Tom Cruise at Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One premiere. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Licensed Under CC0 2.0.
When asked whether he was going to watch Barbie or Oppenheimer first, Tom Cruise responded with, and I quote, “What’s great is you’re going to see both on the weekend.”
“It’ll probably be Oppenheimer first and then Barbie,” the greatest living actor continued. “Oppenheimer’s going to be on a Friday—do you know what I mean? I’ll probably see it in the afternoon; you want that packed audience. And then I wanna see Barbie right afterwards, with a packed audience.”
But first, I was going to see Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One on a Monday. I wanted that packed audience, so I picked the earliest screening possible at the TCL Chinese Theatre—a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument and home to one of the largest commercial movie screens in North America. Despite various rounds of rebranding, the TCL Chinese Theatre—formerly known as Mann’s Chinese Theatre and before that Grauman’s Chinese Theatre—will basically always be the Chinese Theatre. I first encountered it in the film critic Nick Browne’s classic 1989 essay “American Film Theory in the Silent Period: Orientalism as an Ideological Form,” which examines the Orientalism of early film aesthetics, and the twenties trend of exotically decked-out American movie palaces that culminated, in 1928, “in the construction of Sid Grauman’s still famous (indeed iconic) Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, described as deriving ‘its inspiration from the Chinese period of Chippendale.’ It opened in May with the premiere of De Mille’s King of Kings with an evening of high ceremonies hosted by D. W. Griffith.”
My husband and I arrived early, and the urgency surrounding our evening of high ceremonies was immediately palpable. King of Kings is a biopic about Jesus, and, in many ways, so is every Mission: Impossible film. In my mind, Tom Cruise is something of a Chinese Jesus. Consider not only his massive appeal in China but also: his relentless hustle, his flexibility (literal and metaphorical), his ability to make lots of money … And while I realize that many of us have since moved on to (and likely even past) Barbenheimer discourse, let us not forget that it is Cruise who is almost single-handedly saving cinema in his commitment to the packed audience. (But Chinese Jesus has been overshadowed by the movie about white dolls and that other movie about the atomic bomb that intentionally avoids thinking about Japan.)
Living in Los Angeles, I had joked with our friends who would be meeting us at the theater that it wasn’t entirely implausible that Tom Cruise himself would make a surprise appearance at our screening, as he is wont to do. But Mr. Cruise Mapother IV was apparently predisposed that evening, attending the film’s New York premiere. At least, that’s what the newspapers want us to think.
No matter! Even if Tom Cruise’s body was east of Angel City that night, I sensed that his spirit was somewhere close by. Walking from the parking lot to the historic theater located at 6925 Hollywood Boulevard, I was confronted with a booth promoting the practice of Dianetics. No civilians were engaged at the table—which was decked out with a tablecloth in an alarming shade of red that flashed both as siren and warning—but the night was still young. Ahead of us sauntered someone in a Spiderman costume, while moving past us was a group of Japanese tourists toting large cameras, walking in what I could describe only as the wrong direction.
An enormous banner of Cruise and a motorbike falling through space was draped in front of the iconic theater. Because I had recently reread Browne’s essay, I was prepared for the overwhelming Orientalist design of the building’s exterior, which resembles a giant red pagoda. I was, however, not prepared for the women’s bathroom, which features an opulent anteroom covered with yellow wallpaper dotted with butterflies.
Entering the theater, we were gifted with exclusive posters featuring Cruise, in profile and midgait, running across a red backdrop. “It almost looks like a Hitchcock poster,” a man noted, before adding: “specifically like Vertigo.” Also available were pins embossed with the letters IMF (short for the Impossible Missions Force, not to be confused with the International Monetary Fund—a joke that the film would later riff on).
Inside, there was even more swag to be found. For a mere fifteen dollars, one could buy a special Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One popcorn tin with free refills. My husband went to retrieve this impossibly good deal at concessions while I loitered in the lobby, inspecting the glass case displaying Dorothy’s blue gingham dress from The Wizard of Oz. Someone nearby noted that “the dinosaurs do not look good,” regarding their visit to the La Brea Tar Pits—which, out of context, is sort of the kind of poetic utterance Tom Cruise himself might make.
