The seventh installment in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise is out, and it’s shaping up to be another behemoth at the box office. What’s particularly interesting about this franchise is how, unlike almost every other intellectual property, it’s mostly gotten better over time. Usually, the opposite is true. Much of the juice driving this is none other than Tom Cruise himself, the seemingly ageless wonder who continues to defy expectations.
The other and maybe more important part of this magic formula is writer and director Christopher Macquarrie. Since 2008, he and Cruise have collaborated on 11 projects for a combined box office return of over $5 billion. Their projects’ combined earnings are comparable to entire movie franchises. Their earnings rank between “Avatar” and “Despicable Me” for the biggest box office returns of all time. The most significant collaboration between the two was “Top Gun: Maverick,” which was one of the most successful films ever.
Since they first met on the set of “Valkyrie” in 2008, these two have been box-office gold. But their projects haven’t always been critical darlings, 2017’s “The Mummy” being their most notorious stinker. But even their bad films drive lots of people to movie theaters. Some of that is because Cruise is arguably the last true movie star. There are lots of actors who are famous, like Zendaya or Robert Downey Jr., but Tom Cruise is the closest thing today to the classic Hollywood movie star — akin to Cary Grant or John Wayne. Back then, the director didn’t matter; the stars were what drew in audiences. Most moviegoers today probably don’t know who Chris Macquarie is, but everyone knows Tom Cruise.
And, of course, there’s the mystique around Cruise for doing all his own stunts, which have become increasingly more dangerous during the Macquarrie-Cruise era of “Mission: Impossible” movies. The coup de grace is a motorcycle jump off a cliff, which is the central action set piece in “Dead Reckoning.”
Every year multiple superhero films come out that are splattered with obsequious CGI and special effects, but Cruise wants to do everything for real. The guy is 60 years old, and he’s flying fighter jets, learning high-altitude skydiving, and jumping off cliffs. Cruise has always maintained the mentality that it’s all for the audience. He’s doing this to entertain and drive people to the big screen.
Before “Dead Reckoning” starts to play, Macquarrie and Cruise appear as themselves to welcome the audience and thank them for showing up. Cruise did the same thing before “Maverick,” emphasizing that everything you’re about to see was done for real. Cruise is not only the last true movie star but is basically the Evel Knievel of the 21st century. He’s an actor and stuntman.
But the most important thing about the Macquarrie-Cruise pairing is that their films don’t take sides. In the era of political polarization, they refuse to be about anything other than entertainment when they easily could be. “Maverick” could’ve been anti-China or anti-Russia in an attempt to advance ideological narratives, but they left the villains ambiguous and allowed the film to be driven by character dynamics and story.
“Dead Reckoning” deals with a technological villain that poses an existential threat to humanity itself. It’s not delving into the politics of the moment, no left, no right, just excellent entertainment. It feels like a throwback to some of Hitchcock’s great spy films, like “Notorious” or “North by Northwest.” It provides escapism in the best way possible; the narrative is engaging, drawing you out of the real world and into a super spy fantasy.
That’s one of the reasons “Maverick” made $1.5 billion. We go to movies to laugh, cry, and be thrilled. Macquarrie and Cruise want to thrill you. They don’t want to preach at you. They want your money in exchange for something worth your money, and they’re willing to go to outrageous lengths to thrill us.
Movies can, and sometimes should, be effective vehicles for important messages. The recently released “Sound of Freedom” is an excellent example of this, but that film is also incredibly entertaining and engrossing. One of the reasons “Dead Reckoning” works so well is because it has no deeper meaning, no message; it’s just about having fun at the theater, which is something Hollywood used to understand and strive for.
In the “Mission: Impossible” franchise, Cruise plays Ethan Hunt, a super spy who often has to work against the interests of the U.S. government and the deep state. This, too, is never framed as political but rather just the nature of power. Hunt is usually shown to be an old-fashioned hero from a less cynical time. He’s not racked with guilt for the things he’s done or even confused about what’s right and wrong. There’s no element of him that smacks of the ubiquitous trope of the anti-hero. Yet he has the proper level of reluctance, making him seem humble and brave.
Often Hunt is portrayed as chivalrous. “Dead Reckoning,” in particular, shows him consistently valuing the lives of women. At one point, he even says to Haley Atwell’s character, who is the second lead, that he can’t promise her she’ll be safe but that he will always value her life as being more valuable than his — doesn’t exactly sound like something James Bond or Jason Bourne would say.
It’s fascinating that none of this is being criticized as white knighting or toxic masculinity. These films have mostly seen universal praise. The focus is on telling a compelling story. Combine that with the very real action, and it’s hard to find anything to criticize. Macquarrie and Cruise have no sermon to preach; they just want to entertain. They want to make the silver screen glow again.
“Dead Reckoning” is full of great action, but it also harks back to the series’ roots. The legendary Brian De Palma directed the original film back in 1996, which was essentially just a straight-up spy thriller. The plot was driven by twists and turns, not set pieces. “Dead Reckoning” is more in that vein, whereas “Fallout” (the franchise’s previous entry) was basically constant action. The fact that the villain this time around is artificial intelligence — not exactly something you can punch or shoot at — is what motivates this return to a more cerebral “Mission: Impossible.”
This franchise continues to maintain its credibility with audiences, while many others flounder because the basic principles have stayed the same. Tell a good story and do the action as authentically as possible. Its lack of political messaging is also a big bonus. Cruise and Macquarrie are essentially following Michael Jordan’s philosophy of capitalism: Republicans buy sneakers and go to the movies too. That’s why this will almost certainly be another massive hit.