MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -
DEAD RECKONING PART ONE
2023, PG-13, 163 mins.
Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt / Hayley Atwell as Grace / Ving Rhames as Luther Stickell / Simon Pegg as Benjamin 'Benji' Dunn / Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust / Vanessa Kirby as The White Widow / Henry Czerny as Eugene Kittridge / Esai Morales as Gabriel / Pom Klementieff as Paris / Cary Elwes as Denlinger / Shea Whigham as Jasper BriggsDirected by Christopher McQuarrie / Written by McQuarrie and Erik Jendresen
Your mission - if you choose to accept it - is to acknowledge that MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE just might be the finest movie franchise in history and that star Tom Cruise is easily the most fanatically committed showman working in the industry.
I don't think that this is a hyperbolic proposition.
Ever since it started way, way back in 1996 with the Brian De Palma directed series introductory chapter (based, many forget, on the classic TV series of the same name), the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE cinematic brand has been churning out one solid installment after another through the late 90s and early 2000s until it inexplicably hit a qualitative high point four films in with 2012's game changing GHOST PROTOCOL (maybe the best fourth film in movie series history). That Brad Bird helmed affair then begat the even better ROGUE NATION (which introduced Christopher McQuarrie into the creative fold as writer/director) that - ahem! - impossibly built towards an even better sequel in FALLOUT. This simply doesn't happen. Blockbuster franchises never, ever are this good and this deep into sequels, or get better as they move along. There's simply not a bad one in the lot here.
Hell, not even STAR WARS can make that claim.
Maybe MAD MAX can...but not many other properties.
And let's not forget the limitless go-getter that is Cruise (also serving as series producer), who has now through four decades of his life portrayed IMF agent Ethan Hunt and - as each sequel has demonstrated - has courageously (or some would say crazily) dedicated himself to one death defying stunt after another that puts most other action stars to shame. He made a pointed effort to do these stunts without CG trickery or a stunt double. Remember him scaling mountains in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II? Or (my favorite) holding on to dear life outside of the world's tallest building in GHOST PROTOCOL? Or holding his breath for an ungodly amount of time in ROGUE NATION? Or dangling himself off of a cargo jet taking off from a runway in FALLOUT? I could go on and on. What does this man do for an encore on his latest mission, DEAD RECKONING? How about driving a motorcycle off of an insanely steep cliff, flinging himself off said bike, and then free falling to catch up with a train, at which point he opens up his parachute and safely lands on it.
Cruise is 61 years old now.
Think about that.
I could have heard a pin drop in my cinema screening during this nerve-jangling and exhilarating sequence in DEAD RECKONING. It's astounding to consider that this seventh installment tries to find ways to up the ante in its action set pieces and deliver what fans want. With an estimated budget of nearly $300 million (the most for any film in this series, also making it one of the most expensive films ever made), McQuarrie and Cruise set their ambitions preposterously high in their third mission together, and this sequel has the unenviable task of following up the high benchmark effort that was FALLOUT directly before. Having said that, I'm somewhat sad to report that DEAD RECKONING: PART 1 is a bit of a mixed bag effort coming off of the tremendous good will of the last three films. It's way too padded and long, has a somewhat underwritten and underwhelming villain, and suffers from some pacing issues. I guess it proved inevitable that this series couldn't hold on to its momentum this far, but that's not to say that this isn't a solid sequel overall. It still wholly delivers on its desired core elements and Cruise remains the unswerving ringmaster of all of this espionage mayhem.
On a positive, it's great that this MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE effort serves as a continuation of solid story arcs that have been brewing since McQuarrie took over two films ago. In its early stages, this series was more distinctly episodic and each sequel had its own unique aesthetic and storylines to make them stand apart from one another. The mythology building narrative of ROGUE NATION has successfully been enhanced and expanded upon, reaching a culmination point in DEAD RECKONING while, at the same time, having bridging material that ties this sequel directly back to the 1996 original. Speaking of that first film, shady IMF director Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny) makes his presence felt early in DEAD RECKONING (he hasn't been seen M:I-1) with a new dangerous assignment for Ethan and his impossible mission force. In a rather timely bit of scripting, it's revealed that an all-powerful A.I. program has gone rogue (in a potent opening sequence, this self-aware computer entity sinks a Russian sub that was testing this tech built into it). The world's superpowers, obviously enough, need to control this A.I. before it gets even more unfathomably powerful, but the only way to assume control and/or disable it is via a key made of two distinct pieces (when combined, it looks a lot like a crucifix). One of the key pieces appears to be with Hunt's former ally (and kind of, but kind of not romantic partner) Ilsa Faust (the incredible Rebecca Ferguson), and after a daring raid in the heart of the Arabian desert, Ethan manages to obtain the key from her.
But as for the other key piece? It's apparently out there and about to be sold on the black market, which leads to Ethan and his team - Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg) - trying to intercept the piece during a tense sequence in a Dubai airport. It appears that other nefarious forces want this key as well, including Gabriel (Esai Morales), a viscous mercenary that has a dark past with Ethan himself. Ethan also crosses paths with a skilled globetrotting pickpocket artist, Grace (series newcomer Hayley Atwell), who inadvertently finds herself caught between all of these various power players on both sides. Complicating matters for Ethan and company is that they're being hunted as rogue agents by two other intelligence officers (one of them played by the always solid Shea Whigham), not to mention a deadly and silent assassin (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY's Pom Klementief, genuinely chilling here). If that were not enough, the always morally thorny White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) makes her own presence felt to spoil the progress of Ethan's already heavily taxed mission.
