On paper, the Mission: Impossible movies are the least surprising films on Earth. Each one includes about three big death-defying stunts, a dramatic unmasking or two, and a lengthy car chase sprinkled in for good measure. The bad guys never really win, but we’ll be led to believe that someone we care about dies, though it’s rare that anyone actually does. The Impossible Missions Force — already a clandestine team that is regularly reminded that the United States government will deny they exist if they’re caught — is forced to go rogue and become even more clandestine, which usually results in a hastily assembled backup plan and the biggest stunt in the film.
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One follows this formula almost to the letter. Like the rest of the films in this long-running franchise, it’s effectively spoiler-proof. Nothing about your experience would change if I told you that its central car chase is a goofy bit of extended physical comedy where Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is handcuffed to a thief known only as Grace (Hayley Atwell) and the two have to figure out how to drive a tiny car together. Or that its centerpiece stunt — a highly publicized death-defying leap off a motorcycle zooming off a mountain — is about as cool as it looks in the ads. And the finale is even cooler: a runaway-train sequence that’s somehow thrilling, even though runaway trains are some of the biggest action-film cliches around.
All of this is going to hit real good with action fans — especially the ones who see this film in theaters. Because the Mission: Impossible movies, like Tom Cruise (who’s now synonymous with the franchise), come from a bone-deep belief that the secret to a blockbuster that people will go see lies in showing people performing on a level that explodes past the everyday. These films use movie magic to make real humans look like they’re actually doing outrageous things, rather than using them as faces meant to humanize a digital creation being put through its paces.
This is why Dead Reckoning Part One makes for an incredible blockbuster experience. Like its predecessors — particularly Chris McQuarrie’s two previous entries in the series — the film has married its prospects to Tom Cruise, and to his famous commitment to actually doing his own stunts. Ethan Hunt’s incredible feats often look real because they essentially are real. Everything else in these movies is in furtherance of that commitment. The supporting characters are there to make Hunt feel sufficiently human; the villain is there to make Hunt feel sufficiently tested; the plot is meant to shuttle Ethan from one explosion to the next.
The Mission: Impossible films are going for something palpably different than comic book movies, the other dominating force at the box office every summer. It isn’t as simple as M:I preferring practical effects to the MCU’s digital parades — it’s in the performances. This stands in contrast to plot, which serialized superhero adventures prioritize to the degree that it can be hard to talk about them for fear of spoilers.
Mission: Impossible, on the other hand, is a rock concert. Try spoiling one of those. You can tell an audience in advance exactly what the band they’re watching is going to sing, and it doesn’t really matter. Tom Cruise is the Eddie Van Halen of jumping out of airplanes. Everyone comes to these movies knowing all the words — we’re just here to sing ’em real fuckin’ loud.
Because of this, it’s all the more intriguing that the villain of Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning (both the current Part One and Part Two, due in June 2024) isn’t a person, but an algorithm. Called “The Entity,” it’s an artificial intelligence that is, effectively, the final boss of the Mission: Impossible films. Plumb out of terrorists, secret warlords, and rogue nations in the franchise’s perpetual quest to top itself, Dead Reckoning settles on a neat double hear.
Artificial intelligence is both the existential threat du jour — great fodder for a summer blockbuster — and a nifty metaphor for what the franchise has ultimately come to mean in the modern landscape. An algorithm-fueled program — your Netflix queue, your Grubhub app, the generative language models that produce reams of text in no time at all — can give you what you want, figure out what you’re likely to do, and do much of what you can, but faster and at scale.
But Mission: Impossible movies, like the star they orbit around, are built around the idea that AI is just another challenge to leap headfirst into, with blind faith that we’ll come out on top. The machine can only do what makes sense based on what it’s seen before. It can’t do what Ethan Hunt does, what the audience knows he will do every time: something so colossally stupid, it just might work.
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One opens in theaters on July 12.