Adrenaline-Filled Dead Reckoning Part One is a Mixed Bag of Mission: Impossible Tricks
Tom Cruise’s energetic pursuit to save the theatrical experience as we know it continues with Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, the seventh installment in a long-running series in which breathlessly eye-popping stunt work comes first and coherent storytelling is typically something of a minor afterthought. Other than the final act of 2006’s Mission: Impossible III, that latter element has never been too much of an issue, as the charismatic strength of each talented ensemble and the sheer mind-blowing chutzpah of the action scenes have been more than enough to smooth over any rough edges.
Director and co-writer Christopher McQuarrie returns for his fourth stint behind the camera, but having crafted a borderline action masterpiece with 2018’s Fallout, things do not work out quite as spectacularly this time around. Granted, that still makes this first half of an Impossible Mission Force (IMF) double-bill of derring-do and unbelievable escapades more entertaining than pretty much every other major Hollywood studio summertime spectacular not named Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. There are moments of adrenaline-filled brilliance here, and that’s no small thing.
The seams to all of this madness are starting to show, however. Ever since John Woo took up the reigns with 2000’s Mission: Impossible II, this series has been known for engineering its death-defying set pieces first and then attempting to cobble together a plot connecting them. McQuarrie and Cruise have made something of an art out of this, so it can’t help but be disappointing that they’ve dropped the ball — at least somewhat — here.
Part of that can be blamed on the pandemic. Thanks to COVID, this production had so many starts and stops, it’s almost a wonder it came out as well as it did. But there are additional storytelling missteps that have precious little to do with shutdowns and delays. Certain favorite characters are wasted. Returning faces from previous installments have precious little to do other than to wickedly sneer and offer up a bit of crowd-pleasing fan service.
But the biggest issue is that, even with an intriguing central idea involving an out-of-control artificial intelligence and the global pursuit by a suitably nasty cabal of villains to gain control of it, this ends up being one of the sillier, and frankly dumber, chapters in the ongoing adventures of IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise). There’s way too much exposition leading to several dead moments in the 163-minute sequel’s running time. For the first time in any Mission: Impossible, I found myself slightly bored, mostly during the film’s rather ponderous midsection.
I don’t want to talk too much about what happens, since, as unsurprising as the majority of the twists and turns may be, McQuarrie and company do still make a valiant attempt to play things fairly close to the vest to try and keep the audience sitting near the edge of their seat. The short version is that IMF pencil pusher Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny) has returned to duty and tasked Ethan to recover the two halves of a Russian key that will unlock unimaginable power for the government agency that holds it. Various baddies led by the bloodthirsty Gabriel (Esai Morales) do everything they can to keep this from happening, and the assassin and his crew are seemingly two steps ahead of Ethan and his operatives, no matter how unpredictable their plan of action may be.
Returnees include IMF agents Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), rogue former British intelligence spy Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), and mercurial international arms dealer The White Widow (Vanessa Kirby). Newcomers include Gabriel’s ferocious partner in mayhem Paris (Pom Klementieff), US intelligence operatives Briggs (Shea Whigham) and Degas (Greg Tarzan Davis), Director of National Intelligence Denlinger (Cary Elwes), and beguilingly clever international thief Grace (Hayley Atwell).
After two films where her character meticulously evolved to the point she became an essential staple of the series (as well as Ethan’s equal), Ferguson’s Ilsa is done dirty in Dead Reckoning. I don’t want to ruin exactly why that is, but her character deserves better. Ilsa becomes the one thing she never was in either Rogue Nation or Fallout: a stereotype. Ferguson remains as great as ever, and she’s certainly not phoning anything in. But dang, did her arc make me angry.
Thankfully the same can not be said for Atwell’s Grace. Similarities to Mission: Impossible II’s Nyah Hall notwithstanding, it’s safe to say I loved this character. Grace is a freewheeling sparkplug of creativity and enthusiasm, and it’s clear Atwell is having a grand time bringing her to life. She and Cruise have sensational chemistry, and every time they’re together, the film crackles with electricity.
Yet this franchise’s calling card remains the action, and while nothing in this installment is equal to Cruise’s scaling of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in Ghost Protocol or the helicopter craziness of Fallout, this doesn’t make the stunts any less stunning. It’s one masterfully executed set piece after another, everything building to a 40-or-so-minute stretch aboard a runaway train that has to be seen to be believed. All of it is incredible, every second so gosh darn thrilling, I almost forgot about how often the plot was coming perilously close to driving me up a wall.
There is a good chance that all of my misgivings and frustration will evaporate into the wind like they never existed when Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part Two hits theaters in the next year or so (the sequel has a June 28, 2024, release date scheduled, but I would expect that to get pushed out due to production delays caused by the current WGA strike). McQuarrie’s master plan is still something of a mystery, and how he ties these two halves together into a single whole does have my curiosity piqued.
Still, taken on its own, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is absolutely a mixed bag of tricks. The high points are stratospheric, but the low ones are frequently head-scratching. I was disappointed and elated in almost equal measure, and if not for that dazzling climax, I think my opinion would have significantly tilted toward the negative side of the Mission: Impossible coin.
But that’s not the case. Ethan Hunt hasn’t stopped running, yet, and even with all my misgivings, I’ll still be first in line to see where his heroic sprint to the finish ultimately ends.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)