About Face: Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One & The Selling of Tom Cruise

Two men fight on top of a speeding train. The man on the right is dressed in black and seems to be pushing the man on the left, dressed in a tan jacket and dark pants, off the edge of the top of the train.
Paramount Pictures and Skydance

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist. To learn more, visit the WGA strike hub and the SAG-AFTRA strike site.

 

The function of Ethan Hunt is, increasingly, to be a martyr. And not just any martyr: one you feel sorry for.

Starting with J. J. Abrams’s Mission: Impossible 3 (2006), each director of the enduring action franchise that Tom Cruise has strapped his reputation to has capitulated to the actor’s whims, including mandated shifts to steer his character into a more vulnerable register. Ethan Hunt is one of the most transparent acts of public relations management in modern cinema history, and he has continued to pay off, both for older generations—who watched Cruise grow from a smirking all-American teen tryhard into the international star he is now—and younger ones,  who are largely ambivalent about or unaware of Cruise’s disturbing personal history. Because so much of Cruise’s life had, up to a certain point, been conducted in public, the comparative scarcity of detail in the last decade or so leaves plenty of room for mystery. It creates space for talk-show anecdotes—Christmas cakes sent to Kirsten Dunst, on-set pranks with Simon Pegg, incognito outings to the movie theater to watch his audience’s reactions to his films—and little else, except for the audacious cinematic offerings he bestows upon the world. And so, watching a Tom Cruise project—and, because there are so many of them and continue to be more, watching a Mission: Impossible film—becomes grounds for a futile investigation, one that proves all the more thrilling for the fact that no one really knows what they’re looking for.

It’s been said with every press cycle that these films are partially about the fact that they happened for real: Tom Cruise jumped, rode, drove, and climbed the unthinkable for our amusement, the production aided by the conspicuous lack of CGI, stunt doubles, or other cinematic trickery. This is true, though Mission: Impossible is a franchise that adheres, admirably, to a formula, which means there is an upper and lower limit to what can and cannot happen. One of the more interesting (frankly, funny) contradictions of the series is the fact that Ethan Hunt, so eloquently described by his enemies as a chaotic, omniscient empathy machine who cares more about his friends than himself, kills indiscriminately when the situation calls for it. For Hunt, there are those who have been deemed worthy, and everyone else.

This glorified anointing by Hunt—and by Cruise—is reiterated ad nauseam; Hunt is apparently such a good judge of character that, even when a new recruit betrays him, he still places his full faith in them. Throughout the series, this has remained one of Hunt’s most endearing qualities. He is Captain America without the flag, a cynicism-wicking wrecking ball who wins over his skeptics with action and consistency. I’ve always thought, without any serious misgiving, that this is the real function of the character, a mask for Tom Cruise as he would like to be seen. Indeed, Ethan Hunt has been engineered as Cruise’s go-to export, the slippage between character and actor deliberate; the spectacle of near-death that is performed and received so enthusiastically—the awe inspired and the adrenaline pumped—cannot be attributed wholly to either Cruise or Hunt. Hunt is the closest an audience gets to seeing Cruise act like a normal person. It is striking, and odd, to watch recent interviews and promos with the last true movie star, who smiles, poses, waves, and says almost nothing of interest or substance. Here, there are two masks at play: the bleeding, world-weary heart of Hunt, who affords Cruise the opportunity to perform emotion he never displays elsewhere, and the cipher of (the public-facing) Cruise himself.

**

In Mission: Impossible 3, Ethan Hunt marries a nurse named Julia, played singularly by Michelle Monaghan who, yes, looks a lot like Katie Holmes. What is remarkable about 3 is not just its change in tone—or its period-specific political paranoia—but the degree to which Hunt softens into a kind of person-suit for Cruise. It would be too flippant (and, frankly, incorrect) to say that Cruise is playing himself in the role. What would that even mean? How would the audience know what Cruise really does? But Hunt does begin to resemble a plausible idea of Cruise as an ordinary man, one who lives beneath a secret spotlight rather than a public one, an exceptional and generous man beleaguered by the world but never cynical of it. The tumultuous life of an IMF agent precludes long-term stability and is therefore a tragic one. Friends die or disappear, loved ones (forever in danger) are used as collateral. In between 3 and Ghost Protocol, Hunt fakes Julia’s death to save her from mercenaries. Hunt checks in every now and again, a lovelorn guardian angel putting on a brave face, throwing what remaining devotion he has into protecting his friends, before sprinting into the next mission.

