Saturday 15 July 2023

Holding on for life: "Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One"

Last year, Tom Cruise saved the cinema with 
Top Gun: Maverick. This year, he's set himself the notionally less onerous challenge of saving the movie summer, after what has felt like a perilously soft opening. (No backsliding on Tom's watch.) He attempts this by initiating the endgame of the long spy game that kept him prominent as an action star even as many of his peers succumbed to creaky, direct-to-streaming obscurity. It was the Mission: Impossible franchise to which Cruise defaulted after his longstanding box-office supremacy was threatened by the back-to-back commercial failures of 1999's Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia, thereby changing the course of American cinema overnight: away from risky dramatic swings, and back towards safe-bet franchises. Few claims were made for 2000's M:I2, overseen by John Woo at the tail end of his increasingly unhappy flirtation with Hollywood, but it and the four instalments that followed - 2006's M:I3, with JJ Abrams and Philip Seymour Hoffman; 2011's Ghost Protocol, directed by Brad Bird; and two subsequent films helmed by Christopher McQuarrie - made money enough to keep this train on track. Where the opening quartet (I include Brian de Palma's 1996 original, still to these eyes the most dynamic and accomplished entry of the lot) had distinct personalities, McQuarrie - previously best known as the writer of 1995's enduringly twisty The Usual Suspects - has standardised the look, form and personnel, ensuring the franchise has survived as a machine that generates spectacle without undue directorial flourishes. (Gone are the leather jackets and Limp Bizkit of the Woo film, for better or worse.) Essentially, McQuarrie has settled into the role of franchise logistics manager, turning a tidy profit for employers Paramount every few years, but he remains more screenwriter than director, a point underlined by Dead Reckoning Part One's thirty-minute prologue, easily the most windily verbose first act in living blockbuster memory. Faced with a procession of actors sitting talking in rooms, audiences coming in out of the rain with hopes of seeing Tom Cruise propel a motorbike off a cliff could be forgiven for wondering whether the summer was permanently on hold. 

Does the rest of the film get any zippier? It does and it doesn't. Much as the plot hinges on Russian-engineered artificial intelligence becoming sentient and threatening the world's integrity, so this instalment sees McQuarrie - until now, regarded as a dependable pair of hands - assuming full franchise control, or as much control as any director can assume over A Tom Cruise Production starring Tom Cruise. DRPO sports a full two hour 40-minute running time that apparently required no cutting whatsoever; the result, as with the recent Indiana Jones revival, is an action movie that thrashes around inside the baggy straitjacket of the 21st century event movie, to the point where it becomes more exhausting than exhilarating. Under McQuarrie's stewardship, these films have got ever bigger in their design: the new one has approximately 37 villains knocking around, several of whom survived earlier instalments, as well as an overriding force for bad (that nefarious AI, known as The Entity) that is both everywhere and nowhere at once. It's nice to see Hayley Atwell sprung from Marvel jail as a master thief with whom Cruise's Ethan Hunt crosses paths and wits, but she joins the franchise's already overstocked supply of mid-ranking British actresses (Rebecca Ferguson, Vanessa Kirby) handed the truly impossible mission of trying to pull focus from Tom Cruise in A Tom Cruise Production. At every stage, the film proves indifferent on the level of performance, flogging the life out of the sprightly roleplaying that was a feature of earlier films. (The malfunction that affects the IMF team's mask-making is more symbolic than the film intends it to be.) McQuarrie regards his actors as exposition delivery devices; it's significant that the one performer who emerges with their reputation in any way enhanced - Pom Klementieff, cast as a silent assassin - is the one given the fewest lines to say.

So the franchise has got bigger, but it's also got blander with it, more diffuse and markedly less vivid than it was back in de Palma's day. (Ask anyone who isn't signed up to Film Twitter whether they can remember which film had the opera shootout, or the bathroom punch-up; it's all blurred into one.) Even with McQuarrie enlisting a co-writer (in Erik Jendresen) to help get this one over the line, that dialogue is more chewy than snappy, and instantly forgettable. (One exception: you won't hear a more secondhand-sounding line in 2023 than "You're playing four-dimensional chess with an algorithm!" Even Simon Pegg looks ashamed to have to say it, and he once signed on to play Toby Young.) As for the spectacle, well, it's funny that Dead Reckoning should open as the industry's creatives are taking a collective stand against the use of artificial intelligence, because - from its recycled title on down - much about it suggests the blockbuster as engineered by ChatGPT, its relentlessly restless content scraped from three decades' worth of post-Spielberg event movies. Here is a car chase that sticks the indomitable hero in an indubitably crappy car. Here is a fight in a nightclub. Here is a fight in a corridor. And here we crosscut between two or more fights taking place simultaneously. At one point, this franchise even seems to double back on itself: when Cruise, in full horseman garb and looking for cover, rides full-pelt into the kind of desert sandstorm he had to outrun on foot in Ghost Protocol. Throughout Dead Reckoning, I had the impression of watching the blockbuster eat itself alive, either repeating itself or - given how gassy it feels in spots - repeating on itself. At best, it's generic, what its cheerleaders would defend as "what a Mission: Impossible movie is meant to be". Yet stripped of the identifying features the series' previous directors brought to bear on similar material, it also feels wholly anonymous and impersonal: the kind of motion picture a computer could turn out by the yard. "Why do we always end up in these situations?," wails Pegg's Benji, as the script itself becomes semi-sentient. The demands of capital would be one answer for that; an industry-wide failure of imagination another; the enforced lowering of audience expectation a third.

Of course, there are the stunts - and more specifically the half a stunt you haven't already seen trailered to death everywhere else. You'll believe a Tom can fly, and the preamble yields one of Dead Reckoning's few grace notes: the way the rocky mountain road bounces the hero's motorbike, fleetingly bestowing Cruise with the giddy air of a two-legged, two-wheeled Zebedee. (Less elevating: the heartsinkingly clunky, visibly patched-in exchange between Cruise and Pegg that sets the whole stunt up.) And the grand finale - involving the derailment of a train carrying most of the principals - is worth some of the huff and puff involved in getting there. Even this will likely remind you of other shunts - particularly if you caught January's Bollywood juggernaut Pathaan - but here McQuarrie's yen for expansion (for dragging stuff out) actually works in the film's favour, as carriage after carriage disappears off the tracks and into the void where a bridge once stood, and Cruise and Atwell cling to the remaining fixtures. These are the real money shots, and why you may emerge from Dead Reckoning Part One feeling you've had your money's worth: I suspect Cruise would merrily pilot a motorbike off a cliff whether or not there was a camera nearby, but here he seems justifiably rattled. Yet those earlier M:I movies had notable stunts, too, and they didn't have to trail them so aggressively months in advance, because they were part of a package, engineered by directors who still had tricks up their sleeve. In the McQuarrie era, they've become the sole selling point, a literal diversion from the shortcomings, failures and copious mediocrity elsewhere. Like so many filmmakers now in regular Hollywood employment, McQuarrie has them running like clockwork - one every 25 minutes, which at least stops his characters flapping their gums for a bit - and that's why DRPO will do the numbers it seems destined to do: it's all some part of the audience has been trained to want. Yet that doesn't mean this is a good movie, or even a good M:I movie, and it certainly doesn't mean we can credit Cruise with rescuing anything else. I returned to the lobby drained and punchdrunk, and struck by a terrifying realisation: only Barbie or (gulp) Christopher Nolan can save us now.

Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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