Most sequels operate under the Law of Diminishing Returns, but not the Mission: Impossible franchise, at least, not since Ghost Protocol. I enjoyed the first three well enough, but once Ghost Protocol hit, and with each entry since, this series has strived to top itself in spectacle, story, stunts, spontaneity, and sincerity.
Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie have the audience in their crosshairs, and their only target is to entertain us as much as possible. That doesn’t seem so difficult on paper, but each Mission: Impossible film seems more ambitious than the previous one, and Dead Reckoning Part One is no exception.
It was a smart move on the producers’ part to keep Christopher McQuarrie as director for his third entry in the series. The Mission: Impossible movies, at first, were a director’s franchise, with different talent at the helm every time, but these last three films have felt consistent in a way that benefits the storytelling and filmmaking on display.
Don’t get me wrong, the films before Rogue Nation all had something going for them — Brian De Palma’s precision, John Woo’s audacity, JJ Abrams’ meticulous plotting, Brad Bird’s earnestness – but McQuarrie and Cruise together have this magical chemistry that has all those qualities and brings them all together.
McQuarrie and Cruise’s collaboration gives these last three films a spark and a spirit that is, well, impossible to deny. They seem to push each other, complement each other, and serve the story as best they can by every means at their disposal.
Let’s get this out of the way at the jump: is Dead Reckoning Part One better than Fallout, the previous entry? That’s not an easy question to answer, and while right now, to me, Fallout edges Dead Reckoning slightly, who knows what subsequent viewings will bring?
The action of Fallout is relentless; when it came out, to me, Fallout seemed like a response to Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that builds story and character through its action, and Fallout felt like Cruise and McQuarrie becoming so excited by what Fury Road accomplished that they upped their ante in every possible way.
Whether or not they succeeded, who can say, but oh boy, it was a blast watching them try. Dead Reckoning‘s pleasures, although strong, aren’t as focused as Fallout‘s; if anything, Dead Reckoning seems like it’s picking up where Rogue Nation left off. While there are certainly audacious stunts and Cruise defies death just as spectacularly as ever, the spycraft and intrigue of Rogue Nation are more prevalent this time around. While there aren’t quite as many jaw dropping moments (again, it’s a slim margin), Dead Reckoning is just as full a meal as Fallout was, only with a different entrée on the menu.
Ethan Hunt becomes a more relatable character with each installment. Earlier in the franchise, I didn’t care much for Tom Cruise’s portrayal of Hunt, or maybe it was how Hunt was written on the page. He didn’t feel like a living, breathing person; instead, he was simply a catalyst for the plot. But, over the course of these films, or perhaps it’s because Cruise grew older and more nuanced, Hunt became more compelling as a character.
We aren’t given very many opportunities to see what makes Hunt tick; we aren’t privy to his origins, and we only see him in action, rarely in stillness. What we do know about him is that he has a fierce loyalty to his friends that supersedes his sense of duty. He is not willing to make the sacrifice play, at least where his friends and loved ones are concerned. That causes problems with Hunt and the upper brass that runs the Impossible Mission Force, and this time around, that includes former nemesis and boss Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny).
Hunt, along with Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames), is tasked with retrieving a mysterious key that unlocks the potential for some world-ending technology. Kittridge wants this technology out of the hands of other interested parties, but Hunt recognizes just how dangerous it is and wants to use the key to figure out a way to destroy it.
With multiple countries, organizations, and individuals interested in the tech, including the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), Hunt and his team must do everything in their power to find the key. This brings him back into the orbit of Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who Ethan cares for very much.
It also brings him in contact with Grace (Hayley Atwell), a very skilled thief tasked with retrieving the key for her enigmatic benefactor. Grace reminds Hunt of his own past, before becoming a member of the IMF. That past comes back to haunt Ethan, in the form of Gabriel (Esai Morales), a dangerous agent who knows just how to attack Ethan where it hurts.
The journey in search of the key takes Ethan and his team across the globe, fighting an enemy that can anticipate Ethan and his team’s every move, an enemy that is everywhere and nowhere – an enemy known simply as the Entity.