This positioning of the character works better when there is the sense that Hunt is truly out of his depth—that he can’t actually save everyone. It’s nice when Cruise gets a bit weepy, but there is never the complete eradication of a sense of manipulation, backstory as PR. More effective is when Cruise’s jaw drops and his eyes widen, when Hunt is beset by panic and indecision, and we watch Cruise allow us to indulge in his vulnerability. Julia’s sudden, very real return three installments later in the third act of Mission: Impossible — Fallout (2018), after the film has inundated the audience with dream sequences of her, hits squarely in the gut. By this point, disavowed MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) has carved a space in Hunt’s life, almost his female equivalent, their apparent chemistry immediate, a convincing relationship forged through a bevy of meaningful looks. So it is less an imposition of the past—Julia has remarried and gone on to a fulfilled life—than a recentering of all that is at stake, when both Ilsa and Julia individually, along with long-time friends Benji and Luther, scramble to help Hunt save the world.

Dead Reckoning Part One (2023) attempts to seize the many triumphs of Fallout by retconning Hunt’s past and foreclosing his future. The film opens under the Arctic icecap, a Russian submarine named the Sevastopol harboring history-altering weaponry that allows it to stalk the sovereign waters of every nation in the world, undetected. Not since Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)—with its neon-tinged laboratory, manufactured virus, and the hushed voiceover of Croatian actor Rade Šerbedžija—has the series opened on a scene so tonally divorced from the kinetic world of the IMF. There is a haunting intimation here: an invisible crew roaming the ocean, their communications, like their fate, legible only through unseen commands. Onboard the vessel is an AI referred to throughout the film as the Entity. The Entity conjures an enemy ship for the Sevastopol to fight, using fear and panic—and a misfired torpedo—to maroon the submarine deep underwater where no one can find it. In the aftermath, corpses float to the surface, slamming against the ice, captain and crew joined in a bloodless death, frozen, suspended.

This is a movie, which means the Entity is sentient, possibly malevolent, though what the audience mostly sees is the AI’s curiosity. It prods, goads, queries allies and foes alike, its own agenda mysterious. Meanwhile, every government on the planet vies for control over it. There is a lot of talking about the Entity in Dead Reckoning; too much, really, when the opening sequence—all red alert lights, sonar maps, shouted nautical commands, sweat-beaded foreheads, and loaded missiles—succinctly encapsulates what is most dangerous (and compelling) about an enemy that can be, in our digitally-stitched world, anywhere and everywhere. Having seen the film twice in one week (the first an early screening that harbored no trailers, just redundant congratulatory red carpet promotion of the very film we were all about to watch), I wondered if it was inevitable that the Mission: Impossible franchise would find its way to AI—or, at least, the encroachment of technology.

The AI at the heart of Dead Reckoning Part One, just like the next-gen and unmanned jets in Top Gun: Maverick (which Jack ReacherRogue Nation-Fallout-Dead Reckoning Part One director Christopher McQuarrie co-wrote), represents the antithesis to the real—to a certain kind of filmmaking—to human intuition and talent. While Hunt has been spreading goodwill towards the pilot of his avatar over the decades, Cruise himself has become the self-appointed, yet deliberately silent, figurehead of theatrical cinema in the pandemic age. He is a lover of film, an avid watcher of movies, a singular force with the ability to hold the theatrical release of a movie for months, even years, and then to keep it there for months, or what feels like years, before relinquishing it to streaming. AI can’t care. It has no ego to protect, no reputation to maintain, certainly no troubling religious allegiance to keep quiet about. AI is a phenomenological singularity, which Cruise fashions into a god worth killing.

