As I was sitting in the movie theatre watching Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning, Part One, I couldn't help but mumble to myself about how much I missed Tom Cruise. That's a weird thing to think about, I suppose, as I'm actually sitting in the theatre watching the latest in Cruise's long line of mega-budgeted, hyper-entertaining motion pictures designed to dazzle to the point of sensory exhaustion.
Dead Reckoning succeeds at that goal, by the way, in case you would have any doubt. Cruise aims to please and he seldom lets us down. I'm always kind of grateful when an effort like The Mummy comes around to remind us that he is, in fact, still human.
There are some who will declare that Cruise is really the last remaining true movie star. I'm not sure I'd go that far, but somewhere along the way Cruise made a conscious decision to be that movie star instead of aiming for the well-meaning awards cred that may have declared him a great actor but wasn't ever going to likely lead to big bank.
While 2023 did find Cruise with an Oscar nomination for Top Gun: Maverick, as an actor Cruise's other three Oscar nods have gone for lower-budgeted, more critically acclaimed fare including Born on the Fourth of July, somewhat arguably his best performance to date, along with Jerry Maguire and Magnolia (my personal favorite Cruise performance). It's not that I don't think Cruise is serious about acting. I have no doubt Cruise is serious about acting. However, somewhere along the way he made a clear decision to focus his star power on using the Cruise charm for a greater Hollywood good that has been mostly successful in a series of increasingly awe-inspiring action picks led by the seven Mission: Impossible films.
I can't help it. I miss Tom Cruise the risk-taker. I miss the Tom Cruise who challenged himself as an actor as much as he now challenges himself with physically demanding roles. There may come a day, of course, when he takes another detour and finally picks up that golden statuette even if he does seem to look at 80-year-old Harrison Ford's turn as Indiana Jones with more than a little envy.
Until then, we'll just sit in the afterglow of films like Dead Reckoning.
Dead Reckoning is, as Cruise would demand, a crowd-pleaser extraordinaire. It has everything we've come to expect from the Mission: Impossible films - remarkable stunt work, killer action sequences, an astounding original score, top-notch technical wizardry, and Cruise serving up his ever-present willingness to please moviegoing audiences.
The film's third act exceeds everything we've seen before it and practically justifies the film's nearly three-hour running time itself. This is a film that gently pushes us toward a healthy fear of AI by refusing to surrender to special effects. A good majority of this film is immersed in practical effects and creative WTF moments of stunt dazzlery (Is that even a word? It is now.).
The Mission: Impossible films have never really been about their narrative arcs. The same is true here. Cruise's Ethan Hunt is tasked with tracking down a mysterious key that allows control of an AI system creating chaos globally via computer networks. It's a fundamental narrative really, a simple idea that isn't particularly simple as mysteries build and one becomes consumed by determining who and what are real, fake, and masked. It's not a dazzling narrative, but it's enough to immerse us in this engaging and entertaining world.
It's also enough for Cruise to ensure that we're going to forget about the story and be awed by an increasing breathtaking series of remarkable stunts and set pieces. I can lament all I want Cruise's departure from what I would pretentiously call more serious acting, but there's no questioning the guy's dedication to giving his audiences what they want, what he thinks they want, and whatever seems to rouse his interest. As is always true for an MI film, there are moments that will leave you not just mouthing "How did he do that?" but also "Why did he do that?"
It's for his fans. It's for his fans.
Secondary appearances impress as nearly always with familiars like Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, and Rebecca Ferguson adding impressive depth to a strong ensemble. Newcomer Esai Morales reminds us just how criminally under-utilized he's been throughout his career. Hollywood, at least after the current strikes, would be a whole lot better with a Morales resurgence.
If there's one thing that Cruise understands more than most action stars, it's that the best action flicks require emotional investment and characters you care about whether you love them or hate them. That's what makes Dead Reckoning, this first of a two-parter, one of the year's best action flicks. We care. We care a lot.
With a terrific ensemble, fantastic set pieces, practically overwhelming stunts, and special effects that feel real because they are real, Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning, Part One may not be the best film you'll see this year but it's most certainly a film you won't easily forget.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic