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Dead Reckoning Part One was the inevitable Mission: Impossible comedy

Tom Cruise’s 27-year vanity project gets an anti-vanity sequel

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt holds on to a railing in a train car turned vertical as Hayley Atwell clings on to him in Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One Image: Skydance/Paramount Pictures
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

The sky is blue and Mission: Impossible movies have stunts. This wasn’t always the series’ MO; Brian De Palma’s 1996 franchise starter fused the director’s Hitchcockian thriller impulses to more traditional ’90s shoot-’em-up action (to great success). But as star Tom Cruise became more of an extreme-sports obsessive, so too did his on-screen alter ego, Ethan Hunt. What started with the mandate to Always Be Running escalated in the fourth installment, 2011’s Ghost Protocol, when Cruise dangled from the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. The actor has been pitching audiences death-defying reality ever since.

Three sequels later, something has changed again. This month’s Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One was poised to bounce from set-piece to set-piece, the high-impact camerawork once again exalting Cruise as Hollywood’s unkillable dram-athlete. Instead, it’s total Looney Tunes, an anti-vanity project that’s arguably the series’ first comedy entry.

[Ed. note: This story digs into the entire movie, including the ending.]

Credit goes to Christopher McQuarrie, whose mission for the last decade has been to demolish and rebuild Cruise’s image over and over again. After McQuarrie punched up the Ghost Protocol script and directed Cruise in 2012’s street-level actioner Jack Reacher, Cruise invited him to step up and helm 2015’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. The writer-director could think big in development on screenplays and rewrite on the fly, which is exactly what the M:I movies required. As McQuarrie has explained it over the years, Cruise showed up with a list of stunts for Rogue Nation, and the filmmaker’s job was to stitch it all together with plot and emotion. McQuarrie accepted the mission, and admits that it was absolute chaos... in a good way? Cruise strapped himself to a plane, and everyone won. For the duo’s next Mission: Impossible film, 2018’s Fallout, McQuarrie figured out the workflow kinks and piled on the spectacle — motorcycle chases! Fist fights! Helicopter tricks! HALO jumps! — to such a degree that Paramount could claim the movie had “the most stunts ever.”

The marketing for Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One has followed the same playbook. On the back of Top Gun: Maverick’s Oscar campaign, Paramount released a video breaking down Dead Reckoning Part One’s motorcycling-off-a-cliff-into-a-parachute-fall sequence (or, in teaser hype speak, “the biggest stunt in cinema history!”) a full seven months early. The last several weeks leading up to the July release have seen a cascade of other behind-the-scenes featurettes, spotlighting Dead Reckoning Part One’s speedflying sequence (“one of the most dangerous sports in the world!”), the extended train set-piece (“Tom Cruise fighting on a moving train!”), and the big Venice hand-to-hand combat scene (“It’s in Venice!”). It’s all selling a movie bigger than anything else a person could see this summer — and Paramount isn’t wrong to pitch it that way. McQuarrie and Cruise go big yet again. But what isn’t highlighted is how Cruise is approaching action stardom in a totally different way than Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, or Extraction-mode Chris Hemsworth. Those guys need to look like gun-toting, vehicle-revving rock stars. Cruise, throughout Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, looks like this:

a clip of Tom Cruise opening a parachute and cringing during Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One Image: Skydance/Paramount Pictures

In retrospect, this was the only way to top Fallout. The idea of following up a movie heralded by critics and fans alike as the series’ masterpiece must have been daunting, even for a guy who can come up with dialogue glue for a $150 million blockbuster on the day of the shoot. But throughout McQuarrie and Cruise’s ongoing collaboration, even outside their Mission: Impossible work, the writer-director has always found freedom in zagging after zigging.

After Ghost Protocol and Jack Reacher, Cruise tapped McQuarrie to tailor his next blockbuster: Edge of Tomorrow, the Groundhog Day-esque sci-fi thriller based on the Japanese light novel All You Need Is Kill. Just weeks before director Doug Liman’s film was set to roll cameras, as McQuarrie tells it, Cruise brought him in to turn a grim alien invasion script into something near comedic. Instead of being a badass, the star’s military-man character would be yanked in different directions by alien time travel and completely frazzled. The ending would feel light, circular, and almost like a punchline. And the stunts would go full goof.

“It’s fun coming up with new ways to kill yourself,” Cruise told the Los Angeles Times in 2014. “I told the stunt guys, ‘Watch Wile E. Coyote cartoons. It’s not violent enough!’”

At the time, Edge of Tomorrow was seen as a puncturing of Cruise’s Cool Guy persona. Instead of the script tossing him heroic softballs and the stylists keeping his hair perfectly coiffed, the movie’s relentless, hilarious take on looping deaths cranked the star through the wringer. He’d go back to being a reputable badass in Rogue Nation and the Jack Reacher sequel the next year.