Through ponderous dialogue scenes, the audience is treated to a repeated artistic statement—the destruction of truth and certainty, of skill, and, crucially for Hunt, good judgment, at the hands of technology—that echoes Benji’s riff on the “anti-God” in Mission: Impossible 3. In Dead Reckoning Part One, the U.S. intelligence community rushes to convert all of their files to hand-typed hard copies, their screens to cathode ray tubes, their communications to decommissioned Cold War-era satellites. Meanwhile, Hunt’s team can no longer depend on their dazzling gadgets and are forced to go old school, piloting machinery that is less reliable, requiring their trust and wits. And yet Dead Reckoning Part One isn’t just about machines, but people. Namely, the women in Hunt’s life.

In an unconvincing, desaturated flashback early on in the film, Dead Reckoning‘s primary human antagonist, Gabriel (Esai Morales) murders a heretofore unmentioned brunette named Marie in front of Hunt. This is supposed to take place before Hunt has joined the IMF, though the extent to which McQuarrie goes to replicate the ‘90s is staging the scene in a dim tunnel, dying Morales’s gray hair black, and throwing a wig (or maybe late-production grown-out hair?) on Cruise. When Grace (Hayley Atwell), a brunette thief, shows up, stealing one half of a key that unlocks the Entity’s source code, McQuarrie contrives a silly pattern: the women Hunt has cared for always die, so what will happen to Grace and Ilsa?

To say nothing of the fact that this isn’t true—or that neither Gabriel nor Marie existed before Dead Reckoning Part One—it’s telling that, up to this point, Mission: Impossible hadn’t cared to look backward. Each and every flashback sequence across the franchise is contained to the film in which it occurs, never reaching across installments, never invoking new characters. Granted, there are requisite references to the iconic CIA heist from the first film, side characters from the first film, little jokes and asides tying various codenames and objects together from the first film. Indeed, it’s with Dead Reckoning Part One that it becomes abundantly clear, if it wasn’t before, how much the franchise owes to Brian De Palma and 1996’s Mission: Impossible.

The dilemma for McQuarrie and Cruise is that McQuarrie is not a stylist and Cruise can’t be trusted to distinguish a callback from a rehashed idea. There are many a canted camera in Dead Reckoning Part One meant to evoke De Palma’s signature Dutch angles without the extremity or framing precision. Hunt sprints through the nighttime streets of a European city as everything around him goes wrong. A covert purchase is made on board a train in the third act—a longer, more involved, tedium-approaching overlay of the first. Even Henry Czerny returns as former IMF Director Eugene Kittridge, though his major scene, mirroring the famous Prague dinner standoff, looks and feels markedly less than. There’s something fitting about the fact that Dead Reckoning Part One might be the most boring-looking of the Mission: Impossible films thus far. Compared to almost any other franchise, this might not mean much. What McQuarrie loses in color or blocking is made up for, mostly, in the structure and pace, the ingenuity of set pieces. Still, there is the sense that wheels are spinning in place.

Part of this feels due to the fact that, in the McQuarrie era, these scripts are even more of an afterthought to the stunts—which, at their best, feel perfectly melded into the narrative and, at their worst, feel random and disconnected. Cruise and McQuarrie have been waiting their entire careers for each other to correct this gap, a writer-director deft enough to selectively acquiesce to the demands of his star and main producer. Both men have admitted to drastic, on-the-fly script changes during production, which means these latter-day films, edited and shot on a pivot, are also about their own creation. To an extent.

Packed into the breathless press and behind-the-scenes features of Mission: Impossible is their hyperreality, the presence of real danger, location permits, tax breaks, and endless negotiations marshaled to allow the crew to shoot in places they normally couldn’t and the production to do things only Tom Cruise can do. Put another way, these films, these stunts, Tom Cruise, all of it is meant to be hailed as analog. Just as easily as there are people, there are things in Mission: Impossible. Paperclips, hooks, wheels, keyboards, phone cords, fingerprints, maps, triggers, retinas, discs, ropes, prosthetics, hands, faces.

