As conflicted as I sometimes am about the Mission: Impossible movies, I really do look forward to each one. They’re always interesting, either for the elaborate action sequences or for what they tell us about producer-star Tom Cruise’s psyche. And having just watched number seven, Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning, Part One, I am pretty sure we’re witnessing something starting to break down. I just don’t know what it is.
Dead Reckoning, Part One was conceived as the first half of the last Mission: Impossible movie, one gargantuan epic that would bring together thirty years of stories and tie it all up, likely in triumphant-Top Gun: Maverick style rather than downbeat-No Time to Die style. Recent developments suggest this may no longer be the plan; the next film in the series – now coming in 2025 – will have an entirely different title, even though the nature of Dead Reckoning, Part One necessitates it being a direct sequel. A shocking change in strategy? Who could have predicted that?
The Entity, maybe. That’s the name given to the malevolent AI pulling all the strings in DRP1 – a sentient algorithm that could be hiding inside anything with a digital connection, tweaking our perceptions to change the very nature of truth, and therefore geopolitical power, whenever it likes. Its aims are nebulous at best – at least in this movie, all it seems to want to do is mess with Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, unleashing a heretofore unknown enemy called Gabriel (Esai Morales) on the entire Impossible Mission Force as the team tries to track down the two parts of a key that somehow promises control of the Entity, and the near-infinite power that would bring.
And why is it after Hunt? He’s the only person on Earth so pure of heart that rather than be tempted to use the Entity, he leaps directly to “nothing should be this powerful, I must kill it” – which is, I suppose, what one would do if one saw oneself as the most enlightened and intelligent person on the planet, which is certainly an image a highly valued member of a global cult might be encouraged to cultivate. (I did say these movies offer invaluable insight into Cruise’s head, in one way or another.) Ethan Hunt, a man who is at this point the sole senior operative of the IMF – which makes no sense given what we’ve seen of its organization and command structure in the past, but whatever – is determined to save the world from itself, once again.
In his third M:I feature, returning director Christopher McQuarrie structures this one as a trip down memory lane, with an assortment of faces from previous instalments. Ethan gets to work with his regular partners – Ving Rhames’ tech whiz Luther Stickell, Simon Pegg’s tech whiz-turned-field agent Benji Dunn, Rebecca Ferguson’s ever-supportive freelancer Ilsa Faust – while Henry Czerny reprises the role of Eugene Kittridge, a minor antagonist in the first Mission who’s now the director of the CIA, and Vanessa Kirby returns as the White Widow, daughter of the international arms dealer Vanessa Redgrave played in Czerny’s first outing.
With all the legacy characters running around, there wouldn’t seem to be much room for a new face – but that’s why it’s so endearing to see Hayley Atwell show up about an hour in as “Grace”, which is transparently not this person's real name. Whoever she is, she’s the world’s best pickpocket, and she’s been hired to retrieve that invaluable key before Ethan and his pals can acquire it. Since she’s only in it for herself, Grace cheerfully occupies the chaotic-neutral space on the DRP1 vision board. (Is that the right metaphor? This thing has a lot of moving parts.) Also, Pom Klementieff from Guardians of the Galaxy is around as one of the bad guys, an assassin of few words but many, many expressions, and she’s having a great time.
So, after all that setup, is Dead Reckoning, Part One any good? It is, in pieces: Individual sequences are strong, the stunt work is energetic and occasionally staggering, playing hard into the Tom Cruise Is Actually Doing This gimmick so its star can once again demonstrate his uncanny ability to survive his own death wish. Cruise-as-Ethan runs across an airport terminal in Abu Dhabi, speeds around Rome in a juiced-up Fiat (while handcuffed to Grace, no less), jumps a motorcycle off a mountaintop, runs atop a speeding train and then parkours his way through the cars of said train as it dangles over a disintegrating bridge, and so forth.
These set pieces all have an element of improvisation to them, reactivating Brad Bird's Ghost Protocol thesis that it’s much more fun to watch Ethan fumble to take back control of a disintegrating situation than it is to watch everything go exactly as planned. This also restores the series' spirit of play, which Rogue Nation and Fallout had very little room for. The handcuffed driving sequence is easily the loosest Cruise has allowed himself to be in a decade, playing off Atwell’s entirely understandable panic as a civilian trapped in a vehicle with this lunatic.
So yes, from moment to moment, Dead Reckoning, Part One isn’t bad. It’s very long – this absolutely did not need to run two hours and forty-three minutes, with half an hour of setup before the opening credits (!), and as the first half of a planned two-parter its very nature means its climax can’t land with the oomph it needs to, with Ethan and his pals completing their mission only to find another, even more complicated challenge awaits.
But the structure of this film does close on a more satisfying note than Dune: Part One, which rolled credits just as its story finally feels ready to start, or Fast X and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, which ended on actual cliffhangers.
Speaking of Fast X … well, at this point it may not be heresy to suggest Vin Diesel’s franchise is doing a better job of making gargantuan spy action-adventure movies than the actual Mission: Impossible series. Certainly they lean more into the dopier, giddier potential of a crack team of hyper-specialized professionals with limitless resources who zip around the world thwarting supervillains … and believe it or not, Dom Toretto’s ego doesn’t seem to need quite so much stroking as Ethan Hunt’s. DRP1 tops the “living manifestation of destiny” testimonial in Rogue Nation in an early scene where another high-ranking official who doesn’t particularly like Ethan tells a room packed with important people how brilliant, relentless and invaluable the guy is, to the point where (as mentioned above) Ethan Hunt effectively is the modern IMF.
And sure, Tom Cruise is absolutely the reason Mission: Impossible movies keep getting made, but he’s also 61 years old and finally showing his age – his face is puffy in a way it never was before, and the costuming decision that has Ethan running around Rome in a waistcoat and trousers makes him look fussy and anachronistic, somehow, like a Kenneth Branagh character who’s gotten lost on the way to the set. I get the sense Vin Diesel will know when it’s time to let someone else take the wheel, while Cruise seems to have no intention of departing with grace.
Paramount is releasing Dead Reckoning, Part One in separate 4K and Blu-ray editions, each with a bonus Blu-ray of special features; there’s also a special combo edition that packages all three platters in a slick red steelbook. The special features on the bonus Blu are surprisingly thin – just half an hour of production featurettes covering various locations and stunts, mostly celebrating Cruise’s commitment to doing his own gags – but I appreciate Paramount releasing them on a separate disc to give the movie as much space as possible, because the film looks fantastic from start to finish.
This is a beautiful 4K presentation, taking us from the interiors of a Russian submarine to a sandstorm in the Arabian desert, from the sunlit streets of Rome to a nightclub in Venice, with rich colors and a range of vivid visual textures. The digital noise that represents the Entity on computer displays has an alluring, uncanny movement all its own, and the Dolby Atmos soundtrack moves and swerves in perfect rhythm with the action on-screen, its activity even more interesting in those little silent flashbacks the series loves so much, when all diegetic sound drops away so the score can swell up in a memory. (A Dolby Digital 5.1 track of Lorne Balfe’s isolated score is one of the only extras on the feature disc, along with audio commentary by McQuarrie and editor Eddie Hamilton.)
So … yeah, it’s a reference disc, and if you’re a fan of the Mission: Impossible franchise you’ve probably already bought it. Thanks for reading, I guess?
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part One is now available from Paramount Home Entertainment in separate 4K and Blu-ray editions, and in that combo steelbook I mentioned.
In this weekend’s paid edition: Blue Beetle and Strays come to disc, and Arrow gives Peter Weir’s Witness a 4K overhaul. Upgrade that subscription so you don’t miss my pithy observations about talking dogs!