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The mechanics of Mission: Impossible

Spoiler alert: this post is mostly about the very end of the new Mission: Impossible film, Dead Reckoning: Part one. Don’t read on until you have seen that, or you will be very angry with me.

I have written here before about how the stunt movie and the art of silent slapstick intersect – the inspiration that time was John Wick, with its old-school fight choreography. New in the cinemas this week is the latest film in the Mission: Impossible franchise, starring Tom Cruise, a man who has long insisted that he does all his own stunts, just like a latterday silent star.

Dead Reckoning: Part One is structured, like its predecessors, around a series of epic setpieces: one in Abu Dhabi airport, one using cars and motorbikes on the streets of Rome, and a glorious finale on the Orient Express. They must have used up all their helicopters in the previous instalments. In between this there are lots of conversations shot with Dutch angles to which you needn’t pay any attention. But these setpieces really are spectacular.

As José Arroyo wrote when the first film was released, in Sight and Sound, these movies sit squarely in the mode of the Cinema of Attractions. “Mission: Impossible forsakes the uncomfortable, ‘Do you see what you believe?’ to trick us into agreeing with a more delightful, ‘Do you believe what you see?’”

Ethan Hunt AKA Tom Cruise’s fondness for fighting on top of a moving train is very silent comedy, very Buster Keaton and co. And the publicity that emphasises he does (almost) all his own stuntwork brings us back to the traditions of early Hollywood, when actors took more risks on set. Dead Reckoning: Part One kicks this tendency up a notch.

Reluctantly, we must briefly engage with the plot of the film here. The motivation for all this movement is that a “digital parasite” called “The Entity” is hacking into the online, connected world: communications, surveillance, VR, the works. Everything digital is now suspect. For Ethan and his cohort, only the analogue world can be trusted.

Isn’t that neat for a film that leans into the techniques of the past? That cuts away from the moment those rubber faces are removed each time rather than creating a perfect metamorphosis through pixels? That gives us choppy, up-close Go-Pro-style footage of a car chase rather than swooping digital zooms? It’s no coincidence, naturally.

Director Chris McQuarrie has explained that he takes his inspiration from the silent era, partly in pursuit of making a truly global film, which leaps over the language barrier. You can tell. Here, the silent movie references pile up. There is some beautiful swashbuckling swordplay and hand-to-hand combat on a moonlit bridge in Venice, filmed partly in long shot, with Hayley Atwell dressed up as Fairbanks-as-Zorro. She and Cruise jump from shore to boat to shore, and dodge falling objects with the precision of the stunts in Steamboat Bill, Jr (Charles Reisner, 1928). Because they can’t resist, there is even a reference to the Odessa Steps from Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925), as our heroes drive a Fiat 500 in down the Spanish Steps. This is actually the second film I have seen recently that features a scene of driving in reverse down the Spanish Steps – the other is Fast X, which employs all the conspicuous digital flourishes that Dead Reckoning: Part One rejects, equally conspicuously.

But the real showstopper is when McQuarrie, Cruise et al send the Orient Express to its doom in a scene that is a clear homage to Keaton’s The General (Clyde Bruckman, 1926), famously the most expensive shot in silent cinema. And according to the filmmakers, something they had wanted to recreate for a long time.

Because we have pictures from the shoot of this scene, in a quarry in Derbyshire, we can see how much of the sequence in the finished film is VFX and how much is real. The shot is at the beginning of this trailer:

Big difference. Everything has changed except the 70-ton mass of that falling train, which cannot, of course, be reshot. According to McQuarrie, the practical shoot was a real effort: “I think the energy that went into developing it, designing that, building it, and then making a sequence that justified its existence was probably the biggest challenge of my entire life.” Now, he would say that – he has a film to promote.

There’s more about the train-wreck shoot here, where you can hear the director claim this level of practical stunt work is unique and may never be done again. I hope not.

It’s important to these films that we hear these lines again and again about the authenticity of the practical work, and of how Dead Reckoning was shot during Covid, and the crew kept going because they wanted to “save cinema”. Practical stunts are not an idiosyncrasy or an accident of budget, but central to the strategy of the film, and its marketing.

Mission: Impossible uses the weight of mechanical effects to amplify the endless possibilities of the digital world. It takes a falling train to make the CG effects sing, and to convince us that there is something to see here. Because so much of the film appears real, with Cruise actually landing that parachute, driving that motorbike, and so on, we are inclined to believe the rest of what we see. In the delightful tradition of the trick film, we believe what we see, because we want to.

  • Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is out in cinemas now.
  • Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.

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