Meanwhile, Dead Reckoning Part One lurches helplessly into the digital realm as McQuarrie defers to the very technology the film decries. Poor CGI creeps throughout, from the cartoonish air bubbles beneath the Arctic at the end of the opening sequence to the Unreal Engine backgrounds of the climactic train fight (a facet that is on display to less disruptive effect in sections of the final act of Fallout). Too, where Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (2015), perhaps the franchise’s most beautiful-looking film, revels in the textures and grain of film stock, Dead Reckoning Part One partakes of a smoky, fleshy plainness, at once hyper-detailed and muted. Ironically, for the first time in the series, the idea of digital face replacement that has nothing to do with masks becomes aesthetically plausible. In Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City, which opened a month earlier, there are crafty practical effects, even a cleverly-conceived miniature train. Here, there are polygon-dense simulations and digital matte paintings. 

Cruise-as-Hunt gives us the goods. An extended car chase in Rome plays fast and loose with tropes specific to Mission: Impossible, stopping and starting, a rhythm of chaos building. But there’s still the smell of burnt rubber.

**

Modern cinema is at a long-standing inflection point regarding its future and the future of non-franchise filmmaking, which means event movies of uncommonly high caliber like Mission: Impossible act as salve and omen at the same time. It’s difficult not to worry about how far the exception to the rule can go. It’s also difficult to contain the knee-jerk reaction to separate this series—approaching its 30th anniversary and eighth installment—from the rest. After all, it was Tom Cruise who was “on the phone with every (expletive) studio at night, insurance companies, producers” to set the “gold standard” of what it means to make a movie of this size and scope during the pandemic. The result at the other end, two years later, shows signs of wear, the seams more visible than usual, the mask slipping.

It is a litmus of the effectiveness of a Mission: Impossible film whether or not the audience remembers who it is they’re watching, or what it took to accomplish the final product. Or rather, whether the audience cares by the end of it. The Scientology jokes flit through the ether, the odd brave crusader setting out to remind us just how shitty Cruise actually is, how powerful, how rich, how untouchable. One side pleads charisma—pointing out just how damn entertaining it is to watch the little guy evoke the wily sensibilities of Buster Keaton or Jackie Chan—while the other scoffs. Months ago, at a different movie, when the trailer for Dead Reckoning Part One played, an older couple in front of me shook their heads the entire time, before the woman said, “I just can’t stand that man.” It’s rare that a movie star like Cruise can at once conjure everything toxic and pointedly redacted about Hollywood, and everything worth preserving.

Perhaps it’s because there are clearly so many fissures left unmended from the pandemic, and because Cruise eludes criticism of any meaningful kind, and that the film opened just before SAG-AFTRA joined the WGA on strike, that a movie like Dead Reckoning Part One plays such a tenuous role. Cruise and McQuarrie operate on an elevated level. Literally, they have situated themselves as people above the concerns of their industry, sympathetic to the struggles of their crew, yet wholly uninterested in anything other than ensuring their own survival. As critic Adam Nayman noted in his review of Dead Reckoning Part One, these men are in the business of quality-controlled products, vehicles of influence and goodwill that try very, very hard—with frustrating but increasingly limited success—to dazzle us into believing Cruise is the only person who can get the job done.

So the end of Dead Reckoning Part One beckons the audience to clamor for what happens next. Its plot folds in on itself, characters like parts traded out, before two halves of a key, like two parts of a story, are finally put back together. The gamble Cruise and McQuarrie have accepted takes the form of an as-yet unanswered question: does Part Two justify Part One? To the average moviegoer (whom I’m envious of), the question doesn’t matter all that much. Hunt and Cruise are sprinting in parallel paths toward an inevitable end. Both men will die one day and what they leave behind will outlast any of us. Yet what is most interesting about Dead Reckoning Part One ultimately has little to do with its making and more to do with the circumstances of its release. With production on Part Two stalled due to both strikes, and McQuarrie vocally impatient to start filming, the future of the franchise, and the industry, is poised for unknown change. Hunt, unlike Cruise, cannot fail to reiterate he is nothing without his team or their acceptance. There is the disruptive possibility now for their places to switch.