By Lynn Venhaus

One thing about Tom Cruise: Love him or hate him, he is a consummate entertainer. And let’s face it, we’re sucked into Cruise’s World nearly every time he headlines an adventure trying to save the world.

If there is peril, he shows up. He knows how to throw himself to a rip-roaring yarn, as he has proven time and again. In yet another bold, brash move as Ethan Hunt, he pushed himself with death-defying stunts that are among the most dazzling in movie history in this seventh one, “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One.”

His Impossible Missions Force team must track down a dangerous weapon 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.

Now 61, Cruise was 57 when filming initially started, so give him credit for stretching himself physically, a remarkable feat. For a glimpse of the risky business — Exhibit 1: Motorcycle stunt on the edge of a cliff. My jaw dropped and my stomach flip-flopped when he freefalls.

That might not top the helicopter chase in “Fallout” (MI:6), also filmed by now head cinematographer Fraser Taggart, but it’s a dandy and among several terrifying set pieces including an extensive pulse-pounding pursuit through the streets of Rome and fights on aboard and on top of a speeding train (and not just any train, but THE Orient Express).

While not as emotionally impactful as Cruise’s “Top Gun: Maverick,” last year’s sequel to a 1986 film that proved to be more successful than anyone thought – I mean, 36 years later? — “MI 7” played to his strengths.

Because he exceeded expectations for making the 2022 top-grossing film of the year ($718,732,821, to be exact), and was an Oscar nominee for Best Picture, there is a great deal of current goodwill. Some said he “saved Hollywood” by getting people into theaters post-pandemic. Let’s see if he repeats.

MI7 produces the thrills that define a crowd-pleasing blockbuster, but not the chills, and perhaps still will be a summer success after a few other tentpoles sputtered.

There is a sense of comfort in nostalgia. Like John Williams’ rousing Indiana Jones score, composer Lorne Balfe uses variations of Lalo Shifrin’s iconic TV series theme song to punctuate the action.

As with Harrison Ford returning as Indy, Cruise settles into another beloved familiar character, fearless American secret agent Ethan Hunt. Based on the Emmy-winning TV show (1966-1973) formula created by Bruce Geller, this covert Impossible Missions Force spans the globe fighting international terrorists in sophisticated ways.

After 27 years, we expect elaborate action and increasingly complicated high-tech plots. The first feature film directed by Brian De Palma was successful in 1996, its sequel stumbled in 2000 directed by John Woo, came back super-charged by director J.J. Abrams with Philip Seymour Hoffmann as a cunning villain in 2006, was even better in director Brad Bird’s “Ghost Protocol” in 2011, followed by what some say are the best ones in Christopher McQuarrie’s “Rogue Nation” in 2015 and “Fallout” in 2018. Now we have a long, dense follow-up in “Dead Reckoning,” a first part that is 2 hours and 43 minutes.

Hayley Atwell is the slippery Grace, Tom Cruise is Ethan Hunt, world savior.

McQuarrie, who directed and co-wrote the script with Erik Jendresen, has been a consistent collaborator with Cruise during the 21st century. They first worked together on “Valkyrie” in 2008, followed by “Jack Reacher,” which he directed, and “Edge of Tomorrow.” That led to writing and directing the fifth and sixth ones, the first repeat director.

McQuarrie won the Oscar for his original screenplay “The Usual Suspects” in 1995 and was nominated last year for the adapted screenplay of “Top Gun: Maverick.”

The man who created Keyser Soze knows his way around criminal masterminds, but there’s a less than compelling one in sinister Gabriel, played by Esai Morales. He somehow is connected to the evil algorithm “The Entity,” which is so advanced it manipulates reality and the truth to cause endless chaos.

The menace is never-ending, although the enigmatic plot is dull. However, four interesting actresses shine in strong-willed roles: Hayley Atwell, Pom Klementieff and Vanessa Kirby, while Rebecca Ferguson returns for round three as MI6 operative Ilsa Faust.

