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Mission Creep?

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is a 2023 film directed by Christopher McQuarrie. It’s the sequel to Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) and the seventh instalment in the Mission: Impossible film series. It stars Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt, alongside an ensemble cast including Hayley Atwell, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Vanessa Kirby, Esai Morales, Pom Klementieff, Mariela Garriga, and Henry Czerny.

Outline: Ethan Hunt and his IMF team track down a terrifying new weapon that threatens all of humanity before it falls into the wrong hands. With control of the future and the fate of the world at stake, and dark forces from Ethan’s past closing in, a deadly race around the globe begins. Confronted by a mysterious, all-powerful enemy, Ethan is forced to consider that nothing can matter more than his mission – not even the lives of those he cares about most.

Currently #IMDb rated at 7.8, this instalment of the Mission: Impossible franchise is still nonetheless struggling to find the kind of profit earlier films in the series turned. Why?

It's said that the production may have suffered slightly from being shot during and between the Covid lockdowns and various restrictions. But frankly? I saw little evidence of that production difficulty when I watched the film over the weekend. I don’t think that is the problem (if we can agree there is one).

People react instinctively to films and the characters in them, and instincts are powerful. I suspect that Tom Cruise’ age may now play a part in audiences’ reactions to 'Ethan Hunt'. The screenwriters referred to James Bond’s ‘age’ in SPECTRE, SKYFALL, and NO TIME TO DIE. I think that was a mistake. None of us want our heroes to be hampered by the vulnerabilities that plague the rest of us in the real world. We want our heroes to be godlike in their ability to meet challenges – especially in thrillers and action films. Flawed, yes; but hampered, no. They do what we cannot always do: win.

Tom Cruise’ age was at times evident in Ethan Hunt’s face in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. While he is as superb and committed as he always is, there is a growing mismatch between Cruise’s maturity and what people need from their heroes. There is a fine line between flawed and vulnerable, and film makers and screenwriters need to tread carefully when they cross that line.

I think the writers of Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One stumbled in their navigation during the motorcycle jump onto the train scene. Now, Ethan Hunt is actually scared, and that fear isn’t expected from this character. Ethan Hunt is brave and often reckless. Earlier versions of that character would have made that jump without showing fear. This version should, too. Ethan Hunt’s fear in this scene underlines Tom Cruise’s aging into a mature person who would typically feel more vulnerable, and so more reluctant to make that motorcycle jump. Changing Hunt’s character with this fear disappoints the audience and refutes their expectations in the wrong way. Brave is cool. Scared isn’t.

The motorbike jump brings me to another issue: one of happenstance that can push plausibility too far.

We expect crazy coincidences in kinetic action films like action-thrillers – and certainly sci-fi and fantasy. This expectation is to a degree, genre dependent. We are happy to ignore some impossibilities and unlikelihood in a film like Mission: Impossible; but there are some that stretch credulity too far, at an instinctive level. So when bad guy Gabriel falls off the train just in time to fall into a waiting lorry a long way below and be unscathed by this, that, for me, was stretching credulity to thin, and that undermined buy-in. It suspended my belief, not my disbelief.

Making that fall would be million-to-one, and he would be badly hurt by it. Ditto when Ethan Hunt comes crashing through the train window at the end of his parachute jump from the motorbike jump just in time to save ‘Grace’. It came across as too far-fetched to be entertaining for me. I suspect other viewers may have felt the same unconsciously.

I feel that Esai Morales was miscast as ‘Gabriel’, too (and the character is misnamed. Gabriel is an angel’s name, and I now the screenwriters were trying to be ironic, but for me this doesn’t wash). Morales is just too good looking, and too well styled. This character needs to look and feel psychotic. Morales looks and feels anything but. He has the looks of a hero.

Hayley Atwell and Vanessa Kirby’s performances as ‘Grace’ and the ‘White Widow’ respectively are excellent. They bring vulnerability and emotional power and nuance to the characters they inhabit. Theye therefore bring plausibility. Their vulnerability is also more acceptable because they don’t do the running and fighting that Ethan Hunt does. Re Atwell and Kirby’s performances: if you’re not in awe of actors, you don’t know what they do.

I think the film had a slightly unfamiliar look and feel to it. The pre-credit scene was too long, and it featured a long scene in a submarine that didn’t involve Hunt of any of our heroes. That had the effect of disengaging me, and I suspect, other viewers. A precredit scene should embed us in the world and persona of our heroes (ref: the pre-credit cliff climbing scene in Mission: Impossible II), not characters we don’t know who will soon vanish. I’m surprise Cruise, McQuarrie, and other screenplay decision makers made this mistake.

Was killing off a certain familiar character a mistake? I think it was.

Dialogue only (and plot revealing) scenes were a bit too frequent, and slow; or rather: they weren’t embedded in the context of kinetic scenes that carries their millpond pace with ease.

I also feel that the film’s tepid the box office may stem from the fact that, as the first part of a two-parter, the film had no story end – no satisfying conclusion. Instead, it set up the next film: Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One, which will be released on 23 May 2025. That’s a long time to hold your breath. Except that my breath wasn’t held. Not quite.

The challenge for franchise action films is that they must upstage earlier films and that franchise, and I don’t see how Mission: Impossible – Fallout can be upstaged as a film of it's type. It was an Impossible act to follow (see what I did there?). Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One couldn’t – especially as it is only one half of a two-parter with an aging, yet always phenomenal, actor called Tom Cruise at the helm.

One more thing. For all its brilliant stunts, deep humanity and amazing emotions, the Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One screenplay is littered by unnecessary dialogue. When someone holds something up and shows it to us, we don’t need to hear someone say ‘So you got it’ etc. If you’re showing, don’t tell too. Because if you do, the telling will slow the scene down, make characters seem stupid, and undermine audience buy-in.

Let’s wait (a very long time) to see what the second instalment bring though. Meanwhile …

Happy screenwriting.


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