Mission Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One solidifies 2023 as, quite possibly, the best summer ever for “Part One” franchise entries, alongside the amazing Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and the silly fun Fast X. Tom Cruise is back as Ethan Hunt as are the IMAX-sized stunts, director Christopher McQuarrie, returning stars Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, and Ving Rhames, as well as newcomers Hayley Atwell, Pom Klementieff and Esai Morales. If it can’t match the heights of the previous installment (2018’s Fallout), that’s really just nitpicking. Beyond filmmaker Chad Stahelski’s flat-out masterpiece of action, John Wick: Chapter 4, the latest adventure for the Impossible Mission Force is thus (embarrassingly) merely the second-best action film of the year.
The last two films featured the series’ best villain, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). So who would Cruise and McQuarrie dream up to challenge Ethan Hunt for a two-parter? The answer, it turns out, is not a who at all but a what: a rogue A.I. known as “The Entity” couldn’t be more timely. An extended opening charts a doomed submarine whose crew is testing out a new form of stealth. After acquiring this new ability, The Entity proves just how deadly a learning machine can be. It’s a wonderfully clever turn for the A.I. to go “rogue,” as that has been Ethan’s MO for the past three decades.
On a thematic level, Hunt and his team are on a quest to save the world from deep fakes, misinformation, and the end of humans controlling the planet. On a plot level, like many action/adventure films, this entails everyone on the “hunt” for two pieces directly related to The Entity. (Not so different from the latest Indiana Jones.). With the stakes as high as ever, the race is on.
The Mission: Impossible franchise has smartly tapped into each particular era’s fears. A deadly virus in M:I2, the Syndicate’s aim to end society in Rogue Nation, and the always reliable nuclear bomb threat (three in Fallout) are all staples of Hunt, Bond, and Bourne flicks.
By now, it’s well-known the scripts for each new “mission” are designed around the well-precisioned set pieces, not pesky things like character or plot. That’s not to say the characters and stories aren’t also quite strong. Writers McQarrie and Erik Jendrsen (HBO’s Band of Brothers) are 100% invested in every aspect, so we care. And unlike the also likable team in the Fast & Furious series, the humor among the cast pretty much works 100%. The plots might get convoluted, but all of it is held together seemingly by Tom Cruise’s unwavering desire to entertain global audiences like no other Hollywood star. And, of course, the incredibly talented team in front and behind the cameras.
At 2 hours and 43 minutes, the pacing can feel top-heavy occasionally. To be fair, each new installment keeps adding more stars in memorable roles. Without spoiling, I think Ferguson’s fan-favorite character, Ilsa Faust, is frustratingly underused. Part of it makes sense the way the story is structured, but regardless, Ferguson continues to deliver the goods emotionally and via her own physicality. The rest of the returning cast are each given good beats too. Since his debut in Mission: Impossible 3, I’m shocked I’ve never grown tired of Simon Pegg’s wisecracking hacker Benji. Likewise, Ving Rhames’ Luther has remained the heart of the series.
Shot with IMAX cameras for the ginormous moments, the story zooms across several continents. A crowded Dubai airport, a runaway train on the Orient Express (with a nice nod to Naughty Dog’s classic video game, Uncharted 2), a foot chase in Venice, and one with cars in Rome. The car chase, in particular, shows off the series’ excellent balance of thrill and humor as Ethan and new to the scene Grace (Atwell) must both pursue and evade in a hilariously tiny automobile. The intensity rises alongside the jokes as Grace, though a master thief, is not a driver on the level of Hunt. (I mean, really, who is?) To top it off, the pair are handcuffed. It’s always been a staple of the series that just because you’re great at A doesn’t mean you can do B. Even Hunt has his limitations to a degree. What’s always so impressive is just how well director Christopher McQuarrie balances these characters.
The film’s MVP (beyond Cruise, obviously) is by far Hayley Atwell. Cruise has nearly always had strong, compelling female co-stars, but Atwell is the most successful at the playful banter since Emily Blunt (in Edge of Tomorrow). Even though Atwell’s starred in the MCU, she’s never quite blown up as a star. Here’s hoping the second time’s the charm for the British actress. Whether it’s a nervous glance when Hunt asks Grace if he trusts her or going toe-to-toe with him as an expert person of sleight of hand, Atwell is consistently compelling. Grace is the best audience stand-in to date. She can be overwhelmed in one moment and rolling her eyes the next. The charisma she brings is delightful.
Another MCU alum (does Cruise watch those movies? Of course he does), Guardians of the Galaxy’s Pom Klementieff, makes for smart casting against type. Unlike the wide-eyed, kind Mantis persona, in this film, Klementieff acts as the (mostly) silent French assassin, Paris. She’s menacing yet exudes a soul. And it has to be said, she has the best attire, quite possibly, of the entire series.
Vanessa Kirby’s return as the White Widow is more fleshed out this time, with one whole sequence allowing the actress to get in on the kind of fun only offered in this series. Additionally, Esai Morales’ villainous terrorist, Gabriel, is charming enough for a bad guy with a connection to Hunt’s past. I could go on about the efforts of this cast, but really, several paragraphs in, it’s time to dive (with a motorcycle!) into the stunts and action.
The much-hyped motorcycle ride off a cliff (shot in Norway) into a paraglide is incredibly exciting. Will the series ever top Ghost Protocol’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper climbing sequence? Doubtful. Still, one can’t help but admire how Cruise and his exceptionally talented stunt coordinators keep pushing the limits. Even more impressive is McQarrie’s masterful way of weaving the action and suspense, from hand-to-hand combat to a vertical train wreck.
Even though the stunts have always been the series’ calling card, several other sequences are quite stellar. The aforementioned Venice foot chase scene raises the tension by showing how clever The Entity can be. Ethan and his team are tops in their specific roles, but an all-knowing A.I. can easily outmaneuver them.
As a Part One, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning feels more complete and more like a full meal (a nearly three-hour one!) than Fast X and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. Like Avengers: Infinity War or even The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I’m quite satisfied knowing Part Two will be released next year. In the meantime, I can’t wait to see this latest installment again. I salute you, Mr. Tom Cruise, for allowing me to accept yet another terrific mission.