Tom Cruise's "Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part 1" is the sum of cinema's choices, and is damn near an untouchable masterpiece.
Actor Chris Evans may be the Captain America of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies (MCU), but Tom Cruise is, at the very least, the “manifestation” of the good ol’ Cap for cinema itself. Spectacle cinema, sure, but isn’t that how the medium caught on fire (not to reference the nitrate film prints from that era)?
It’s interesting to me how Cruise’s latest blockbuster, Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part 1, ends with various action sequences on a runaway train, as the Lumiere Brothers’ 1896 short The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, which was a sensation when it screened over a century ago, is entirely of a train operating as it should. The spectacle in that film was both in the composition of the shot - which created the feeling of an actual train coming at the screen and the audience - and in the unexpected and surprising elements inherent in this new-fangled format of lights and chemicals.
Things aren’t so simple now, as movies like Dead Reckoning Part 1 have massive production design, choreography, and stunts upon stunts being performed, all to grab attention and create awe. But the interesting thing that connects Cruise’s masterstroke of a film to the beginning days of cinema, in my mind, is not in the illusion of “reality” coming at you, but in the celebration of the reality that is happening before everyone.
On a deeper level, the story in Dead Reckoning Part 1 uses what’s real and what’s a trick as a weapon on the senses of its protagonist, the ever-noble Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), who has taken it upon himself to save the world again and again, with little to no accountability, much like Captain America in the MCU’s Civil War flick. In this film, Hunt is out to destroy “The Entity,” which is described as a radical and possibly sentient Artificial Intelligence program gone rogue. While this Entity doesn’t go full MCU Age of Ultron (yet), it does use puzzles and past enemies to mess with Hunt’s head, forcing him to question his actions and strategies. It’s always learning and constantly computing all sorts of potentialities, in a grand effort to… we’re not sure (yet).
What I am sure of is that Dead Reckoning Part 1 is a crowd-pleaser and then some. Just before the feature began, a moviegoer in my audience, seated in the front row, exclaimed, “I’ve been waiting a year for this!” to all that could hear. Whatever the box office results will determine, this mission, to pull the theatrical experience of cinema back from the edge of death, is an amazing hat trick that combines the tangible with the abstract. Alchemy? Almost.
Not unlike how silent film era star and director Buster Keaton destroyed a real train in The General for its climax, Tom Cruise really drives off of a real cliff in Dead Reckoning Part 1 for its climax and keeps up the action from there. There are other pieces too, much like in the gag and stunt-filled silent comedy Never Weaken starring the great Harold Lloyd - a movie where his character attempts suicide many times, only to be thwarted by chance and silliness. Cruise isn’t trying to kill himself now, and neither was Lloyd or Keaton back then. He is and they were living, to the absolute fullest. Of course, the two silent stars were doing so in their youthful prime; Cruise continues to amp things up as he ages. No amount of cinematic technique can hide the effects of time, so why not lean toward it? Why not run to it? Cruise does a lot of running, after all.
Dead Reckoning Part 1 continues the Mission: Impossible trend of presenting the fantastical and exceeding expectations. For a major summer flick to force me to think about what makes cinema great says a lot about the people who made the movie and all of the parts at play. Yes, there is an illusion happening on the big screen, with many hands at work engineering the so-called magic. Imagineers? Filmmakers. But there is also a realness being projected, one that goes beyond the physicality and the weight of the stunts. It’s as simple as placing a camera near the front of a train, as it enters a station. That was real, but people also believed a train was really in front of them. The spectacle becomes true, and the story breaks out into our collective world. An entity beyond belief becomes belief.
This goes beyond Marvel Cinematic Universe fandom. There isn’t really a Captain America, right? Right. But there really is the cinema, and it can manifest all kinds of sensations. Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part 1 isn’t merely a “see it to believe it” movie; It is also just a movie. And that’s spectacular. 5/5
Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part 1 is currently playing only in theaters.
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