2023 | PG-13 | starring Tom Cruise, Hayley Atwell, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Esai Morales, Henry Czerny, Vanessa Kirby, Pom Klementieff, Shea Whigham, Cary Elwes | directed by Christopher McQuarrie | 2h 43m |
Perhaps even my near-perfect 4.5 star score for the last Ethan Hunt outing, 2018’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout, was underrating the movie. Since then I’ve seen it more times than I can count and have held it up as an example of how to make this kind of action movie in a movie-making era that relies less and less on choreographed stunts, practical effects and simply producing a viceral thrill for the audience. It is the fully realized vision of a series that has been tinkering with it’s own style since the beginning, allowing different directors to put their stamp on it. A partnership between director Christopher McQuarrie and star/producer/stuntman Tom Cruise hitting it’s stride. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part One, the first part of the rumored final entry in the series, continues down the two-handed vision of McQuarrie and Cruise, shaping Ethan Hunt in to an American James Bond and Mission: Impossible into the adventure that franchises from Marvel to Indiana Jones can no longer raise a pulse with.
In a Russian submarine below the arctic circle, an AI program becomes sentient, attacks the sub, escapes and spreads across the world, infiltrating every global financial and intelligence-gathering system and making itself known. The only known way to shut it down is a key that leads to it’s now underwater mainframe that was washed up, divided in two and is now the subject of a massive black market bidding war to see which global super-power will control The Entity. Enter Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), hired by IMF head Kittridge (Henry Czerny) to rebuild his team (Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg) and retrieve the key, which bounces from assassin-for-hire Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), petty thief Grace (Hayley Atwell), an arms broker (Vanessa Kirby) and the man doing the AI’s bidding, Gabriel (Esai Morales).
Dead Reckoning didn’t send me out of the theater on the same action-movie visceral high that Fallout did, but it’s not for lack of trying. This movie is viciously, infectiously, entertaining. A straight-forward cheer the heroes big studio thrill ride with a smorgasbord of now-rare fight scenes and elaborately choreographed action set pieces that range from a bomb diffusing riddles to a tiny car chase across Rome to a Venice sword fight and a train-set grand finale. It’s a whose-who of returning characters from the series, with McQuarrie continuing Fallout’s streak of heavily homaging Brian DePalma’s original film. It’s a delight seeing Czerny back as Kittridge, particularly when he gets to interact with Vanessa Redgrave’s character’s daughter. The movie looks great, mostly, feels just right despite it’s almost 3 hour running time and has more broad comedy than anything else the series has attempted. The aforementioned Rome car chase feels like something out of A Shot in the Dark or a 40s screwball comedy. McQuarrie leans on his cinematic influences here so often that when Cruise rides a motorcycle over the hills and jumps a wall I’m not certain it isn’t a nod to The Great Escape or when Cruise and Atwell are handcuffed together and chased around that it isn’t a high tech update of The 39 Steps.
I appreciate that the film actually dials back from the series pattern of trying to top itself. Dead Reckoning doesn’t John Wick 4 us to death with wave after wave of numbing fight scenes but dials up the character intrigue, replacing the IMF team with it’s own team of regulars that pop up all through the adventure. Ethan’s friends and allies are a colorful assortment of thieves, assassins and arms dealers with their own ulterior motives that collide in a race for the prize. The story is also a clever twist on the formula. Instead of chasing down the latest bomb, Ethan is put up against his most worthy opponent yet, one to match his endless tenacity and resourcefulness – an unstoppable, all seeing, all knowing algorithm. In a world of deep fakes, and actors striking during the film’s release over their AI likenesses being used, it’s an uncharacteristically interesting story for a series usually driven by McGuffins.
With that full-throated recommendation, let’s talk about what doesn’t quite work here. What keeps Dead Reckoning from action movie bliss this series is always aiming for. It’s a case of being too clever by half or biting off more than it’s willing to chew. The story is actually interesting enough to wish their was more of it, but Mission: Impossible keeps things as vague and broad as possible so the widest possible audience can plug in their own ideas. This results in scenes where Rhames, Pegg, Czerny and Morales speak in absolute jibberish, describing The Entity in a cloud of lofty threatening language that doesn’t really say anything about what it can actually, tangibly, do and what the world’s governments will do when they get a hold of it. I would love to know why Gabriel is doing it’s bidding, how this happened and what are the plans for controlling it. Basically, I wish the AI was personified a bit more, the idea that an intelligence agency can’t trust it’s own intelligence is brilliant.
The other quibble is the way the film looks in those scenes. McQuarrie ditches the wide shots of Fallout and Rogue Nation for DePalma-esque close-ups and dutch angles. Shots that run counter to the movie’s ethos of showing us that all of the stunts are real. Mission: Impossible works best when it is shot as much like a stage play as possible, where the edits and camera work is less stylized and barely noticeable. This film is actually too stylized. With that, I also appreciated that there was no oh-so-trendy “single-take” action scene in the film – because we all know those are all fake anyway.
Any quibbles I have with the set-up are more than paid off in the film’s lengthy grand finale aboard the Orient Express. It’s one of the best action scenes put to film in recent history. Despite it’s promise of an incomplete story, Dead Reckoning Part One finds that balance of giving us a satisfying adventure and leaving it open for more. Tom Cruise can’t keep running forever so if Dead Reckoning Part 2 is truly the last of this excellent series then there is a good chance it still goes out on top.