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Review: "Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One" is pure action movie magic
7 movies, 27 years, and a franchise that's still on top
Ethan Hunt is a fan of magic tricks. We learned this way back in the first Mission: Impossible film from 1996, in a delightfully goofy scene where a baby-faced Tom Cruise confuses and outwits Jean Reno’s turncoat spy character by playing sleight-of-hand with a data disc like he’s a street magician. Cruise and writer/director Christopher McQuarrie bring back Ethan’s predilection for trickery as a recurring motif in the franchise’s latest installment, Dead Reckoning Part One; seeing his own gift for sleight-of-hand chicanery mirrored in the film’s new co-lead, Hayley Atwell’s in-over-her-head thief Grace, is what makes Ethan think there might be the spark of a future IMF agent under her capricious exterior. Their mutual aptitude for pickpocketing and keep-away is the throughline on which the entire film moves, and it’s an apt motif to build the action around. This entire series, after all, is in and of itself one big bag of magic tricks.
Case in point: Here we have another “Part One” in Hollywood’s renewed trend of multi-part franchise films – see also Dune, Fast X, and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse – and yet it’s hard to imagine any viewer walking out less than wholly satisfied (and not just because this is the only one of these movies honest enough to announce itself as “Part One” in its title and marketing). This is a Mission: Impossible that revolves around chasing not just a MacGuffin, but a literal key – what it unlocks we do not learn until near the end of the pushing-three-hours run-time – and yet nothing about the movie or the motivations of its characters ever feels thin. Seven films and 27 years deep, Dead Reckoning manages to deliver one of the smartest and most soulful entries yet, filled with all the deliriously creative action one has come to expect from McQuarrie’s direction, but also imbued with a degree of tension, atmosphere, and weight unlike anything we’ve seen from the franchise before; there’s a little bit of existential sadness here, an awareness of the inevitable finality of even a series as remarkable as this one, that makes everything just that much more riveting. ‘Magic’ really might be the only word for it.
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Ethan’s sleight-of-hand skills aren’t the only things Cruise and McQuarrie lift from the original Mission: Impossible, the one directed by New Hollywood icon Brian De Palma. Dead Reckoning also brings back Henry Czerny as Eugene Kittridge, the antagonistic IMF bureaucrat who may be the most memorably eerie of Ethan’s various institutional foes (he’s as great here as he was there, reprising the role nearly three decades later without missing a beat). More importantly, McQuarrie shakes the look and feel of his film up with a series of stylistic tics that nod to De Palma’s efforts on that first film; most conversations are shot in Dutch angles of varying extremity, and shot-reverse-shot scenes sometimes play out with disorienting jump cuts changing the on-screen position of faces, or with intentional breaks in the 180-degree-rule of spatial relations. Combined with the darker tone and slower, more methodical pace – also callbacks to De Palma’s 1996 film – Dead Reckoning wrings a great deal of tension out of even the simplest dialogue or expository scenes. It’s often unsettling, a sense of pervasive disquiet creeping in around the edges, of the world being a bit out of balance, the gravitational axis out-of-whack.
It’s effective, and McQuarrie’s careful command of tone means that while this is the longest Mission: Impossible yet – and for what is only the first half of a two-part experience, no less – it never feels anything less than arresting. The film earns its length not necessarily through narrative complexity – though there is a bit more going on here than in most films in the series, more players assembled and higher stakes established – but simply because scenes play out longer, and with greater complexity. McQuarrie constructs a few intricate clockwork spycraft scenes here, including an early standout sequence at an airport and a second-act pursuit through a maze-like Venice at night, that have a huge number of moving parts, multiple inter-cutting planes of action that are all interdependent, each reminding me of the virtuosity of the first film’s best sequence, the team’s break-in at the CIA headquarters in Langley. The Mission: Impossible franchise hasn’t done another scene quite like that one in the years since, save perhaps the incredible opera set-piece in Rogue Nation, McQuarrie’s first at-bat, and one can feel McQuarrie’s enthusiasm at stretching his legs and trying on a different kind of thriller construction here.
Of course, when it comes to the massive, wildly inventive stunt-driven action McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible entries have excelled at, don’t worry: Dead Reckoning doesn’t skimp. There’s a car chase in Rome involving Cruise and Atwell handcuffed together in a tiny yellow Fiat, and it has all the delirious creativity and note-perfect timing of a great piece of animation; in fact, it heavily reminds me of several such scenes in various Lupin the 3rd anime, and not just because Lupin, too, often drives a yellow Fiat. The film’s impossibly impressive climax aboard a train in the Alps is just an absurdly accomplished piece of showmanship, culminating in an escape sequence that’s equal parts Uncharted and James Cameron’s Titanic, and might be the most edge-of-my-seat breathless I’ve ever felt watching one of these movies. Cruise’s big jump on the bike off a mountain – the image that’s been at the center of all the film’s marketing – is indeed an amazing visual, but it lands so well because Cruise and McQuarrie treat it like, well, a magic trick. They set up an impossible situation for Ethan, but in such a way that the audience is cued in on its equally impossible solution – if you’ve got a fast bike, a parachute, and a tall mountain, there’s only so many ways this can play out – and the realization of what’s coming is half the fun. Cruise and McQuarrie are master showmen here, milking the anticipation for all its worth – and then delivering more boldly than you’d dare to expect.
