The Summer movie season once again finds actor/producer/daredevil Tom Cruise pushing himself to physical limits for our entertainment in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. In the realm of spectacle, this film delivers grand set pieces with a proportionally high rate of physical stunts being performed. However, I did get a sense that this mission (which I chose to accept) had more room for improvement than usual, considering how these films have only gotten bigger and better over the years. Seven entries in, and it would be understandable why it could be hard to top oneself each time over in a series defined by the hero pulling off impossible missions. Still, even with whatever issues I may have, Cruise, director/co-writer Christopher McQuarrie, and his crew have plenty of control over how to please audiences on the big screen.
An elaborate prologue sets the stage. A powerful artificial intelligence device known as “The Entity” has become self-aware and has a powerful terrorist in its corner. This is Gabriel (Esai Morales), a man with a shared history with IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise). Hunt’s mission is to locate the two keys that, when combined, can be used to shut down The Entity. He’ll have the usual support from his team and trusted allies (Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, and Rebecca Ferguson), along with the reluctant help of Grace (Hayley Atwell), a pickpocket who has found herself caught between opposing forces. As usual, Hunt’s ways of going off book have also brought him to the attention of others who want to bring him in, including Shea Whigham’s government-appointed enforcer, Jasper Briggs, and Henry Czerny’s Eugene Kittridge, the former IMF director, returning for the first time to this series since the 1996 franchise opener.
It could be that I’m loading up this synopsis with a lot of information, but that’s mainly because the film also does that from the start. Much like 2018’s Fallout, so much exposition is put forward at the beginning (seemingly to the point of intentional self-parody) to make the stakes clear and let the rest of the film run through other routines involving shifting alliances, elaborate chase sequences, and eventual showdowns all for the sake of Ethan having to get some device before a different thing happens that could ruin a lot of lives. Perhaps it’s more complicated than that, but outside of the topical flavoring (A.I. could be taking over!), so much of the film continues to be equal parts an excuse for wild action scenes and a meta examination of where Tom Cruise is in his career.
In regards to the action – Dead Reckoning Part One largely delivers. A wide variety of set pieces show off the locations this crew went to, the kinds of action this movie intends to deliver, and the clear difficulty involved in capturing it all on film. While I can’t help but feel I’ve seen variations of most of this at some point already this year, I’m not exactly going to knock just how well-crafted the majority of these sequences are. A desert chase on horseback amid a sandstorm is visually superb. A one-handed car chase through Rome (you’ll see) featuring opposites regarding the sizes of the vehicles looks logistically complicated yet impressive. And then there are fist fights in narrow alleys, knife fights on the tops of trains, and that big motorcycle/parachute sequence that’s been all over the advertising for over a year.
With all of that said, it’s frustrating to note that a climactic set piece feels more artificial than I would expect from a Mission: Impossible movie. Without getting into detail, suffice it to say that while I understand the complications regarding the setting, when the environments feel so obviously CG, it does have a way of bringing down the intended excitement of a sequence when everything around it has a palpable tension. Does it ruin the film? Of course not, but it leads to other questions regarding a more tenuous production than usual.
Dead Reckoning Part One was notably filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Combined with the admitted level of improvisation that comes with McQuarrie’s choice to design set pieces first and fully flesh out the script during production, it does feel like the limitations could be detected. Whether or not it’s due to how many locations could be utilized or the availability of certain actors, sequences that pile together multiple characters into a room and deliver perfunctory dialogue have the film feeling less nuanced than usual. While I do think the movie handles being “Part One” of a two-part story reasonably well (this movie has a beginning, middle, and end), it does feel as though the writing has suffered a bit by way of crude shortcuts that had me questioning the logic more than I felt comfortable with.
On top of that, there are some strange issues that I believe the mileage will vary on for viewers. One is that I simply wasn’t a big fan of how the character Grace was written. Atwell is delivering as needed, but her character’s choices felt more driven by what the plot required as opposed to what I’m supposed to be taking away from what I’ve learned about this individual. Add to that a bit of a missing link to service more of what Cruise’s Ethan feels about her, and it makes me hope “Part Two” will fill in some gaps.
The other thing is how much this film loves Cruise. It’s a weird point, but there does seem to be a change-up on what the Impossible Mission Force stands for, at least regarding Ethan Hunt. Without explaining things in full, it seems more reflective than usual of how aware these films are of everything the A-list superstar stands for, for better or worse. That can be interesting in a movie that’s engaging with how Cruise is dedicated to the ones on his side in this film and in real life. However, in a long movie focused on spycraft and the most enormous action deliverable for a grounded adventure series, I felt I was being asked to take certain leaps that could have used more polishing.
All of this is to say that while Dead Reckoning Part One can be pretty thrilling from moment to moment, it felt as though there was room for tightening, clarifying, and delivering more justification for the various plot threads holding this very entertaining film together. This stems from how high of a standard I have for this franchise, at this point, because of what Cruise and McQuarrie have been consistently bringing to the table since 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (a Brad Bird-directed film, with McQuarrie coming in for significant rewrites).
If there’s a desire to read more about all the great things this film offers, I can deliver that too. First of all – Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is a lot of fun, no doubt. As much tension and suspense as there can be in desperate moments involving Ethan’s odds against his survival, there is still all the playful antics one can expect from these films. That comes from Cruise’s willingness to act a bit goofy occasionally, gadgets not working, the timing of specific plans being off, and the solid support from Rhames, Pegg, and Atwell, who are all mixing information and humor.
Ferguson also continues to shine, having become a key figure in this series. She represents an equal to Ethan, who is both freer as well as constantly in more jeopardy from those coming after her. It’s impressive how much of an emotional throughline she’s become for the series (and seemingly many of its fans). The steeliness of the character is certainly part of it, along with the continued thread of her being a femme fatal type for a high-tech age. Dead Reckoning Part One allows more of what she and Cruise have together the time to play out in appropriate ways.
The rest of the cast delivers as needed. Czerny is welcome in his return, having an expanded role in helping justify and take on Ethan’s antics. Morales is a good enough threat that I wish would be capitalized on more (and may or may not be in Part Two). The return of Vanessa Kirby’s shifty black-market arms dealer is also fun. However, a big sequence involving her character also left me with more questions than answers. Regardless, there’s a lot to work with in this film, and it ultimately operates on delivering a highly entertaining experience for the audience.
If I’m grading Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One on a harsher curve, so be it. There’s nothing in me to say this film doesn’t deserve to be seen on a huge screen, let alone in IMAX. It absolutely should be. Cruise may have (kinda) saved cinemas last year with Top Gun: Maverick, and his continued dominance over what aspirations blockbuster films should have is certainly notable. Could the ambitions just may not have matched what was possible under this film’s production circumstances? That is possibly the case, but with another entertaining entry completed and Part Two arriving next year (maybe), having more Mission: Impossible in theaters has remained a cinematic joy.