Even with his energy and intensity, Cruise needs strong support, which he gets from the unsung heroes Simon Pegg as tech turned field agent Benji Dunn and Ving Rhames as wingman Luther Stickell.

Foe-turned-frenemy Atwell distinguishes herself as the slippery Grace. Since 2011, she has played beloved Peggy Carter, Captain America’s one true love, in all things Avenger-related in the Marvel universe (TV and film).

 Oscar-nominated Kirby returns as the mysterious White Widow from “Fallout,” still sketchy, and a ferocious Klementieff, Mantis in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films, is cold-blooded assassin Paris.

It’s a stacked cast. Cary Elwes is CIA’s Denlinger and Henry Czerny, from the first movie,  is back as Kittredge, while Shea Wigham and Greg Tarzan Davis are agents Briggs and Degas hot on the trail.

Czerny, with his ace delivery, has the best line: “Your days of fighting for the so-called greater good are over. This is our chance to control the truth. The concepts of right and wrong for everyone for centuries to come. You’re fighting to save an ideal that doesn’t exist. Never did. You need to pick a side.”

It’s a very different global playing field from when they first launched the feature film. They’ve all been high-octane state-of-the-art thrillers, but this one is hyper-speed. Stunts aside, their mission has always been against shadowy figures hell-bent on ruthless power. Noble, sure, but do we care?

My main beef is that it’s not so much a nail-biter as it is an exercise in endurance. The mumbo-jumbo about “The Entity” gets ridiculous.

Yet, the adrenaline rush takes over viewing. Think of it as a summer sojourn to Cruise World. We are all pulled into his orbit. We’ll see what he’s up to next June, as no. 8 is set for June 28, 2024.

“Mission Impossible Dead Reckoning Part I” is a 2023 action-adventure directed by Christopher McQuarrie and starring Tom Cruise, Hayley Atwell, Esai Morales, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Cary Elwes, Henry Czerny. It is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some language and suggestive material .and runs 2 hours and 43 minutes. It opens in theaters on July 12. Lynn’s Grade: B-.

By Alex McPherson

Director Joseph Kosinski’s “Top Gun: Maverick” surpasses the 1986 original to soar among 2022’s most satisfying efforts thus far.

Taking place over three decades later, viewers are reunited with Navy aviator Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, who has since avoided promotion to keep flying as a test pilot. Continuing to mourn and feel guilt over the death of his best friend, Goose (Anthony Edwards), there’s an air of melancholy surrounding Maverick, but his penchant for rebelliousness continues in full force.

Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (a scenery-chewing Ed Harris) informs Maverick that drones will soon replace flesh-and-blood pilots. Maverick, trying to once again prove himself and save his program, pushes a prototype jet beyond Mach-10, becoming the fastest man alive before plummeting back to the land of mere mortals in a violent fireball. Somehow he emerges to live, and fly, another day.

Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer, truly impactful in his short screen-time) saves Maverick from being permanently grounded and requests his return to the Top Gun school in San Diego to train a new batch of aviators for a “New Hope”-esque bombing run against an unnamed foreign enemy.

The group, mostly simple characterizations, includes a badass woman pilot “Phoenix” (Monica Barbaro), a soft-spoken lad with the call sign “Bob” (Lewis Pullman), and a macho show-off named “Hangman” (Glen Powell), echoing a young “Iceman,” among others. Maverick is constantly watched over by Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm), who’s none too pleased with Maverick’s unconventional methods. 

Miles Teller

Crucially, however, Goose’s son, “Rooster” (Miles Teller, with a mustache channeling Goose’s), joins the team, carrying palpable resentment towards Maverick, whom he deems responsible for his father’s untimely demise. Maverick reunites with a long-ago lover, the beautiful Penny (Jennifer Connelly) — with nary a mention of Kelly McGillis’s Charlie — and gradually begins to recognize the appeal of leading a more “normal” existence. Tensions are high, the stakes are real, and Maverick must confront the ghosts of his past to make it out alive and reach some semblance of inner peace before he signs off for good.

