Movies | July 13, 2023 8:09 am

Can Tom Cruise Save the Movies With Another “Mission: Impossible” Sequel?

The actor returns as Ethan Hunt in one of the best action movies of the year

Tom Cruise and Vanessa Kirby in "Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One"
Tom Cruise and Vanessa Kirby in "Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One"

For all intents and purposes, Mission: Impossible is the longest-running single-continuity, reboot-free film series in current operation. (James Bond doesn’t count; Indiana Jones has too many decade-plus gaps; we’ll see if those new Star Wars movies actually happen.) Among the many impressive things about this feat, consider two that are seemingly in opposition: If the eighth film, currently scheduled for summer 2024, does fulfill initial promises to wrap up the series, it will cap a stunning 28-year span; and, at the same time, it will add up to fewer Mission: Impossible entries than the Fast & Furious movies (11 and counting), the about-to-dead-end DCEU (14 movies, give or take), or the so-far-unstoppable MCU (30? 40? Who knows?) have knocked out over considerably shorter periods. Maybe this is why Mission: Impossible fatigue hasn’t seem to set in — even as the current entry, Dead Reckoning Part One, indulges plenty of what have become series routines, ritualizing a series that used to go off in different directions. 

Those directions were enabled by the first half of the series becoming a de facto director’s showcase, with Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird each bringing a distinctive visual and thematic sensibility to the adventures of super-spy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). Since Cruise settled on his constant collaborator Christopher McQuarrie as the franchise’s co-captain, certain touchstones have become more codified with repetition. Hunt, which is to say Cruise, will climb to or fall from an enormous, near-impossible height. Hunt and his team will be disavowed or go rogue in some other way. There will be a shot of Cruise and his teammates — Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Rebecca Ferguson — cruising somewhere on a speedboat, looking slick and unbothered. Hunt will zip around on a motorcycle. The machine that generates those near-flawless facial-double masks will break down. 

Amazingly, this list does not include Cruise dangling inches off the ground from a single wire, an image from the first movie so iconic that the next two feel obliged to play tribute to it. But Dead Reckoning does circle back to the first film in other ways, as if signaling that the series is losing some of its seemingly endless runway. Kittridge (Henry Czerny), the IMF boss who pursued a framed and disavowed Ethan in the first film, returns to the narrative. The climax is set on a train, just like in the first film, featuring the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), who is the daughter of a key character played by Vanessa Redgrave (who appeared on the train in the original). It’s not just obvious stuff, either: At one point, Ethan performs some sleight-of-hand magic, a talent not seen since he was a relative babe in the IMF woods, back in 1996.  

Does this represent pangs of nostalgia from Dead Reckoning — which is to say, from Cruise himself? Because by this point, Cruise is the movie, is the series, is the mission. That was a bug circa the first two films, where some fans complained about a story prioritizing betrayals and triple-crosses over teamwork (in the first film) or one designed to turn its star into a one-man wrecking crew (in the second). Cruise’s soloing has become a feature over time, as his massive ego has been directed toward the “greater good,” as Kittridge sneers in Dead Reckoning. In-movie, that means saving the world and saving his less disposable teammates; Dead Reckoning continues the thread of Ethan being “unable to accept” the idea that the former might require sacrificing the latter. Meta-textually, of course, Cruise is here to save the movies again, just as he did with Top Gun: Maverick, providing the requisite top-level spectacle with a human, rather than CG, face in the midst of the action. Only Cruise can merge the two to become a cyborg franchise machine, a man paradoxically engineered to out-computer the computers. 

