MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – DEAD RECKONING PART ONE (2023)
Ethan Hunt and his IMF team must track down a dangerous weapon before it falls into the wrong hands.
The seventh Mission: Impossible film arrives with an impossible mission of its own: it has to follow up the near-universally beloved Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018). Furthermore, it has five earlier films to reckon with, and the tricky task of bringing Big with a capital B movies back to multiplexes. Top Gun: Maverick (2022) proved that dealing with a vast legacy and outsized expectations can be done… if you’re Tom Cruise. And like Maverick, Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One is a great argument that Cruise is the man to save traditional blockbusters in a period when even surefire hits are faltering at the box office.
Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is back, and so is the magic—literally. The charmingly dorky sleight-of-hand tricks we haven’t seen since the beginning of the series, way back in 1996, make a return early on in Dead Reckoning. This, and a superbly crafted airport heist scene suggest the film is going back to its roots as a cleverly knotted espionage thriller.
The plot concerns an incredibly powerful artificial intelligence called ‘the Entity’, a mysterious force that can be weaponised in the wrong hands. The U.S. government want it for their own purposes, while tech terrorist Gabriel (Esai Morales) wants it for—surprise!—world domination. Ethan Hunt, meanwhile, wants it destroyed. The technology can predict every possibility, writing out each person’s destiny with the cold calculations of an algorithm. It can also be used to hack, control, and wipe out systems, essentially functioning as an unstoppable and omnipresent covert agent.
It’s a timely and intriguing idea, particularly in an age when A.I. is becoming more powerful and starting to replace people and their jobs. And of course, we live in an age where large-scale filmmaking increasingly begins to resemble artificial intelligence. Cinema screens are littered with soupy VFX and de-aged or even long-dead actors as digital phantoms. Re-constituted parts are stitched together in an attempt to recapture some sort of magic ratio. Dead Reckoning refutes these ideas, arguing that the classic and old-fashioned will never go out of style.
The compelling nature of The Entity is left, largely, as an open question. This is, of course, merely the first of two parts to the story, and it can be frustrating over the nearly three-hour runtime to be reminded, again and again, that it’s all very mysterious. It often feels as if we’re treading water. With any luck, Part Two will further explore this question and utilise The Entity as a legitimate enemy. There are creepy and effective moments sprinkled in that demonstrate The Entity’s power—such as it mimicking Benji’s (Simon Pegg) voice through Ethan’s earpiece and sending him down dead ends—and the vague image of Gabriel’s outline flickering on a CCTV camera is ghostly and borderline X-Files.
These moments are some of the film’s best, which is why it’s a shame it otherwise spends an unfathomable amount of time talking about keys. To harness the full power of the Entity one must combine two parts of a key, and the majority of the film is focused on that item. The halves are passed from person to person, stopping occasionally in the hands of someone in the midst of an exposition dump. These are mostly offered up by steady hands like Henry Czerny, making a return as Kittridge from Brian De Palma’s original Mission: Impossible (1996)
Things quickly become convoluted and it’s worryingly easy to let one’s eyes gloss over and just listen out for the most important details. This has been a problem in almost every Mission Impossible… and in this sense, Dead Reckoning is just keeping up the tradition. But if all the to-ing and fro-ing gets wearying, this key (prepare to never want to hear the word ‘key’ again after this film) does provide the catalyst for some of the franchise’s absolute finest set pieces.
The aforementioned airport heist scene is an impeccable and complex piece with a thousand moving parts, including the key, the CIA, thieves, and a nuclear bomb. Here we’re reintroduced to Ethan’s old friends Benji and Luther (Ving Rhames) who guide him through the field. It’s also where we meet newcomer Grace (Haley Atwell), an international thief who has her own reasons for wanting the key, and an enforcer called Jasper Briggs (Shea Whigham) attempting to bring Ethan into custody. It seems Ethan has gone rogue again!
Also returning are MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) and black market arms dealer Alanna Mistopolis (Vanessa Kirby). Remarkably, the film makes ample room for newcomers and old faces alike, and even being the longest film of the franchise so far, Dead Reckoning never feels overstuffed with characters or ideas. The series has effortlessly built up a great deal of goodwill towards the now-familiar characters, and it’s immediately apparent that Pegg, Rhames, Cruise, and Ferguson still have the spark and chemistry that give the films their heart.
