AI Meets MI and It’s Not a Cruise-worthy Clash
For nearly three decades, the “Mission: Impossible” franchise has been a shining beacon in a dark era of blockbuster filmmaking. While studio executives have gobbled up and exploited every piece of intellectual property they can find, Tom Cruise has kept his signature franchise on a tight leash, choosing his directors carefully and remaining heavily involved in the creative process, especially the stunts. One could argue the franchise has gotten better with every installment, a trajectory that is unheard of in Hollywood.
But time comes for us all, even Ethan Hunt. On the one hand, “Dead Reckoning” delivers what it promises. Cruise punches, kicks, bludgeons, jumps, and, yes, runs. As is increasingly the case, he passes off some of the action to his expanding circle of friends, played by returning veterans Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, and Vanessa Kirby, along with newcomer Hayley Atwell playing a thief who strays into the path of Hunt and the IMF and finds herself caught in a web of global domination. Just like the “Fast and Furious” franchise, “Mission: Impossible” refuses to jettison any cast members. It only adds, and for the first time, the sheer volume of characters to involve in the plot starts to feel unwieldy.
It’s also the first entry that feels a bit like a greatest hits record. Perhaps Cruise and Co. have run out of new ideas, but there are too many sequences here that this team has done better in a prior film. “Dead Reckoning” sports a fight aboard a speeding train that recalls (and admittedly expands upon) the climactic set piece from the 1996 original, yet another car chase in a European city, and numerous hand-to-hand combat sequences that are expertly conceived and composed but break little ground. If you come to this film wishing only to have your expectations met, “Dead Reckoning” will do the job, but for a franchise whose stunts are renowned for their originality — in retrospect, the helicopter fight in “Fallout” may have been the peak of the franchise — it feels like a step backward.
The only sequence that had a chance to really floor the audience is a third-act motorcycle jump in an awe-inspiring setting, but even that was somehow spoiled. The stunt was revealed nearly a year ago in a behind-the-scenes featurette released on Twitter. Kudos to Cruise, director Christopher McQuarrie, and their stunt team for devising new ways to market a film, but releasing the stunt in advance kills both the element of surprise and suspension of disbelief. Not exactly a winning formula.
Besides their stunts, franchise action films largely succeed or fail on the strength of their villain, another area where “Dead Reckoning” fails to measure up. Rather than a rogue terrorist group or something of that sort, the bad guy is in fact an AI, known as “The Entity”, that has become sentient and is now seeking access to the world’s intelligence agencies.
How do you fist-fight an algorithm? The film creates a flesh-and-blood embodiment of The Entity, a former IMF agent (Esai Morales) who has now pledged fealty to the AI and seems to have downloaded some of its power. It makes more sense on paper than onscreen. The film sets up The Entity as its big bad guy, but in the end, Hunt and his team are mostly just fighting a good-looking guy in a nice suit. Or something like that.
“Dead Reckoning” overcomplicates its plot to the extreme, relying on endless scenes of exposition just to keep the audience up to speed. Let’s be honest. We have never understood much of what was going on in the previous films. We come for the audacious action sequences and the careful performance of Cruise, our greatest expert inserting touches of humanity into his otherwise superhuman feats. When he runs, we feel it in his knees, and when he glances at you with a twinkle in his eye, you know something remarkable is about to happen.
“Dead Reckoning” gives us precious little of that. Instead, Cruise’s charm is largely missing here. The digital de-aging that has long been performed on the middle-aged Cruise tips over into an uncanny valley here, robbing the great star of his ability to convey simple emotions or even summon that trademark smirk. It’s ironic that a film cautioning against unfettered technological invention suffers from just that.
I suppose you can only defeat death so many times — in the world of “Mission: Impossible” or the world around it — before reality finally comes calling.