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One was positioned to bat Cruise around like a punching bag once again. If Fallout set a near-unclearable bar for practical stunts, Top Gun: Maverick reminded the world that Tom Cruise is its golden movie star. While the movie was in development for eons, it was McQuarrie who finally took the screenplay over the finish line and got Cruise back in the saddle of a fighter jet. And in its final form, the long-gestating sequel is a monument to star power. Part nostalgia bomb, part stunt show, Maverick turned out to be the antidote to post-pandemic theatrical box office depression. Cruise wasn’t just a hero in the movies; he was a hero to the movies.

A guy like that needs to be fucked with. While Dead Reckoning Part One has a fairly high-stakes, high-tension, often terrifying plot — Hunt and the IMF team taking on an all-powerful AI known as the Entity in a dizzying game of cat and mouse — it’s an action thriller bursting with gags. Every blockbuster these days gets seasoned with jokes; McQuarrie dumps the whole damn pepper grinder on his script. From an early zinger about the inexplicably named “Impossible Mission Force” to Henry Czerny’s ice-cold Eugene Kittridge muttering “of course” at the first mask gag to Hunt performing flirtatious sleight-of-hand magic as he babbles about this chapter’s McGuffin, the writer-director sets the stage for an M:I that will crackle with self-aware humor. Then the stunts kick in — in full Jackass mode.

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and Grace (Hayley Atwell) sit handcuffed in a yellow fiat as Ethan spins the steering wheel around a Rome street Image: Skydance/Paramount Pictures

Glimpses in trailers of Dead Reckoning Part One’s big Rome car chase emphasize speed and destruction, and while they’re part of the equation, McQuarrie’s new variable is circus antics. Hunt and thief turned IMF confidante Grace (Hayley Atwell) are outrunning Italian police, U.S. officials, and a road-raging French assassin named Paris (Pom Klementieff) through narrow cobblestone streets, but they’re doing it while handcuffed together and driving the tiniest yellow Fiat in history. They’re slamming into walls, spinning out of control, and completely frazzled by the situation. James Bond would be doing all this in the latest Aston Martin model, and McQuarrie even cracks that joke, with Hunt hoping to hop into a sleek sports car and getting this clown car instead. As Paris plows through stone staircases to pursue them, the effect is more Blues Brothers than Bullitt.

There are effective action scenes that don’t rely on an undercurrent of humor — Rebecca Ferguson seems to have picked up serious knife skills since her time on Dune, and they’re put to good use — but McQuarrie has honed his genre skills to find the funny in almost every dire situation. A fight between Hunt, Paris, and a henchman of Vanessa Kirby’s White Widow from Fallout feels like succumbing to quicksand as they duke it out in a tight-squeeze Venice alley. But it’s also shaggy as hell, and conjures images of Indiana Jones trying to take on bruisers thrice his size. Cruise often looks like Loki getting punched by the Hulk, even if he always comes out on top.

In May, McQuarrie told Entertainment Weekly that the first request he fielded from Cruise for Dead Reckoning Part One was to find a way to destroy a train. The stunt would be a direct callback to Buster Keaton, the OG silent stuntman, who reportedly spent $750,000 way back in 1926 to collapse a bridge — and a locomotive — for his film The General. The difference between Keaton and Cruise is that the former was a comedian, even while he reached further than his contemporaries to ground his gags in story, character, and emotion. But Cruise knows comedy, clearly, because his train crash is also a total riot.

Paramount spent months seeding the idea that, yes, Cruise really motorcycle-jumped off a cliff to simulate a dive toward a moving train, but it’s the rest of the sequence that roars — with loud bass and laughter. Hunt ends up rescuing Grace, who’s trapped on the train with the White Widow’s goons, but only because he crash-lands through the side of the dining car after his landing goes awry. After Hunt stumbles to his feet, he and Grace go on to save the train passengers, but not before the train begins to barrel over the edge of a bombed-out bridge. The two are forced to scramble up vertical, plummeting train car after vertical, plummeting train car, jumping for dear life as perils such as a clanging piano and a gas stove fall toward them. And we thought The Super Mario Bros. Movie was faithful to the platformer.

Laugh-out-loud danger is a rare sight in movies, but it was the way forward for a franchise that may have already peaked. We have seen Tom Cruise jump out of a bunch of planes over the years. I don’t recall him “speedflying” off a train, or seeing his cheeks flap in the wind captured by a tiny camera rig built around his face. By the time the credits roll on this thing, Cruise has made all the faces — and not the ones most actors of his stature would commit to film. Contractually, the Fast and Furious actors aren’t even allowed to lose a fight!

I imagine Dead Reckoning Part Two will once again hit the reset button so Hunt can save the world — and Cruise can “save the movies” — with a savior’s glow. But the unexpected gain of splitting the story in two is the comfort to throw everything at the wall... or at Cruise. McQuarrie sees the entertainment and metatextual value of an A-list ragdoll, and while his installments in the Mission: Impossible franchise have always acknowledged the pain that these extreme acts of bravery require for a mortal man, he’s never pushed the self-awareness so far as to call it comedy. For me, that will be Dead Reckoning Part One’s legacy: a harrowing tale of artificial intelligence’s potential grip on mankind that should be shelved under “Comedy” whenever it hits streaming.