Quite unexpectedly, there’s far more thematic meat to chew in “Top Gun: Maverick” than viewers might expect. But those looking for a pure shot of cinematic adrenaline won’t be disappointed either. Kosinski achieves a near-perfect balance between tongue-in-cheek popcorn thrills, nostalgic callbacks, and deeper nuance — extending beyond Maverick to comment on Cruise’s own acting career, as well the state of big-budget filmmaking today.

“Top Gun: Maverick” features one of Cruise’s all-time best performances, capturing both the character’s courageousness and newfound fearfulness at his position in the world and with the treacherous mission he’s preparing to guide. The way he carries himself throughout his old hunting grounds lacks the upbeat bounce it used to — replaced by an awareness of his own age and mortality, the sense that this once-invincible daredevil can’t be around forever. Indeed, neither can Cruise as an actor: one of the last movie stars who literally risks his life for our enjoyment.

His conversations with Penny and Iceman, especially the latter, reveal a vulnerable soul unable to forgive himself and fully accept the passage of time — an unexpected narrative choice for a character originally drenched in macho masculinity. He’s still charming and capable of copious one-liners, but the added depth is much welcomed.

Val Kilmer as Admiral Thomas “Iceman” Kazansky

Maverick’s conflict with Rooster also hangs over the film, as Maverick deeply fears losing him to the same fate as his father. Teller’s performance conveys Rooster’s stubbornness, contempt, and own self-doubt. His arc, while predictable, hits home with force in the film’s absolutely electrifying final act.

Speaking of which, “Top Gun: Maverick” features some of the most mind-blowing set-pieces I’ve ever witnessed. Reportedly filmed in real planes with minimal VFX, cinematographer Claudio Miranda puts viewers right in the cockpit with the pilots, immersing us into all the high-flying maneuvers to staggering effect.

At one point, as Cruise flies straight upwards, we practically feel the G-forces along with him, our ears bombarded by thunderous engines. I cannot overstate just how incredible these sequences are, and how impressive it is that they’re filmed coherently. Whether or not stunt work like this can ever be recreated again — if we ever get away from CGI-infested superhero flicks — the craziness on display makes “Top Gun: Maverick” a spectacle that must be viewed on the big screen, preferably in IMAX. Similarly, the score by Lorne Balfe, Harold Faltermeyer, Hans Zimmer, and Lady Gaga deserves to be blared as loudly as possible.

Yes, Kosinski’s film certainly has its cheesy, soap-opera-esque flourishes — it is a sequel to “Top Gun” after all — and the film’s militarism remains blatant, albeit neutered this time around. Where things wrap up isn’t exactly surprising, and the sweaty, crimson-hued world seems (intentionally) separated from gritty reality.

Regardless, this is a pure, balls-to-the-wall action film that contains thought-provoking undercurrents beneath its crowd-pleasing sheen. It’s an experience that I’ll be revisiting frequently and one that reminds me of the power of the summer blockbuster.

“Top Gun: Maverick” is a 2022 action-adventure directed by Joseph Kosinski and starring Tom Cruise, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Ed Harris, Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Monica Barbero and Val Kilmer. It is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action, and some strong language, and runs 2 hours, 10 minutes. The movie was released in theaters and IMAX on May 27. Alex’s Grade: A-.

By Lynn Venhaus
In the grand tradition of summer blockbusters, the action-packed sci-fi thriller “The Tomorrow War” arrives in the new world on the home screen – Amazon Prime, to be exact.

While these kinds of digital visual effects and high-octane combat sequences are best-suited for a large screen — remember “Independence Day” on the holiday weekend in 1996? – this ‘90s-throwback film will be a crowd-pleaser with the charming everyman Chris Pratt leading the way.

It’s Christmastime 2022, and during a televised world soccer game, a group of time travelers arrive from the year 2051 with an urgent message: Thirty years in the future mankind is losing a global war against deadly alien invaders. To save the human race, soldiers and civilians in present time are drafted to be transported to the future for seven-day duty.