By the time we finally took our seats, the theater was almost entirely packed. The group of boys behind me kept debating whether “Tom might show up.” “Maybe he’ll come down from the ceiling!” one of them cooed, referencing the shadowy outline of Cruise’s floating body suspended by a wire (Ethan Hunt’s favorite method of entering a building) projected against the theater curtains. There was a nontrivial French-speaking contingent at this screening, some of them seated in front of us, though all I gleaned with my rudimentary French was “C’est parfait—parfait!” A girl wearing a sparkling headband and what appeared to be a wedding dress walked down the aisle.
Finally, a woman introduced the film, emphasizing in particular the IMAX laser projection technology by repeating the word laser what felt like at least a dozen times.
The guy describing Cruise’s series as Hitchcockian was right, of course, insofar as almost all spy thrillers today are indebted to the Master of Suspense. But unlike prior Mission: Impossible installments, Dead Reckoning—which takes place on a train for a significant portion of its extensive runtime—owes less to Vertigo than to Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, and one of my favorite early Hitchcock romps, The Lady Vanishes. According to one of the film’s exquisitely edited promos, which I also rewatched multiple times in preparation, Tom Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie actually constructed the entire train from scratch. “We had to build the train,” McQuarrie says to the viewer, “if we wanted to destroy it.” That kind of onetime high-stakes, high-production action sequence is key to why we love Tom Cruise—to why he’s credited with keeping the movies alive not just materially (at the box office) but also spiritually (by eschewing special effects and using real materials). He is the Akira Kurosawa of our time.
And as with every Mission: Impossible film, Dead Reckoning bakes Tom Cruise’s life-sustaining efforts into the very premise of the movie. The plot, so gloriously convoluted that the film spends its first thirty minutes explaining it as though addressing a baby, can be boiled down to something like this: Ethan Hunt is tasked with saving a series of beautiful women, which is a metaphor for saving the entire human race, which is of course, an allegory for Tom Cruise’s endless mission to save the movies. This all gets compressed into the extended scene on the train—that old symbol for cinema, modernity, and sex with beautiful women all rolled into one. In one of my favorite moments, Ethan attempts to parachute onto the plane, but ends up making his entrance by crashing through a window, simultaneously taking out a villain while doing so. The train, as promised, is destroyed. But Ethan survives.
The film itself flew by—all 163 minutes. We laughed, we clapped. We were a packed audience. During the few silent seconds when Ethan rides off a cliff on his motorcycle, someone in the room yelled, “CGI!”
When it was over, most of the audience filtered out during the credit sequence. “Epic!” someone shouted nearby. While another called out to his friend, “Ethan.” I stayed behind for the credit sequence, along with a few lingering others, some of us wondering if there’d be a teaser for Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part Two.
Given that the Mission: Impossible films are based on an older TV series from the sixties, the entire franchise has always carried melancholic valances. But these have grown more notable in the last few installments, all directed by McQuarrie. Ethan’s stamina seems to be wilting even as his spirit stays strong. In Dead Reckoning, a woman who had saved his life in a prior McQuarrie film dies under his watch. Maybe Ethan can’t save everyone. But I suspect that he’ll at least kill himself trying.
Without giving too much away, the literal cliff-hanger at the close of Dead Reckoning—the first time the series has split its films—had strong end-of-an-era overtones. “There isn’t much time,” intones a concluding voice-over to Ethan. “The world doesn’t know it, but they’re counting on you.” You get the sense that he’s speaking not only to Ethan Hunt but also to Tom Cruise. Given the mournful narrative decrescendo of the last few Mission: Impossible installments, I’ll be surprised if there are any more to come after next summer’s much anticipated Part Two.
For now though, I’m clinging—like Tom Cruise to the edge of a cliff in Mission: Impossible 2, or Ethan Hunt to the edge of a falling train in Dead Reckoning—to a franchise that isn’t entirely quite over.
Walking back to our car, we passed the Dianetics table—now attended by a few interested patrons—and saw the girl in the wedding dress again. Apparently Paul Thomas Anderson had also been there in the theater. I hadn’t seen him, though. What can I say—I was looking for Tom, and it was a packed audience.
Jane Hu is a critic living in Los Angeles.
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