Tom Cruise, the Living Manifestation of Kino
Review: ‘Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning: Part One.’
REWATCHING THE ENTIRETY of the Mission: Impossible series ahead of Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning: Part One, I was struck by how it serves as a handy microcosm for not only Tom Cruise’s career—now in its fifth decade, and arguably more robust than ever—but also Hollywood as a whole.
Tom Cruise’s career can be broken down into two basic epochs: the Auteur Age and the Starteur Age. He spent much of his early career in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s seeking out opportunities to work with some of the most domineering directorial personalities in the game, allowing his star power to be molded by the strength of their visions. Some of this was luck—he wasn’t necessarily in a position to dictate being cast in a Ridley Scott movie (Legend) or a Francis Ford Coppola movie (The Outsiders) before Top Gun and Risky Business—but it he was drawn to directors with vision.
Notches on his belt in this period included Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Michael Mann, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Stanley Kubrick, when he wasn’t working with Tony Scott or Ron Howard or Barry Levinson. And he brought that sensibility to Mission: Impossible (1996) and its first couple of sequels. The original movie, directed by Brian De Palma, is very identifiably a Brian De Palma movie: lots of split diopter shots; vaguely voyeuristic in its sensibilities; and as sensual as its PG-13 rating would allow. Its sequel, Mission: Impossible 2 (2000), was equally identifiable as a John Woo picture. Explosions! Motorcycles! Slow motion! White doves! White doves in slow motion while motorcycles speed away from explosions! (Probably.) You could even see the auteurist drive animating these films reflected in the choice of musicians: half of U2 did the theme for the first; Limp Bizkit did the theme for the second.1
The problem with vision is that sometimes theoretical vision does not translate to practical vision. Mission: Impossible 2 is not good, Woovian flourishes aside, and audiences kind of hated it. This is one reason why Mission: Impossible III2 (2006) did not succeed at the box office: Every movie in a franchise is punished or rewarded for the one that comes before it. And it’s also a reason why that’s the last movie in the franchise to bear the specific visual flourishes of a director with an identifiable style: III is very much a J.J. Abrams movie in that lens-flare-soaked, shaky-cam-in-close-up sort of style.
III also came out in the midst of a very weird time for Cruise, whose personal life was in tumult. The year before had seen him jumping on Oprah’s couch and discussing psychiatry with Matt Lauer in a way that can only be described as fevered; in the years that followed, he and Katie Holmes’s relationship would serve as tabloid fodder and footage he taped for a Scientology ceremony would go viral on YouTube. The movies he made in this period were frequently very good (Jack Reacher and Edge of Tomorrow, in particular) but they often underperformed relative to their quality. Audiences, it seemed, were uncertain about him.
WHAT WE’VE SEEN FROM CRUISE over the last decade, particularly over the last six years or so, is something of a retrenchment, a restatement of his own star power. He has exerted more control over his projects—often with the aid of Christopher McQuarrie, who has either written, rewritten, or written and directed nearly everything Cruise has done during this stretch—and turned them into vehicles designed to demonstrate his own unadulterated awesomeness. Last year’s Top Gun: Maverick is a prime example of this, obviously, but you can see the evolution play out most clearly in the Mission: Impossible movies.
To wit: It was with Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (2011) that the series shifted from “spy stories infused with the visual sensibility of their directors and about guys wearing really cool masks” to “Tom Cruise is going to try not to die while making this movie for your entertainment, and also there are some cool masks.” This is the movie whose primary selling point was “Tom Cruise is going to hang off the Burj Khalifa.” In the follow-up, Rogue Nation (2015), the ads focused on Tom Cruise literally hanging off the side of a cargo jet taking off. And then, in Fallout (2018), it was a HALO jump, performed and shot for real, that brought audiences in.
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Now, in Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning: Part One, the big draw is Tom Cruise doing an Evel Knievel-style motorcycle jump off a mountain, then jumping off of the plummeting motorcycle into a BASE jump, and then landing onto a moving train. This is “the biggest stunt in cinema history.” Tom Cruise is the man doing it. Everything else is just window dressing.
Almost literally. One of the more amusing artifacts of the McQuarrie-era M:I movies is that the Oscar-winning screenwriter has been tasked with making the plots of the last three movies as generic as possible so as not to distract from the cool stunts and fights and car chases and Ethan Hunt’s status as “the living manifestation of destiny.” Here’s the plot of Rogue Nation: THE SYNDICATE, which is comprised of ROGUE AGENTS, wants to BRING DOWN THE SYSTEM by getting THE LOCKBOX. That’s it, that’s the whole movie. And these are not generic terms I’m using; they are, almost verbatim, from the film. Its sequel, Fallout, is basically the same, but sub in NUKES for THE LOCKBOX.
In Dead Reckoning: Part One, the enemy is THE ENTITY, an artificial intelligence program that can perform so many calculations per second that it can practically tell the future and what it would like to do with that knowledge is end humanity, I guess. Needless to say, the world’s intelligence agencies would prefer that not happen, but they also want to control THE ENTITY. Possibly to use against future iterations of THE SYNDICATE, who can say.
Again, the plot here matters less than any of the individual sequences, and I’m pleased to say that the individual sequences are all pretty fantastic. The motorcycle jump is cool, sure, but so is Ethan Hunt’s Lawrence of Arabia-esque search for/shootout to save Ilsa Faust (a returning Rebecca Ferguson), his cat-and-mouse pickpocket game with Grace (Hayley Atwell), his car chase with Grace in a compact Fiat through the streets of Rome as they’re chased by a demented-looking Paris (Pom Klementieff), and the absolutely bravura fight sequence in which Hunt squares off against Paris in a tight alley while Grace and Faust are attacked by Gabriel (Esai Morales), the human emissary of THE ENTITY.
Cruise is a force of nature, naturally, but it is Klementieff whose performance had me rolling; at one point she’s piloting an armored police vehicle through the streets of Rome, crushing cars and mopeds with what can only be described as unadulterated glee. McQuarrie cuts to her manic grin something like ten times during this chase, and I was honestly a little disappointed we didn’t get ten more cuts to fully soak up her gonzo vibe.
Late-stage Mission: Impossible movies are absolutely perfect pop art confections, and Dead Reckoning: Part One is no exception. Imagine The Fast and the Furious series, but good: headlined by a genuine star, featuring coherently shot set pieces, and looking like they exist in something like the real world instead of a CGI-composited bag of garbage. I’m glad Tom Cruise is making them and I’m glad they are resounding successes; theaters need evangelists like Cruise if they are to survive.
But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little sad to see Cruise’s complete absorption into franchise fare over which he has near-total control. Since Edge of Tomorrow, he’s been in precisely one3 non-franchise feature (American Made); the movie he’s shooting with SpaceX isn’t likely to be that different from the recent Mission: Impossible films.
Such is the way of the world, I suppose; all of Hollywood has been consumed by intellectual property. Perhaps it’s just one final way that Tom Cruise truly is the living manifestation of American cinema.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to share this review with a Mission: Impossible or Tom Cruise fan of your acquaintance.
I think it is fair to say that “a John Woo movie with a theme song by Limp Bizkit” is the most late-’90s/early-’00s phrase ever put together. It’s real end of history stuff.
Yes, they switched to Roman numerals for this one movie.
I count The Mummy as “franchise fare” because it was a (disastrous) attempt to start a franchise.