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

Featuring incredible stunts, timely themes, and an engaging, though imperfect balance between goofiness and sincerity, director Christopher McQuarrie’s “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1” is a reliably fun action-espionage blockbuster, if occasionally weighed down by inelegant plotting.

“Dead Reckoning,” the seventh installment in the “Mission” series, follows rebellious daredevil Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his loyal, idiosyncratic Impossible Mission Force comrades Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and love interest Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), as they embark on yet another death-defying mission to save humanity from itself.

They’re after two halves of a key that could allow them to destroy a rogue artificial-intelligence algorithm generically called “The Entity,” which has the power to upend civilization as we know it. Any and all global powers (including the CIA, led by Henry Czerny’s Eugene Kittridge, previously featured in the first “Mission” film) want to harness it for their own militaristic ends.

Despite its eye-rolling name, The Entity is an eerily prescient antagonist for Ethan and company to square off against — essentially the ultimate spy, able to infiltrate our always-online existence to control the nature of truth itself, plus, most likely, all the world’s weapons. Nowhere is safe from the Entity’s grasp.

The team’s plans are complicated with the unexpected arrival of courageous thief Grace (Hayley Atwell), walking a thin tightrope between friend and foe, who must eventually join sides with Ethan, along with the Entity’s human envoy, Gabriel (Esai Morales), a villainous ghost from Ethan’s past that contributed to him joining the Impossible Missions Force in the first place.

Also joining the fray is the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby, both seductive and goofy) from “Fallout,” and two frustrated U.S. agents always one step behind (Shea Whigham and Greg Tarzan Davis), who might or might not eventually shift their morals.

As the team embarks on a globe-trotting adventure in locales such as Rome and Norway, everyone is put to the test, and Ethan must reckon with saving those he loves over succeeding in his goals, all the while dealing with an unpredictable adversary that can seemingly predict his every move and turn his own gadgets against him. It can’t quite account for human ingenuity, or Ethan’s/Cruise’s unwavering commitment to putting themselves at risk for viewers’ entertainment.

Indeed, “Dead Reckoning” is, at times, a glorious spectacle — the practical stunt work on display puts the recent “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” to shame. With McQuarrie’s energetic direction and solid performances across the board, from Cruise especially, the latest “Mission” film delivers on the action front, though the twisty narrative lacks the visceral punch of the thunderously memorable set pieces.

And lordy, are those sequences invigorating to behold — filmed with a clarity by cinematographer Fraser Taggart that lets all the practical stunt work shine; largely eschewing CGI to forefront athleticism, which lends a (relatively speaking) grounded feel to the proceedings.

Lorne Balfe’s blaring score adds additional oomph. The much-publicized motorcycle-to-base-jump off the steep Norwegian mountainside is suitably spectacular, but a frantic chase through Rome — with Ethan and Grace handcuffed to each other driving a Fiat while being pursued by authorities and a sadistic killer named Paris (a scene-stealing Pom Klementieff) — is possibly the standout set-piece: full of bombastic slapstick comedy and split-second decision making that feels dangerous and thrilling. 

And the train showdown, holy moly, does not disappoint in the slightest, featuring edge-of-your-seat filmmaking that consistently ups the ante moment-to-moment as gravity begs to differ. Add to that a considerable helping of bone-crunching hand-to-hand combat (one brawl taking place in a narrow alley), and all the gratuitous running from Cruise we’ve come to expect, “Dead Reckoning” is worth watching for these scenes alone, bolstered by the cast’s commitment to this self-aware, somewhat messy tech-paranoia plot.

Hayley Atwell, Tom Cruise

Cruise continues to shine as Hunt, an ”agent of chaos” (as one character calls him) who’s willing to throw himself into danger for the greater good, but being forced to make impossible decisions to protect his friends and loved ones. Cruise’s portrayal lacks the emotional weight of his efforts in last year’s “Top Gun: Maverick,” but he still excels, nimbly navigating the film’s ludicrous plot developments and comedic relief with comforting self-awareness.

Pegg and Rhames provide equal parts comedic relief and pathos (grappling with the Entity’s manipulation of their advanced technology, such as the Entity impersonating their voices), while feeling underused and relegated to the background for most of the runtime. Ferguson is badass as always, as is Atwell, who lends spunk to her character of Grace and has palpable chemistry with Cruise. Grace takes on a pretty standard backstory/arc, yet is always fun to watch thanks to Atwell’s energy and inherent likability.

Morales is solid but unmemorable as the Entity’s henchman (even though McQuarrie tries his darndest to make us care from some rushed flashback revelations), and Klementieff deserves more screen time as a scarily ruthless assassin. The ensemble is always enjoyable — fully committed to the screenplay’s occasionally screwball rhythms — when all we’re really waiting for is the next harrowing spectacle to unfold. 

“Dead Reckoning” isn’t an all-out action film, however, and McQuarrie’s just as focused on the espionage narrative, which can’t live up in comparison, and lacks the creativity of the set pieces. The Entity is certainly a timely antagonist, but it remains difficult to care about much in the “Mission” universe because of the screenplay’s need to over-explain and “tell rather than show” regarding its capabilities, barring a couple memorable situations.

Although the film’s exposition-dumping approach is a staple of the genre, it lacks much emotional impact; the frequent flashbacks similarly try (and only half-heartedly succeed) to churn up investment, and the film’s constant forward momentum leaves little time for reflection, or opportunities to meaningfully dig into the psyches of its characters — even with a nearly three-hour runtime. 

To the screenplay’s credit, in a meta-textual sense, Cruise has also been a fierce defender of the cinematic experience, so Hunt’s battle against an evil algorithm could extend to Cruise’s own defense of practical stunts, the “theater experience,” and the increasingly bloated streaming ecosystem. Looking at “Dead Reckoning” from this angle makes the labyrinthine plot a touch more meaningful.

Despite these shortcomings, what really stands out about “Dead Reckoning” is the chutzpah of its creators. By the end of its runtime, it leaves an indelible impression as an achievement in action filmmaking. Regardless of storytelling stumbles, this is a must-watch on the biggest screen you can find — let’s just hope “Part 2” can deliver more on the character front.

This image released by Paramount Pictures shows Simon Pegg, from left, Ving Rhames, Tom Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson in “Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning – Part One.” (Christian Black/Paramount Pictures and Skydance via AP)

“Mission Impossible Dead Reckoning Part I” is a 2023 action-adventure directed by Christopher McQuarrie and starring Tom Cruise, Haley 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. Alex’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 Alex McPherson

Directors Ting Poo and Leo Scott’s new documentary, “Val,” provides a zoomed-in look at actor Val Kilmer’s life that, while somewhat hagiographic, forms an affecting story of perseverance, reinvention, and reaching for the stars. Cutting between personal video recordings narrated by his son, Jack, along with current footage of him contemplating the meaning of life, “Val” spotlights a complicated figure through a career of soaring highs and crippling lows. 

Growing up in Los Angeles to wealthy parents, Kilmer developed an intense passion for filmmaking and acting — creating home movies on Roy Rogers’ Ranch with his brothers, Wesley and Mark, that parodied such classics as “Jaws.” At age 17, Kilmer was the youngest student accepted at Juilliard at the time, but Wesley died in a tragic accident soon before, leaving Kilmer reeling with grief.

Determined to make a name for himself, the talented, handsome Kilmer excelled in his studies and, after graduating, eventually acted in a Broadway production of “Slab Boys.” His acclaim landed him film gigs in the 1980s and ‘90s, including in “Top Gun,” “The Doors,” “Tombstone,” “Heat” and as the Caped Crusader in “Batman Returns.” 

Despite his fame, Kilmer remained largely unsatisfied with his career, feeling as though his personal brand of acting was held back by the roles he was assigned. His arrogance, disguised as devotion to the craft, sparked conflicts with collaborators, including on the set of “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” which garnered Kilmer a troubled reputation.

Flash forward to today and the charismatic soul, having survived throat cancer and undergone a tracheostomy distorting his speech, is a much humbler individual than before — seeking to help viewers understand the human being behind the persona, and willing to share the wisdom he’s learned through his experiences.  

Although not immune from indulgent flourishes, “Val” winds up being a cathartic look at a celebrity looking back on a turbulent career and embracing the beauty of love, family, and creativity in the present. The film allows the world to see a frank, though nevertheless curated, look behind the tabloids.

Eschewing the talking-heads format common to documentaries, “Val” features copious footage recorded by Kilmer himself over the last 40 years. Viewers see behind-the-scenes shenanigans with fellow actors, footage from his childhood projects, audition tapes for “Full Metal Jacket,” and much more, in addition to darker moments of Kilmer’s self-destructive tendencies.

In modern times, we see Kilmer spend time with his son and daughter, Mercedes, attend draining autograph signings at Comic Con, mourn what he’s lost, and ponder what the future holds. 

As “Val’” juxtaposes the rowdy, perfectionistic younger man with his significantly wiser self years later, it’s often moving, as viewers grow attached to the aging figure at the center of it all. Indeed, the film is organized in a bittersweet fashion — chock full of impactful moments both happy and sad, with thought-provoking reflections sprinkled throughout that tie most everything together. Through the lens of viewers unfamiliar with Kilmer’s previous work, however, “Val” might not hit as hard as intended when nostalgia is lessened. 

Although Kilmer’s story is inspiring, “Val” feels more like a melancholic tribute than a comprehensive exploration, for better and worse. For instance, the film treats his Christian Science background and on-set controversies with a light touch. “Val” also follows a traditional narrative trajectory that’s, in a sense, at odds with Kilmer’s own goals of shaking things up with his projects.

Suffice to say, when Kilmer begins comparing himself to Mark Twain, “Val” feels a bit too full of itself, and loses some of its emotional power as a result.

(Twain, one of his influences, inspired his one-man show turned film presentation, “Cinema Twain,”  and his charity, TwainMania, is about teaching the authors to students.)

Easy to admire but ham-strung by its limited perspective, “Val” still delivers a revealing look at a frequently underrated actor who has finally achieved a sense of inner peace. What we’re left with is a film that’s not as profound as it thinks it is, but leaves us with a greater understanding of a flawed, resilient artist who hasn’t abandoned his dreams.

Val Kilmer

“Val” is a 2021 documentary co-directed by Ting Poo and Leo Scott. It is rated R for some language and runs 1 hour, 49 minutes. It is available in theaters on July 23 and on Amazon Prime on Aug. 6. Alex’s grade: B.