Tom Cruise, Hayley Atwell, Vanessa Kirby, Simon Pegg, Esai Morales, Rebecca Ferguson
Run-time: 2hr 43m
Release date: 10 July
Another nagging problem is that so much of the film is so familiar. Like the previous two Mission: Impossible episodes, both directed by McQuarrie, this one uses stunts and locations we’ve already seen in recent Bond movies (including a conveniently deserted Venice). What’s worse is that it uses stunts and locations we’ve already seen in other movies, too. Maybe there are just too many globe-trotting thriller franchises these days, but when Ethan chases some bad guys through the desert on horseback, it’s like a scene in John Wick Chapter 4, which came out in March. And when his car goes bumping down the Spanish Steps in Rome, it’s like a scene in Fast X, which came out in May.
Bearing in mind the films which inspired Cruise and McQuarrie, it might have been more appropriate if Ethan and Grace had been swanning around the French Riviera instead. But maybe McQuarrie is saving that for Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part Two, which is due to be released in a year’s time.
Mission: Impossibe – Dead Reckoning Part Two is released on 10 July.
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