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‘Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning’ is Undermined by its Frustrating Portrayal of Women

Tom Cruise has made it his mission to save the cinema. In the face of falling ticket sales and the rise of streaming services, Cruise recognizes the danger theaters face. Yet, in his eyes, nothing can replicate genuine spectacle done right on the Silver Screen, so he has delivered jaw-dropping action features time and time again–daring audiences to miss out on the theatrical experience. After COVID shut down theaters for over a year, Cruise singlehandedly brought cinema roaring back on the wings of Top Gun Maverick. Not content with the listless CGI blur of Marvel, it’s been Cruise who’s put his body on the line in stunts for the “Mission: Impossible” franchise. More than just an art form, Cruise sees the theater as a holy, foundational institution of American culture made for everyone. As such, the formerly controversial star has shied away from talk of Scientology or creating thematically nuanced prestige pictures that obfuscate his only central tenet–that the theater culture of Old Hollywood is awesome. This is a star who even refuses to name his favorite films lest his specificity undermines the universality of his message. For the most part, he’s an unimaginably valuable asset to keeping the movies big. Yet classic Hollywood Cinema was never made for everyone. At its worst, then, Cruise’s strict non-partisanship can uncritically preserve the cultural biases of Old Hollywood–particularly the inadequate roles for women–and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One suffers for it. 

MIP has arguably surpassed “James Bond” as the quintessential modern spy franchise. While the dated tropes of the Bond girl, which defined its aura, have not been fully replicated in the largely sexless MIP series, the beautiful women surrounding Hunt aren’t exactly cutting-edge feminist icons. The girls are, first and foremost, meant to be pretty–in fact, Cruise seems to have approached Dead Reckoning intending to stuff as many model-caliber actresses as he could into a movie. Beyond that, the franchise caps the female characters’ varying levels of empowerment at their meaning to Cruise’s protagonist, Ethan Hunt. At their core, the women of MIP are essentially props to motivate Hunt or advance the story. Their purpose in these films is generally in subordinate service to the overall spectacle–an age-old Hollywood trope. Dead Reckoning is the guiltiest entry yet at depicting women through this lens, and it sours the recent legacy of what is arguably the greatest action franchise in Hollywood’s history. 

Dead Reckoning is a film constructed around the guilt Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) feels for letting women die. When a recording introduces Ethan to the mission at the beginning of the movie, we learn in a flashback that he was inducted into the IMF after the murder of his lover some decades ago. While attempting to intercept the mission’s MacGuffin at the Dubai Airport, Hunt runs into a man he recognizes as Gabriel (Esai Morales)–his lover’s murderer. Gabriel is the human frontman, essentially the disciple, for an evil AI technology (“The Entity”) run amok that the government has tasked Hunt and his team with gaining control over. To do this, Hunt needs both halves of a key to give him access to the Entity. However, while the AI seeks to defend and empower itself for unstated nefarious ends, every other major country seeks to weaponize it. Only Ethan and his friends are willing to rightfully destroy it. The plot is naturally absurd, but, as expected, the film is a vividly realized thrill ride from end to end. Yet where Dead Reckoning falters is that one no-named character is not the only woman harmed to help give Ethan’s character motivation. Instead, the film sees female pain as a tool worth employing over and over. 

“Fridging” is a trope wherein a woman is killed or hurt in a story solely to motivate a male character. Coined by writer Gaile Simone, the word refers to an event in the Green Lantern comics where the titular hero comes home and sees that the villain Major Force has executed his girlfriend and put her corpse in the refrigerator. This phenomenon is exceedingly common throughout film and literature. It’s a male fantasy premised on an aspiration to endure as much pain and trauma as possible to prove strength. In doing so, it identifies a man’s lover as their prized possession (almost an extension of themselves) while ignoring the girl's existing humanity. Dead Reckoning fridges no less than three or four female characters in some capacity.

The most egregious case is that of Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Furgeson), the new protagonist to the series who starred in entries five and six (the series’ two best films). The rogue MI6 spy holds one of the missing keys, but while attempting to retrieve it from her, Ethan appears to shoot her dead accidentally. Unfortunately, one pointless death for Ilsa wasn’t cruel enough. The movie reverses course later on and shows in a flashback that she survived the incident. Her decision to return for Ethan in the movie’s 2nd act ultimately puts her on a tragic crash course with Gabriel. When all the parties in pursuit of the keys arrive at a party in Venice, Gabriel offers Ethan a choice: he can either let Gabriel kill Ilsa or kill a new brunette pickpocket named Grace (Hayley Atwell), who Ethan had been working with in Ilsa’s stead. The logic behind this decision is contrived, although the Entity essentially hopes to compromise Ethan emotionally. The scenario wherein a villain forces a male protagonist to choose between saving the lives of one of two women he cares about (termed “A Sadistic Choice”) is not new, but it is a new low for the MIP series. It completely dehumanizes Ilsa and Grace while stripping them of any agency; they become damsels in distress, and Hunt holds their fate in his hands. 

Moreover, it’s a particularly grotesque scenario because Grace is clearly just a fresh replacement for Ilsa, who had overstayed her welcome as the series’ feisty female protagonist. In fact, Ethan had just met Grace, and he had no logical reason to care for her over his implied (occasional) lover Isla. While Furgeson plays Ilsa impeccably and imbued the last two films with an electricity, the decision to toss her away like a used toy is a disrespectful repudiation of any independent value she once had as a character. Ilsa lamely sacrifices herself for the other women, losing easily at the hands of Gabriel. Ethan arrives too late to save Ilsa and, paralleling his lover's death all those decades before, finds her dying body. The point is not the death of these women. The point is the pain that Ethan Hunt again feels. 

Ilsa’s passing is not the first time the MIP series has had a problem with fridging or female characters. In the 3rd MIP, Philip Seymor Hoffman’s villain character captures and nearly kills Hunt’s wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan). To avoid further danger, Julia is forced to fake her death and leave the series (which likewise allows the addition of another new brunette in the fourth film). Like Ilsa, the sixth film, Fallout, again brings Julia back from the dead as the new villain intentionally chooses to plant a nuclear bomb in the village where she currently works as a traveling doctor (although this time Ethan saves her). Nor are Ilsas and Grace’s fridgings the only such cases in Dead Reckoning. A secondary antagonist named Paris (Pom Klementieff) is wounded (possibly mortally) by Gabriel, and Hunt is forced to watch her slowly fade away after she gives him information.

Dead Reckoning is still a kinetic and fun movie for much of its runtime, one with base-jumping, car chases through Rome, and knife fights on a train, that per-usual begs audiences to watch it in theaters. Yet its treatment of its female characters is tough to stomach. While Cruise’s dedication to creating mindless popcorn entertainment is deeply commendable, that entertainment does not exist in a vacuum free from culture and social ramifications. And while the big-screen theatricality of old Hollywood is worth saving, its gendered failures need to be more closely considered in the present day.


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Tags: Mission Impossible Rebecca Ferguson Dead Reckoning. Tom Cruise Ilsa Faust Ethan Hunt


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