This is the first time that a MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE sequel has dug itself deeply into a pure sci-fi premise with this MacGuffin A.I. (which, I forgot, is dubbed "The Entity"). Clearly, there's an undeniable meta quality about this film's man versus machine themes and its discourse on the dangers of A.I. when multiple professional strikes are occurring in the movie industry right now regarding the perils of movies and TV shows using computers instead of flesh and blood people (granted, this movie was shot well before this). Nevertheless, The Entity adds a whole new level of danger for Ethan and his squad, and you know that you're in trouble when even the unparalleled tech-savvy of Luthor and Benji are no match for this program. It's thoroughly compelling - in series retrospect - to consider that the Internet was barely a fully formed entity in its own right when M:I-1 opened 27 years ago and now the heroes are batting against A.I.. As also alluded to earlier, DEAD RECKONING makes concentrated efforts to blend back into that first Ethan Hunt adventure, with Czerny's joyously greasy-minded IMF head making a fantastic return here. It's a testament to Czerny how he never appears to have missed a performance beat as Kittridge after such a long absence from the role. His character is always on this ethereal loyalty pendulum. You just never know what side he'll end up on. One of the pleasures of DEAD RECKONING is seeing Kittridge return to engage in a never-ending mind-game battle with Ethan.
This sequel also boasts several other inspired newcomers, like the aforementioned Whigham as his increasingly exasperated field agent who just can't seem to find a way to capture Ethan. Also great is Klementieff's Joker-painted, mostly mute assassin that's an incredibly far cry away from the infectiously likeable hero she played in the MCU. Here, she crafts a thoroughly frightening and unhinged killer that will stop at nothing to end the lives of Ethan and his team. Perhaps the finest addition to the cast is the always classy Atwell as her ambitious-minded thief that gets in way over her head while caught between Ethan and Gabriel's pursuit to control The Entity. I only wished, though, that Morales (a strong actor in his own right) had been given a meatier character to play in his somewhat undercooked villain. He looks and inhabits the part with a flamboyantly dangerous panache, but overall the film pains to make him a memorably unstable and intimidating antagonist. And if one considers the truly unforgettable wackos that have dominated this series (like Dougray Scott's unstable menace in M:I-II or the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman's quiet spoken sociopath terrorist in M:I-3 - still the most underrated sequel of the bunch), it's clear that Morales is not in the same league with his baddie.
Perhaps most disheartening of all is this film's handling of Ilsa herself, who emerged as a crown jewel character in this series when introduced in ROGUE NATION and has been further established as a major player in this evolving story ever since. It's not that she's given nothing to do in DEAD RECKONING, but rather how her arc is handled here. She does have a remarkably staged action sequence set on a picturesque Venice bridge bathed in moonlight as she battles it out with Gabriel in a beautifully choreographed sword fight. Ferguson has always brought such grace and presence to this role, and her simmering chemistry with Cruise through three films remains as charged as ever. Unfortunately, McQuarrie simply doesn't afford this great character much personal involvement in this film's already massive 163 minute runtime, which left a real sour taste in my mouth. In regards to the film's length, DEAD RECKONING arguably has no business being this self-indulgently long, especially when it's clear that we're getting a direct Part 2 follow-up soon after. I've rarely felt that any of the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE films have been dull, but there are chunks of this film - in the early stages - that features a lot of exposition dumping by multiple characters, which may inspire watch checking. There are multiple long gaps between rousing action setpieces that can grind the film to a halt. The MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE films should be nail-biting and intense, but not unpleasantly exhausting to sit through. I felt fatigued going into this film's closing stretches.
But, to be fair, when McQuarrie hurtles us through the action beats, DEAD RECKONING is in unmitigated beast mode. Just when you think this series can't possibly come up with novel scenarios for Ethan to get himself out of, this sixth sequel manages - someway and somehow - to find a way to continually thrill us. There's a superbly rendered chase sequence featuring Ethan and Grace awkwardly handcuffed while the former is driving a tiny yellow Fiat away from multiple assailants in hot pursuit through Rome. It's a stunningly imaginative and thrilling setpiece that manages to work so much better than a similar one in the recently released FAST X. I also greatly admired an early shootout in the desert, which is a great change of series pace as far as locations go, not to mention a series of extended hand-to-hand fights breaking out between Hunt's team and Gabriel's in the lushly nocturnal Venice streets and canals. Of course, DEAD RECKONING hits its absolute jaw-dropping stride with Cruise's preposterously dangerous motorcycle jump/free dive towards a speeding locomotive in the film's bravura climax (of anything that the aging star has attempted, this is probably his most dangerous outside of holding onto the side of an in-flight plane). You also know that there's no way that this train will ever stay on the tracks in a MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE film.
I've run out of superlatives when describing Cruise's willingness to put life and limb on the line for the sake of his art - and to simply wow and entertain viewers. Are his daredevil antics hopelessly irresponsible and nuttier than a fruitcake at this stage in his life? For sure. Do I marvel at them with childlike glee? You betcha. On those levels, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -DEAD RECKONING is on as solid ground as any of its predecessors. And considering that this is a Part One affair, McQuarrie thankfully infuses his film with a beginning, middle, and end (well, mostly end) that makes this sequel feel complete and self-contained while leaving us in a state of genuine anticipation for what's to come next (no annoyingly abrupt cliffhanger finale here, folks). Still, I have to acknowledge that maybe this franchise is struggling a bit to maintain its high pedigree after the upper echelon peak of FALLOUT (and the two sequels that preceded it). It's too bloated and undisciplined in spots and is a lesser installment overall. Does it derail this seemingly unstoppable juggernaut property? Hardly. Cruise has publicly stated that he wants to play this character well into his elderly years and is open to anything.
The only thing the actor hasn't done on film is to be blasted into space.
I reckon that'll be in the next MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE.