Dead Again: McQuarrie Cruises Into the Eye of AI
For his seventh revolution around the sun as the indefatigable IMF agent Ethan Hunt, Tom Cruise shows no signs of stopping in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. As the title immediately indicates, this is the first chapter of a two part installment, which also suggests the shuffling about of returning characters, some lucky enough to make it to the next segment as a meager means to keep audiences on their toes. Who will survive? Does it even matter?
To be fair, Cruise has singlehandedly created an action franchise which now usurps the vibrancy once afforded the perennial James Bond while also doggedly hanging onto the reigns. However, Cruise’s greatest feat continues to be conjuring interest in both a character and persona who aren’t exactly multifaceted beyond an impressive ability to sprint to and from. On a positive note, his latest foray establishes a comfortable rhythm with his favored scribe Christopher McQuarrie, who first directed Cruise in 2012’s Jack Reacher and has since taken over the helms of Ethan Hunt since 2015’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (read review). Featuring a trio of dizzying, formidably choreographed action sequences, the epic running time (nearing three hours) whizzes by, for the most part, and definitely leaves a curiosity for the inevitable second segment, which may seem less intriguingly prescient regarding our imploding relationship with AI and the devastating distortion of reality.
Ethan Hunt is dispatched to locate half of a cruciform key currently held by his ex-colleague Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), and they’re ambushed in the Arabian desert, where she’s hiding out. Hunt’s plan to locate the second half of the key requires him to sell it on the black market, leading his team to a covert operation at the Abu Dhabi International Airport, where a clandestine buyer holds the second half. When law enforcement tries to intervene, Grace (Haley Atwell), a wily thief, absconds with the key, leading to an ever complicated game of cat and mouse. But the key unlocks the original source code of a dangerous piece of artificial intelligence, described as a “self eating, self aware, all destroying digital parasite.” The source code lies within a sunken submarine at the bottom of the Bering Sea, where it was being tested before becoming sentient and murderous. If this AI entity can destroy its original source code, no human will ever be able to control it, which will decimate humanity unless they revert to analogue technologies the AI cannot infiltrate.
As far as Ethan Hunt’s track record goes, the franchise has come a long way since Brian De Palma’s rather inert 1996 rehash of the 1960s television series. We struggled on through John Woo’s Hitchcock inspired sequel and then offerings various flavors of the month, like J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird, each added their flourishes and highlights allowing for continued interest. But McQuarrie, who has been in Cruise’s stable since penning his 2008 vehicle Valkyrie, at last seems to have been allowed some sort of dominion over the universe, notably with how he attempts to juggle and reconcile a trio of women orbiting Ethan Hunt, including Rebecca Ferguson, whose break out was 2015’s Rogue Nation. Mere snippets of characterization are allowed to bubble up for air between the extensive action sequences, and the women, as in the Bond franchise, seem to fall into a hierarchy of newest equaling most interesting. Thus, the wild card, Haley Atwell, as an extremely talented but arguably unlucky pickpocket, enters the universe of IMF inadvertently, and takes center stage, leaving Ferguson to languish this time around, as neglected as last season’s overcoat. Unfortunately, Atwell’s Grace acts so ludicrously it rather hampers the narrative’s insistence on Ethan’s valiant attempts to save her rather than disable her meddling. This leaves Vanessa Kirby’s attempts to be a super vamp as the returning White Widow to seize the only entertaining bits of feminine energy the film has to offer.
Some other alums shows up, of course, including the staunchly committed Luther Stickell, played by Ving Rhames (who had to be saved by Ethan in the last chapter, perhaps as a way to show the film’s star was capable of human emotion beyond the shoe horned romantic desire customary for his matinee stature), while Simon Pegg’s Benji has little to do other than employ his scrappy personality in the efforts required by increasingly complex operations. Pom Klementieff, who has the least amount of dialogue, is arguably the most visually striking figure in motion, especially during an impressive car chase sequence through Rome, Italy, with some useless police (a grimly determined Shea Whigham and his more affable partner, Greg Tarzan Davis) always skittering around in the ether. Esai Morales has the poo-faced duty of speaking for the close-to-maniacal AI trying to destroy humanity, and various flashbacks to how he’s previously devastated Ethan Hunt require a bit more finesse which hopefully will be discovered in the ensuing second portion of the saga. Henry Czerny’s Kittridge returns for the first time since the 1996 title, though it would make sense to revisit De Palma’s film to orient oneself towards his character (same for Vanessa Kirby, who one might easily forget is meant to be the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave).
But all these squabbles seem to disappear in the enchantment of the expertly choreographed and rather extensive action sequences, none more impressive than a phenomenal train wreckage sequence, which automatically ranks up there with Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) and Cecil B. Demille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), sailing well past something which feels a bit similar in James Mangold’s Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023). Time will tell if the all-consuming, fake news generating AI of McQuarrie’s next Mission: Impossible chapter will lead to either logical conclusions or novel surprises, but maybe it will merely feel like an accidental mirroring between the digital parasite and Ethan Hunt, as in Asimov’s I, Robot, where “you just can’t differentiate between a robot and the very best of humans.”