' ' Cinema Romantico: Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One

Monday, July 24, 2023

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One

“Mission: Impossible” movies typically begin with preeminent Impossible Mission Force agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) receiving a self-destructing recorded mission briefing explaining the preposterous assignment he will inevitably accept. Though “M:I – Dead Reckoning Part One,” movie seven in the venerable franchise, includes that scene, it begins with another recorded message, one intended for us, the audience, of Cruise himself and writer/director Christopher McQuarrie thanking for us coming out to see the movie in a theater, where it was designed to be shown, on the big screen. Technically, this might be considered separate from what follows, yet comes across spiritually part and parcel to it, nonetheless. Because if merely as a movie, “Dead Reckoning Part One” is sheer blinding sensation worthy of its two predecessors, it assumes an unexpected gravity, brought home in how McQuarrie has rendered the villain as something less personal than existential.

That existential villain is an Artificial Intelligence program called The Entity, suggesting Skynet of “The Terminator” movies as a global terrorist, threatening, as one character puts it, the very nature of truth itself. All this is outlined in a sequence of major U.S. Intelligence players, from CIA Director Kittridge (Henry Czerny) to National Intelligence Director Denlinger (Cary Elwes). Like many subsequent scenes, this one is pure exposition, but evocative of how McQuarrie deliciously conveys such informational drops in big, juicy lines of dialogue cut in big, juicy close-ups and with bit performers like Indira Varma and Charles Parnell having such a palpable blast that they become rejoinders to the very notion of AI. And this scene becomes demonstrative of how “Dead Reckoning Part One” brilliantly sculpts its rising and falling action so the ominous-sounding 163 minutes feels laser-focused rather than long or ungainly and helps set up Part Two without ever feeling incomplete.

This two-part nature extends to the two-part key that unlocks the AI’s source code and which Ethan seeks to destroy even as the American government and everyone else naturally wants it for their own devious purposes. That includes Grace (Haley Atwell), a pickpocket who mucks up Ethan and his old IMF cohorts Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg) attempting nab one half of the key from its holder at the Dubai Airport, a sequence in which McQuarrie demonstrates, as he did with “Rogue Nation’s” motorcycle chase, a penchant for deftly working around Cruise’s sexlessness. Here, as Ethan and Grace maneuver around the expansive airport, in her frisky facial expressions and in his brief bout of magic, like the Pickup Artist in Ray-Bans, the scene in essence becomes a blind date, suggesting how the subtext of their flirtation keeps coming to the fore despite the text of her innate recruitment in the IMF.

These little bursts of joyful amusement are what keep the movie grounded, if not also light on its feet, like a quick image of Ethan, Luther, Benji, and the series’ recurring nebulous operative Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) entering Venice Harbor pairing nicely with a later image of just Ethan and Ilsa in the same place, painting them in the glorious Venetian light as something akin to tourists between derring-do. Almost by design, given that he’s an emissary for the AI, chief bad guy Gabriel (Esai Morales) kind of fades away despite being in full view, though his unlikely muscle, Paris (Pom Klementieff), picks up the slack, costumed at one point to look like a great sad tragic clown even if at other points she comes across like the most gleefully devil-may-care of the lot. Indeed, her thirsty expression when she guns the engine of her armored vehicle during a car chase through the compact streets of Rome feels like nothing less than McQuarrie bringing the Run Me Over meme to glorious, giggly life.

Zipping though the narrow streets and clattering down the steps of Rome, this vehicular pursuit becomes the rare screwball car chase, handcuffing Ethan and Grace together for a higher degree of difficulty while underlining their attraction, emitting veracity by forgoing a music score even while maintaining a distinct mischievousness, a reminder that action scenes can work as well being fun and funny as fierce. It also illustrates how the action set pieces of “Dead Reckoning Part One” don’t just duplicate certain forebears but expand, a la the concluding sequence aboard a train that reimagines the trailer going over the cliff in Steven Spielberg’s “The Lost World” as lumberjacks rolling logs.

If there is a fly in the ointment, it is “Dead Reckoning Part One’s” dependence on the Entity to advance the narrative, meaning the deliberately predictable nature of the movie’s biggest twist feels less wrenchingly fatalistic than weirdly rote, inadvertently putting the soullessness of storytelling algorithms into harsh perspective. Despite these occasional algorithm-generated hiccups, however, the relentless analogue bravado prevails, like Ethan riding a motorcycle right off a cliff, leaping into the abyss. If it comes across as a riveting referendum on a teetering theatrical model and an industry labor strike demanding protection from AI, a stunt as a call to action, it’s also a reminder of cinema as electrifying ephemera. For those few seconds when Cruise flies through the air, you don’t have to live anywhere but the spectacular now.

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