Maybe this is why Ethan Hunt is now fighting a bad guy who is more A.I.-assisted than ever; no big spoilers here, but Dead Reckoning Part One goes further into sci-fi territory for this installment. Despite the cliffhanger implications of Part One in the title, the movie stands alone reasonably well. It doesn’t pick up on the Rogue Nation storyline that developed into Fallout, and instead will remind plenty of viewers of other recent long-in-the-tooth globetrotters: There’s a chase through the streets of Rome, like in Fast X, which involves smaller-than-average vehicles, like in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, with which the movie also shares a train-top confrontation and a two-part McGuffin (the latest Transformers also hinges on a “key” that’s actually two keys; is there a new Save the Cat book explaining that two keys has more stakes than one, or something?). Hunt and his crew are once again chasing a doohickey and bedeviled by a mysterious woman; because fellow spy Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) is now a confirmed Friend of Hunt, the wild-card energy transfers to Grace (Hayley Atwell), a thief and non-spy who the team encounters at the airport, early in the film, and nests some additional screw-ups into the usual mad dash of improvisations, meticulous plans and actual mad dashing.  

The airport sequence, full of hacking and counter-hacking and pickpocketing and Cruise walking with purpose through crowds of people, is a sign that the new film has shed some of the sleek bombast of its immediate predecessor Fallout. That was such a spectacular peak-performance action picture that it forgot to include any of those dead-quiet scenes where the team has to do something carefully and stealthily with split-second timing that teeters on the verge of slapstick disaster. This, Cruise aside, is what distinguishes a Mission: Impossible movie from any number of other international McGuffin pursuits. Despite its homages to the first film, Dead Reckoning doesn’t have a heist sequence as memorable as the first’s classic Langley break-in, or even as clever as the Kremlin sneak-around in Ghost Protocol, but at least it remembers to include more than token amounts of subterfuge. 

Dead Reckoning also attempts to give Cruise/Hunt some new shadings, with mixed success. Some light retconning offers a glimpse into Ethan’s past, a plug-and-play this-time-it’s-personal adapter for a series that has often kept its emotional distance, lest it write itself into another corner over an Ethan Hunt love interest (his wife was a major character in the third film, and therefore had to be addressed, in increasingly bendy ways, through multiple movies that followed). The dubious personal connection, and Ethan’s protectiveness of his small team, gives Cruise some more vengeful notes to play; he’s also charmingly flummoxed by a kind of flirtatious Hitchcock-caper relationship that develops between Ethan and Grace.

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Scene by scene, this elusiveness hums with classical tension; their mutual wariness is the center of that terrific car chase — maybe a series best in that category? — and the characters’ growing trust holds together a cracking train-set finale, teasing more humanity out of Cruise’s human-engine shtick. More broadly, you wonder if any of it can truly stick to Teflon Ethan. As much as Cruise takes real stuntman risks to make these movies, most of the time he’s savvy about downplaying his character’s invincibility; it’s more fun, in other words, if we can see the strain as Ethan Hunt gets knocked around. Emotionally, it’s a little trickier. (I felt the same way about Top Gun: Maverick, but the global box office disagrees.) Cruise, who exuded such ripe cockiness as a young man that it took a long time to notice how infrequently he ever sold us on a true romance, has reinvented himself as a kind of warrior monk with a lot of intense platonic friendships. His relationship with Ilsa, for example, has the presumed closeness and little-boy invisible romance of a Marvel movie; are Ethan’s entanglements non-physical, or just superhumanly clandestine? By movie seven, even that will-they-or-did-they dynamic has become something of a routine, nearly as familiar as a James Bond catchphrase.

The familiarity is part of the game, of course, in Bond and here: Introducing enough new stunts and beautiful faces to wow the crowds while taking ownership over the iconography to keep others from snatching it away. Mission: Impossible movies are mostly about their star, and Dead Reckoning Part One uses its A.I. element to at least broaden the scope of that self-study — while also, of course, notching the summer’s best-crafted, most entertaining action-adventure picture. The danger of Mission shifting to contempt seems as remote as Ethan himself. Yet there is a faintly detectable anxiety at the heart of Dead Reckoning Part One, not as clearly stated as it is in Maverick but not as handily refuted, either. It’s the thrumming question of whether Cruise/Hunt/Mission are adapting to fight through an encroaching digital world, or just making the last-action-hero stand, over and over, as the machines watch and attempt to learn. Since 1996, Mission: Impossible has never been offscreen for long enough to inspire a legacy sequel. Dead Reckoning seems quietly and almost touchingly rattled that someday somebody will try.