However, with a cast so effortlessly watchable, it’s hard to ignore that Dead Reckoning has a villain problem. Esai Morales gives a chilly and reserved performance as Gabriel, but it’s in service of a terribly bland character whose backstory (related, of course, to Ethan’s) feels half-written and largely unnecessary. The series has already spoken about ‘ghosts from the past’, so it feels forced and repetitive to have Gabriel’s story tie into Ethan’s own. It isn’t just that his goals are somewhat generic, it’s that there isn’t a truly interesting angle on the character.
Henry Cavill and Philip Seymour Hoffman proved in past entries that excellent bad guys don’t always need to have the most complex motivations. So it’s hard not to wish there was something more alluring to Gabriel, especially when The Entity itself has so much potential. We’re told that things are intensely personal between Ethan and Gabriel, but given that we’ve never seen or heard of Gabriel before Dead Reckoning, it’s hard to buy it.
On a more positive note, adding to an already sizeable cast, Haley Atwell more than holds her own and makes the strongest impression out of the newcomers. Her repartee with Ethan is charming, and it’s a delight to watch her weave through the story on her own path. A car chase sees the two attempting to escape their captors in a tiny Fiat 500 while handcuffed together, and it’s perhaps the outright funniest the series has ever been. Director Christopher McQuarrie finds time for perfect comedy beats amongst the action, which makes the whole thing even more enjoyable. The action itself is muscular, tough, and refined. The focus on practical effects and heroic stunt work also benefits the film, especially when it comes to the final set piece set on (and off) a moving train.
Like the airport scene, there are so many moving parts during the climax it’s mind-boggling. Everything set up in the film pays off in the sequences in deeply satisfying ways. Kirby downright steals the show in these scenes as she shows off her comedic chops, while off the train, Cruise performs some of the most stomach-churning stunt work ever committed to film. And that’s really what these films have become famous for; Tom Cruise risking actual life and limb for our entertainment.
It’s both terrifying and beautiful watching Cruise ride his bike off a cliff or parachute from a bridge, but his real skill is being so magnetic in smaller scenes when he’s making a key disappear or watching the sun set over Venice. He’s one of the last true Hollywood movie stars, and Dead Reckoning feels like one of the last remaining vehicles for such an actor. And that’s before he’s even gotten onto the train.
McQuarrie so expertly layers in thrills upon thrills—for instance, when the train eventually comes apart, it isn’t just the derailing that’s a threat. Each carriage poses new and unique mayhem. One sequence is set in the kitchen carriage, with boiling oil sloshing from the fryers. On the next carriage, upended now, is a piano hanging by a thread. It’s almost slapstick, and the way this film takes moments of suspense from the environment is truly brilliant.
Even if Dead Reckoning isn’t the best of the series, this final sequence might be the most outright impressive thing McQuarrie and his team have ever given us. The sheer bravado with which it’s executed is beautiful to behold. Further, the film actually benefits from ending on something of a cliffhanger that evokes Mission: Impossible‘s origins as a TV series.
Strangely, what’s most pleasing about Dead Reckoning Part One is that it doesn’t feel like the end. The stakes are high but they’re not weighing things down with the manufactured idea that everything must end for a final showdown. We know it isn’t the end, and by not keeping up this pretence the film feels nimble and light on its feet. The baggage from the past lends an air of gravity to the movie but never sinks it. Instead, Dead Reckoning zips along with a zeal that makes it hard to believe it’s the seventh in a series.
There is, of course, the question of where things will go in Part Two. But that’s a question for another day and Part One stands on its own. It feels both fully satisfying and tantalising, offering up a film that doesn’t reinvent the series but instead reminds us of why we loved it in the first place.
USA | 2023 | 163 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Christopher McQuarrie.
writers: Christopher McQuarrie & Erik Jendresen (based on the TV series by Bruce Geller).
starring: Tom Cruise, Hayley Atwell, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Vanessa Kirby & Henry Czerny.