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Tom Cruise hangs on for dear life to his 'Mission' to save the movies

Actor Tom Cruise hangs from the side of a helicopter with the ground several hundred feet below him.
Paramount Pictures / Skydance
Tom Cruise is back, and doing his own stunts, in "Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One."

For some time now, Tom Cruise has been on what feels like a one-man mission to save the movies.

Back in 2020, when Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One was shooting in the U.K., Cruise was recorded screaming at crew members who'd violated COVID-19 lockdown protocols, all but claiming that the industry's future rested on their shoulders. Earlier this year, Steven Spielberg publicly praised Cruise for saving Hollywood with the smash success of Top Gun: Maverick.

Now, with the box office still struggling to return to pre-pandemic levels, Cruise has become a kind of evangelist for the theatergoing experience, urging audiences to buy tickets not just to his movie, but also to other big summer titles like Barbie and Oppenheimer.

Cruise's save-the-movies spirit goes hand-in-hand with his self-styled reputation as the last of the great Hollywood stars. In this seventh Mission: Impossible movie, the now 61-year-old actor and producer still insists on risking life and limb for our viewing pleasure, doing his own outrageous stunts in action scenes that make only minimal use of CGI.

And so we see Cruise's Ethan Hunt, an agent with the Impossible Missions Force, or IMF, tearing up the streets of Rome in a tiny yellow Fiat, riding a motorcycle off a cliff and — in the most astonishing sequence — hanging on for dear life after a deadly train derailment.

The plot that connects these sequences is preposterous, of course, but reasonably easy to follow. In an especially timely twist, the big villain this time around is AI — a self-aware techno-being referred to as the Entity. It's an invisible menace, everywhere and nowhere; it can wipe out data systems, control the flow of information and bring nations to their knees.

Hunt and his IMF team are determined to destroy the Entity before it becomes too powerful or falls into the wrong hands. But his old boss, Eugene Kittridge, played by the sinister Henry Czerny, warns Hunt to fall in line with the U.S. government, which wants to control the Entity and the new world order to come.

This is notably the first time we've seen Kittridge since Brian De Palma's 1996 Mission: Impossible — the first and still, to my mind, the best movie in the series. That said, the director and co-writer Christopher McQuarrie has done a snazzy job with the most recent ones: Rogue Nation, Fallout and now Dead Reckoning Part One.

Here, he seems to be paying sly tribute to that 1996 original, even evoking its horrific early set piece in which Hunt watched helplessly as his IMF teammates were murdered, one by one. That trauma was formative; it explains why, in movie after movie, Hunt has repeatedly put his life on the line for his friends.

If you're kept up with the series, you'll recognize those friends here, including Hunt's fellow operatives played by Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg and Rebecca Ferguson. You may also remember Vanessa Kirby, reprising her Fallout role as a ruthless arms broker and giving, in a single sequence, perhaps the movie's best performance.

There are some intriguing new characters, too, including a wily thief, well played by Hayley Atwell, who draws Hunt into an extended game of cat-and-mouse. Pom Klementieff steals a few scenes as a mysterious assassin, as does Esai Morales as a glowering enemy from Hunt's past.

That's a lot of characters, double-crosses, chases, fights, escapes and explosions to keep track of. But even with a running time that pushes north of two-and-a-half hours — and this is just Part One — the movie never loses its grip. McQuarrie, a screenwriter first and foremost, paces the narrative beautifully, building and releasing tension at regular intervals.

Compared with the visual effects-heavy bombast of most Hollywood blockbusters, Dead Reckoning Part One feels like a marvel of old-school craftsmanship, just with niftier gadgets. Even Hunt wears his devil-may-care recklessness with surprising lightness and grace, spending much of the movie's third act on the sidelines and even playing some of his most daring escapades for laughs.

Not that the actor doesn't take his mission seriously. I don't know if Tom Cruise can save the movies, but somehow, I never get tired of watching him try.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang
Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.