Friday, July 21, 2023

Accept It:

I tend to love when a long-running franchise finds its melancholy, and Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One is no exception. The Tom Cruise action series has been reliably exciting, allowing his star persona to hone and sharpen along with his super-spy Ethan Hunt. They’ve fused as a man of singular focus and determination, willing to throw himself—literally his whole body—into pulling off incredible stunts. Hunt does it to save the world. Cruise does it to save the big screen blockbuster. Well done, both. The last few Missions Impossible, under the guidance of writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, have been sharply cobbled together with an excellent sense of escalating stakes, clever crescendos of momentum, and suitably coherent spectacular action—always with a sense of peril from a convincing over-the-top realism. These are top tier entertainments. The great success of Dead Reckoning Part One is that it doesn’t lose those attributes, and, in fact, by stretching out over three hours of rising action (this is only the first of a promised two-parter, after all) allows it to grow more complicated, and more emotionally engaged. The story is another MacGuffin hunt—two halves of a key that’ll unlock a missing server that holds the brains of a rogue military-grade artificial intelligence—but by pacing itself, it allows for that sadness to creep in. McQuarrie and Cruise have made Hunt a man driven by a desire to avoid loss—not just global, but personal—and here’s a movie that doubles and triples and quadruples down on that prospect.

It considers the effects of being a man for whom the impossible is pulled off in wild stunts of teamwork and the effects such constant danger and close calls have on himself and his only friends—those who work with him. Cruise has always played characters who think they can outrun the gravity of a situation’s reality. (Look no further than Top Gun: Maverick, in which that urge is proven correct.) Impossible has always been a series playing with the potential to flail in the face of danger—remember him dangling over the alarmed floor in the first one. This latest Mission runs toward and with that gravity. Its melancholy is a fine new flavoring that finally taps a rich vein at which the previous pictures have merely glinted. But this is still, as one might expect from these pictures, a rip-roaring adventure with some of the best action thrills anywhere, photographed cleanly and clearly, edited with energy and style, and keeping every aspect in vivid focus without losing the thread. Each sequence—from a sandstorm firefight to airport sleuthing, a car chase through Rome, and combat on a runway train that builds to Buster Keaton levels of astonishing chain reactions—are cleverly stacked with multiple variables, complications, and suspense elements—pursuers, ticking bombs, causes and effects—that make for delightfully complicated thrills.

For however heavy the undertow, the movie stays light on its feet, playful, and propulsive. The action is staged for impact of objects in dizzying motion that balance on a mix of danger and delight. Picture a tiny car tumbling down a massive stone staircase, causing its handcuffed passenger and driver to switch places, all while a massive Hummer smashes down after them. And yet it’s that underlying sadness that lets such giddiness play against a somber backbeat that finds these characters in an almost existential crisis when confronting their latest foe. (No wonder there’s no conclusion.) When a charming new character (Hayley Atwell) is given the choice to join the team for this mission, it’s presented with a somber touch. She needs to know the consequences. This earned level of sadness gives the hugely entertaining movie a genuine whiff of finality. In these endless franchise plays crowding our multiplexes, a few are starting to find satisfying stakes can be found by intimating an actual end is looming. All the pleasures of the momentum machine herein feel all the more weighted toward danger, and make the complications all the more delightfully compounded.

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