It’s best left to the movie to reveal the labyrinthine goals of the villain of Dead Reckoning, but recent events make that common science fiction trope not quite seem like science fiction anymore. It’s a bold swerve for the series, and in lesser hands it might have come across as ridiculous, but screenwriters McQuarrie and Erik Jendresen make it work through sheer will.
This gives Dead Reckoning Part One a timeliness that hasn’t really been a part of this franchise before, not at this level. It’s exciting and watching Hunt and the IMF team try to navigate this new world order gives us much of the film’s intrigue.
I’m most impressed with how Cruise, McQuarrie, Jendresen, the stunt crew, the producers, the camera operators, and the effects staff don’t craft these amazing set pieces just for the sake of spectacle. They manage to tell a story with them that makes every sequence count, and never feels gratuitous.
A foot chase through an airport, with so many spinning plates, becomes just as exciting as seeing Cruise jump several thousand feet in the air off a motorcycle, or driving a Fiat 500 through the streets of Venice in a Lupin/Hayao Miyazaki-inspired car chase. Each sequence has its own personality in this movie, and as part of the greater franchise, so it never feels like the series is repeating itself. That’s incredibly difficult to pull off, and with a summer of IP entertainment that too often feels like “Been there, done that,” I must give them credit where credit is due.
No one looks at these films for the performances, but this is my favorite outing of Cruise as Hunt so far. In Fallout, although he never said it in words, Hunt seemed to bump up against his age and a far more physically-intimidating opponent, and Hunt’s exasperation was palpable. This time, everything that Hunt has ever cared about is in danger, and by a villain that knows exactly where Hunt’s weaknesses lie.
Esai Morales’ Gabriel is a surgeon with a blade, but even worse is a zealot who utterly believes in his cause and may be the most dangerous foe that Ethan has ever faced. It’s a joy to see Morales on screen again; although he’s been considerably active as an actor, to have him front and center in a blockbuster like this is a welcome sight, and Morales leaves nothing on the floor. He’s a great bad guy, one of the best in the series.
Hayley Atwell’s Grace is a compelling addition to the franchise; through her, we see an Ethan Hunt without scruples, but also someone who has a good heart and wants to do the right thing, even if she is reluctant about it. Hunt recognizes his own unforged past in Grace, and how a nudge in the right direction could make her an invaluable ally.
It’s always a pleasure to see Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames again, but unfortunately they aren’t given as much to do in this installment except be Ethan’s support team. Still, they make the most of every moment. I’m a big fan of Rebecca Ferguson in these movies. She’s committed and as strong and as capable a character as we’ve seen in this series, and she and Cruise have a great chemistry together.
Also, a welcome return is seeing Henry Czerny as Kittridge again. He’s as smarmy as ever, and we never quite know where his loyalties lie, and Czerny shows us someone who knows how to push Ethan’s buttons. It was smart to bring him back for this, and he’s clearly having a lot of fun being back.
And, yes, while this is part one of a two-part story, rest assured this is a complete movie. It doesn’t end on a cliffhanger at the level of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, although there’s clearly more movie to go. Audiences will leave satisfied, and excited for whatever comes next. The two hours and 45 minutes flies by.
It’s a cliché, at this point, to say that this is the kind of movie they build theaters around. This has been a summer where it has often felt like the studios have given us entertainment that was built by focus groups and computer-generated plot algorithms, with no real joy or excitement – just numbers and charts on a balance sheet. And audiences can tell. You can’t hide it when a movie is disengaged from its audience.
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is not disengaged. It isn’t just giving the audience what it wants. It’s a film made by passionate people who remember just how exciting the movies used to be and could be again. This is the best action movie so far this decade, thrilling to the nth degree, and you should see it on the biggest screen possible.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – DEAD RECKONING PART ONE REVIEW SCORE: 9.5 OUT OF 10
Paramount Pictures will release Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One in theaters on July 12, 2023. The film is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some language and suggestive material.