Joining the fight are Pratt as family man and high school teacher Dan Forester, who teams up with a brilliant scientist from Romeo Command (Yvonne Strahovski) and other draftees to save the world and rewrite the fate of the past.

Pratt is naturally in his wheelhouse – a veteran soldier, now a loving husband and father and high school biology teacher, whose leadership skills bolster the impossible fight against these relentless “white spikes.”

The vicious teeth-and-tentacles enemies are swift beasts, designed like a multi-limbed puma/wild dog hybrid with reptile features, not unlike prehistoric creatures. Visually, they are disgusting, and when harmed, burst with icky goo oozing out. They aren’t all that original looking, and neither are the video-game effects.

Most of the ordinary humans are helpless against these hulking packs, who are everywhere. But not Pratt, the scientific military minds in the field – and his ragtag assortment of supporting characters.

The group he is attached to in training camp turns out to have interesting backstories and personalities to make their bond strong. Actors Sam Richardson, terrific as talkative Charlie, Edwin Hodge (Aldis’ brother) as tough but glum Dorian and sarcastic, anxious Norah (Mary Lynn Rajskub) become fierce fighters.

Ever-reliable Oscar winner J.K. Simmons, as Dan’s estranged father and a rogue techie, joins the group on a perilous mission – but that’s another subplot.

There are several plotlines going on – with significant twists – to keep the story humming, even if it resembles other sci-fi dystopian thrillers with similar villains. And despite the multiple threads, there is surprising emotional depth in a few characters.

Screenwriter Zach Dean, who wrote one of my favorite under-the-radar atypical thrillers called “Deadfall” in 2012, has mixed the explosions with a sturdier story, no matter how generic it looks.

Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski

However, it is still time travel, which always makes my head hurt, so it’s best not to think too hard about the back-and-forth jumping. When it gets too crazy in regular logic, just enjoy the performances.

Pratt, after starring in “Jurassic World” and “The Guardians of the Galaxy,” embodies both the brawny action hero dedicated to saving lives and the likable guy-next-door committed to his wife and daughter. He is more serious here than jaunty, but capable of shouldering the dilemmas.

Betty Gilpin portrays his wife with a furrowed brow, and the exceptional Ryan Kiera Armstrong, who played young Gloria Steinem in “The Glorias” and is in the new “Black Widow,” is impressive as daddy’s girl Muri, a whip-smart 8-year-old.

The women integral to the mission stand out — Yvonne Strahovski, Emmy nominee for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” is compelling as the brainy scientist racing against time, and Justine Matthews is forceful as officer-in-charge Lt. Hart.

Director Chris McKay, Emmy winner for “Robot Chicken” who helmed the delightful “The Lego Batman Movie,” confidently makes his live-action debut. He may seem an unlikely choice for such a big visual-effect extravaganza, but he has smoothly guided the action – and not at the sacrifice of story.

Composer Lorne Balfe, who has scored the recent “Mission Impossible” films and has specialized in tentpole action films, provides the requisite bombast.

While the film doesn’t stray from the usual archetype of doomsday adventures, there is a noticeable oomph that is unexpected. Sure, the movie checks all the boxes in the successful blockbuster formula but is unique enough to be worth a look during these pandemic times.

That certainly helps because it is a 2 hour and 20-minute commitment. But the cast is what elevates it beyond the same-old, same-old.

Jasmine Matthews

“The Tomorrow War” is an action sci-fi thriller directed by Chris McKay and stars Chris Pratt, Yvonne Strahovski, J.K. Simmons, Betty Gilpin, Sam Richardson, Jasmine Mathews, Edwin Hodge and Ryan Kiera Armstrong.
Rated: PG-13 for some suggestive references/action/language/intense sci-fi violence, the run time is 2 hours, 20 minutes. Streaming on Amazon Prime starting July 2. Lynn’s Grade: B-