Cruise control: An homage to the relentless reliability of 'Mission: Impossible'
More than Marvel or DC, more than Jurassic World, maybe even more than James Bond with its revolving 007s, the Mission: Impossible franchise runs on its ability to meet expectations. Not just any expectations — high expectations. People go in wanting top-flight action, beautiful locations, a modest amount of melancholy character business about Ethan Hunt's mounting personal losses, Tom Cruise doing a lot of his own stunts, and an uncomplicated story in which a bad guy has (or wants) something and a good guy has to go get it. And that's exactly what they get.
And unlike Fast & Furious, this franchise hasn't shape-shifted over and over. It has remained remarkably stable at its core, despite taking several films to settle on writer-director Christopher McQuarrie and changing up the women in Hunt's life every movie or two.
It is axiomatic even within this universe that the idea of the government's underground "Impossible Mission Force" is absurd; the films have even started having characters comment on it. It also seems unlikely that Hunt would be forever on the edge of being disowned and deemed a traitor, given that no human being has ever been forced to demonstrate his trustworthiness so many times. If there were really a spy like Hunt — he flies helicopters! he climbs skyscrapers! he does close-up magic! — you have to assume he would be popular with spy leadership instead of constantly seeming like he's at risk of a negative performance review. But these things are utterly unimportant, because I know them going in, and the fact that they make no sense (and repeat over and over) is a given.
In fact, I'm not sure anything has ever really surprised me in one of these movies, which might seem contradictory given that they are, in part, "thrillers." By the time an M:I guy who has seemed to be a good guy is revealed as a stealth bad guy, you've probably spent a good amount of time thinking, "Who's the stealth bad guy in this movie? Oh, I bet it's him." There don't tend to be complex motivations behind any of what happens; the villains are generally just kind of international dirtbags who have something they shouldn't. A list, a bioweapon (twice!), some launch codes, some data and of course, the sentimental favorite: big shiny balls of plutonium. In the case of the new installment Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, the battle is over two halves of a key that, in some gauzily defined way, can be combined to stop a godlike AI spoken of only as ... The Entity.
Talking about the predictability or thinness of a story in a Mission: Impossible movie is like talking about the nutrition information on a box of Pop-Tarts — if you were focused on this aspect of the thing you are about to consume, you would have chosen something else.
This all probably sounds like criticism, and it emphatically is not. Talking about the predictability or thinness of a story in a Mission: Impossible movie is like talking about the nutrition information on a box of Pop-Tarts — if you were focused on this aspect of the thing you are about to consume, you would have chosen something else. The story of The Entity is somehow vague and overexplained, not to mention unpleasantly adjacent to a kind of "tech as replacement for an all-knowing God" attitude that the movie doesn't actually care about, and that it doesn't really give the audience much reason to care about either. And that turns out to be completely fine.
Because what Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One cares about is jumping a motorcycle off a mountain and then creating, though its marketing, an entire sub-narrative about the 60+ action star who trained to do the stunt himself and shot it on day one so they wouldn't waste any money if he died. What it cares about is a train dangling from a mountain. A car chase that is as witty and inventive as any you'll see anywhere. A fabulous race through an airport full of glass walls. Refreshing the cast with a woman as charming as Hayley Atwell, who is wonderfully entertaining as a scrappy pickpocket named Grace. Relying on Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames, as Benji and Luther, to anchor the Impossible Mission Force team.
The biggest problem (if there is one) with Dead Reckoning is not its story, per se, but how much time it spends explaining it. It's worth noting that, as with action blockbusters generally, these films have gotten longer ... and longer ... and longer. At around two hours and 45 minutes, Dead Reckoning is roughly an hour longer than the original Mission: Impossible. It tries heroically to avoid dragging by featuring such genuinely exciting and inventive action sequences. But two hours and 45 minutes is a long time to sit in a seat having your needs met, and every time the film slows down to discuss (1) The Entity (a term that sounds sillier and sillier with repetition), (2) the keys, where they've been, and what they may open, or (3) the entire concept of a godlike AI and what it might be able to do, it gets a little ... well, fast-forwardable for future home viewers.
It is film as both exquisitely crafted entertainment and ruthless consumerism, fulfilling the order made at the counter with the certainty of fast-food fries that will always be the same – and will always be good.
But again, this is what one expects. It is film as both exquisitely crafted entertainment and ruthless consumerism, fulfilling the order made at the counter with the certainty of fast-food fries that will always be the same – and will always be good.
There is some cost to this. For whatever reason, Mission: Impossible avoids the questions that are so often asked about Marvel movies in particular, about what Ryan Coogler or Chloé Zhao would be doing if they weren't making superhero movies, or about what the actors would be doing if they weren't tied into these franchises for years. Tom Cruise has mostly stopped doing the more intimate projects in comedy and drama that he did earlier in his career; he's a three-time acting Oscar nominee who pretty much does just action blockbusters now. He seems thrilled and delighted to be in this half-actor half-stuntman lane, and at 61, that's certainly his right. But there doesn't seem to be, for instance, another Magnolia in his future.
I do worry that having one's expectations precisely met – neither exceeded nor even simply upended – is becoming the only way to get people into theaters. Yes, perhaps we will take a risk for something at home that we can always turn off if we don't like it. But to get audiences to a theater, does a film need to be a sequel or a piece of IP or a franchise like this that delivers and satisfies, as neatly as a bed with hospital corners? There are signs that we're not quite there yet; Everything Everywhere All at Once did great, for instance, and an expectation-meeter it was not. But I worry about the longer-term difficulty of getting people into theaters to see something more ... well, more weird (not that all the Entity talk doesn't get a little weird).
Seeing a movie that is so very good at doing what it promises drives home that point that it takes both movies that do what they promise and movies that do something you couldn't have anticipated to make up an industry that thrives.
This piece also appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations about what's making us happy.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.