One of the keys to this franchise’s longevity has been its ever-expanding roster of rotating players – every film since the third has introduced at least one major figure who’s stuck around long-term – and Dead Reckoning is no exception. In addition to the franchise anchor-points that are Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames (both excellent here, the latter in particular given more to do than he has since the third film), we get Vanessa Kirby back again, with a much-expanded role from her appearance in Fallout, and while my personal favorite team member, Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust, isn’t a particularly major player here (Ferguson is awful busy these days, as a person so talented should be), she makes every minute count; the easy chemistry she and Cruise have together is a thing of beauty, and always surprisingly humanizing for the franchise’s sometimes-aloof star. We get a whole raft of newcomers here too, with Pom Klementieff as a hired assassin, first making an impression through her remarkable physical performance, then by giving her character a real soul – she’s terrific. Shea Whigham, who is the kind of character actor you can plop into just about any situation and watch sparks quietly fly, is particularly excellent as the poor agent tasked with bringing in Ethan Hunt; an assignment doomed to failure, but then, few are better at playing Sisyphean figures than Whigham.
Most of the Mission: Impossible entries pair Cruise off with one major co-star as the film’s co-lead – like Ferguson in Rogue Nation or Henry Cavill in Fallout – and Dead Reckoning does this with Hayley Atwell, who is of course a remarkable screen presence in her own right, and more than up to the task of swapping movie star energy with Cruise. More importantly, though, Grace is a different kind of character than we’ve seen before in these films: a protégée. It’s all part of this film’s efforts to tie the franchise back around full circle, to create a sort of grand unified theory of both Ethan Hunt – who gets hints of a dark origin story here – and the IMF itself, whose structure is explicated in a way that’s absolutely inconsistent with past films, but wholly in line with the themes of this one, and with the kinds of character dynamics the series has always had its greatest success with.
‘Themes’ is actually a word I find myself feeling a little surprised to break out in discussing a Mission: Impossible film, not because these films aren’t intelligent or substantive, but because their smarts and substance generally lie in the craftsmanship with which they create such imaginative, tactile entertainment. Dead Reckoning tics all those boxes, of course, but it is in all ways a touch more ambitious, wanting to take this world and these characters and make them all a bit more coherent and substantial, to make the time invested on the journey feel all the more rewarding. There is an affinity here with last year’s smash hit Top Gun: Maverick, in that Cruise is undiminished as an action star while also allowing himself to play at least some of his age. Ethan wears his mileage on his face in this one, and there’s a sad weariness that creeps into the performance, never to overwhelm or bog things down, but to make Hunt, like Maverick before him, a flesh-and-blood person susceptible to time and mortality. As in the Top Gun sequel, it works wonders – this is probably the best acting Cruise has delivered in the series so far, a reminder that before he was the world’s last real movie star, he was also a damn good actor.
I also like that Ethan just fully goes ‘stateless’ in this film, divorced from the US government and in fact working against the interests of nation-states around the world. The Big Bad this time around isn’t a person, but an algorithm, an AI that’s gained sentience and a taste for blood and power – in another Lupin the 3rdcomparison, Ethan going up against a super-computer that can predict his every move is the exact plot of dozens of episodes/movies/specials from the Lupin canon, several of which we’re discussing on this season of Japanimation Station – and I like the moral clarity with which both Ethan and the film tackle the threat, each saying in no uncertain terms that this tool in the hands of any government, even or especially the United States, would be dystopian. This is the rare Hollywood actioner that has a character straight up name-check the American industrial complex, and means us to understand that as a very scary thing indeed. Here, Dead Reckoning is an interesting counterpoint to Top Gun: Maverick, where the enemy was stateless and the heroes were agents of that very same military industrial complex. Tom Cruise giveth and Tom Cruise taketh away, at least where jingoism is concerned.
Lorne Balfe’s musical score is a delight, as it was in Fallout – in fact, the Mission: Impossible series has always had remarkably good music, from a series of first-rate composers (Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, Michael Giacchino, and the lesser-known Joe Kraemer, whose work on Rogue Nation might actually be the best of all of them). But Balfe is very in-sync with what McQuarrie is doing here, and I enjoyed queuing into whatever he was doing with any given scene, because it is so frequently fun and creative. There are parts scored with a tense clanging piano, and the classic Lalo Schifrin theme is reinterpreted here around a marching band-style drumline, with impactful percussion recurring throughout.
Dead Reckoning is outstanding. If the “Part One” moniker irks you at all, don’t worry: Of all the recent multi-part franchise installments, this is the most satisfying as a standalone experience of all of them, with a clear set of narrative, thematic, and character arcs it follows through on before the credits roll, and an ending that is less a cliffhanger than a preview of things to come, the film itself serving as a reliable promise that the second half will be spectacular. “Part Two” is set to be the end of this incarnation of Mission: Impossible, of the franchise as led by Tom Cruise, and while we certainly never expected or deserved the series to run this long or reach such incredible heights, it’s going to be awfully sad to say goodbye. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore, if they ever did – there’s real magic at work in these films, and Dead Reckoning conjures it beautifully.
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