The Mission: Impossible franchise finally enters its diminishing returns phase...
At the halfway mark of 2023, it’s frustrating to look back and witness the blockbuster bloodbath.
From Shazam! Fury of the Gods, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, The Little Mermaid, Fast X to The Flash and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, the high-profile releases have all underwhelmed and underperformed. Even the deliriously entertaining John Wick 4 was far too bloated for its own good.
Now, another name adds itself to the blockbuster flops list – the 2023 flopbusters, if you will - with Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, which is comfortably the franchise’s least memorable and possibly worst instalment yet.
It’s a shame as the seventh M:I film bucks a fascinating trend. Since Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible in 1996, the series has gone from strength to strength – if you charitably consider M:I-2 as a failed experiment. It's been a blockbuster anomaly over the decades, chiefly because typical franchise rules haven't seemed to apply to the impressively enduring series. Usually, a continuing saga will yield diminishing returns, in terms of both quality and box-office, especially in an era of franchise fatigue. Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has been the exception to the rule, with each M:I entry attempting to top (and for the most part succeeding) the previous chapter... Until now.
Granted, the action classic and franchise high that was 2018’s Fallout was always going to be a tough act to follow. However, this is one mission that should not have been accepted.
You’ve heard it all before: a new world-ending threat, an underwhelming baddie (Esai Morales) who wants to harness its power, an elusive MacGuffin to secure, and Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team (the underused Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg, the cheated Rebecca Ferguson, and the overused M:I newcomer Hayley Atwell filling in for M:I-2 's Thandiwe Newton in the role of a world-class thief) must go rogue to act as the last bastion of hope.
The formula is what has made this series soar, but this time it falls oddly flat. We dash from Abu Dhabi to Rome and Venice, and finally onto the Orient Express to track down two halves of a key linked to a parasitic and sentient artificial intelligence dubbed "The Entity". The self-learning AI overlord, which visually resembles a cross between a 21st century Eye of Sauron and gaping digital sphincter, threatens to become an omniscient force capable of not just manipulating digital reality but jeopardizing humanity’s very existence.
Topical and timely though this main antagonist may be, as it taps into current fears that AI tools will make us completely redundant, the screenplay by director Christopher McQuarrie and Erik Jendresen (Band of Brothers) is utter tripe. Contrived, bloated in its overbearing expositions, devoid of any genuine emotional weight and featuring howlingly poor dialogue, the zeitgeist-capturing antagonist can’t save this storytelling from being the clumsiest in the series. Rather fittingly considering the AI threat, the script seems to have been ChatGPT-ed. An overplayed and lazy comparison though that may be, but we’re truly not far from the truth here. And while no one comes to a Mission: Impossible film for the clever repartee, the previous films all managed to deliver very serviceable dialogue. This seventh adventure goes full Fast and Furious corny, and it’s as dumb as a sack of doorknobs.
Even if you’re feeling magnanimous and willing to forgive this damaging faux pas, what you’re left with is the action, which is predictably impressive. Throughout Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, you truly appreciate the commitment to the cause 61-year-old Cruise maintains when it comes to the stunt work. The car chase in Rome is strong, the much-publicised bike jump is imposing, and the homage to Buster Keaton's The General in the climactic train sequence does work.
However, something unusual happens for the M:I series: as ambitious as the stunts are, it all feels bizarrely anticlimactic in the moment (especially a poorly filmed Venice alleyway brawl), mostly due to the fact the narrative seems to have been retro-fitted around the action set pieces and not the other way around. You don’t feel involved in the action in the same way as the Burj Khalifa climb in Ghost Protocol or the game of helicopter chicken with Henry Cavill in Fallout 's climax.You’re just left with the deflating sense that you’ve seen more kinetic and inventive set pieces before, and that Dead Reckoning Part One is just a game of strangely limp one-upmanship rather than a well crafted action adventure story featuring death-defying stunts. And at the end of the mission, no daring heroic can make up for a terrible script, which here does for AI what (the admittedly brilliant) Hackers did for them Internets in 1995.
At this point, there’s no excuse for any of it, as Cruise and returning director Christopher McQuarrie have shown what they can achieve together (Rogue Nation and Fallout) and this instalment’s clumsier moments stand out like... well, a gaping digital sphincter.
Many will invoke a supposedly critic-proof caveat when it comes to Dead Reckoning Part One: it’s the first chapter in a two-parter, and to fully appreciate the whole picture, we have to wait until next year’s Part Two - which is rumoured to be Cruise's M:I swansong. Cling onto that weak excuse if you must, but nothing stops Part One from being a forgettable let-down. And fairly maligned though the ludicrous M:I-2 was, it at least had the decency to be memorable.
Tom Cruise may have “saved cinema” with Top Gun: Maverick last year, but in 2023, he’s taken on one mission too many and pressed the self-destruct button on his franchise. If the previous instalment essentially throwed the gauntlet down at James Bond’s feet and said “Have fun topping that, while you're swigging Martinis and battling the onslaught of STDs!”, Dead Reckoning Part One is this saga’s Die Another Day.
So, without Tom Cruise saving the year in terms of blockbusters, it’s Barbie ’s turn now. Pray to your previously problematic plastic Mattel toys - now bafflingly a feminist icon - that she doesn’t let us down.
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is out in cinemas now. The potential saviour of the 2023 high-profile releases, Barbie, is out next week. Stay tuned to Euronews Culture to find out whether she’s up to the task.