Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Reaches a New Pinnacle for Action Filmmaking
The seventh Mission: Impossible film is cinematic magic without an ending. Is anyone complaining?
In the 27 years since Tom Cruise first dangled from the ceiling of a Langley vault, the Mission: Impossible franchise has become the standard for impeccable action filmmaking, and incidentally, the last bastion for practical effects. This is especially true with the Christopher McQuarrie-directed films, in which Cruise found the perfect collaborator willing to indulge in his daredevil instincts. But ever since McQuarrie’s takeover of eight years ago, Mission: Impossible has also become the “stunt franchise,” and lost one of its most interesting aspects: the wild variety that came with a different auteur (John Woo! Brian De Palma! Brad Bird!) putting an extremely unique (sometimes extremely divisive) spin on each movie. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One attempts to split the difference.
The first half of a two-part story, Dead Reckoning Part One is an exhilarating blockbuster, distilling pure spectacle into a two-and-a-half hour feature. It’s also the first time Mission: Impossible is deep in conversation with itself. McQuarrie departs from his action-first style to pay homage to Brian De Palma’s first Mission: Impossible — all intense close-ups, canted angles, and heightened, pulpy paranoia. This creates a sense of full-circle continuity the Mission: Impossible films rarely have, but it also feels like McQuarrie is playing in another director’s sand box when he should be doing what he does best: delivering Tom Cruise’s latest death-defying stunt in the most breathtaking, jaw-dropping way possible. It’s in those moments that Dead Reckoning Part One transcends anything any other action tentpole can even dream of touching.
The plot of Dead Reckoning Part One might involve the timely threat of an evil AI, but it’s otherwise time-tested. Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his Impossible Mission Force team are pitted against “The Entity,” a sentient weapon at the center of a worldwide arms race, with every powerful nation trying to get their hands on the two-part key that can control it. Ethan believes The Entity must be destroyed, which turns him into public enemy No. 1 and forces him to go rogue once again. With a skeleton crew consisting of Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames), and the occasional helping hand from the ever-elusive Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson, magnetic but alarmingly underused), Ethan finds an unlikely new ally in Grace (Hayley Atwell), a thief with an agenda of her own.
There are a number of action sequences that deserve mentioning — including one thrillingly fun (and surprisingly funny) car chase that rivals John Wick: Chapter 4 for this year’s best Buster Keaton-inspired action — but the standout is the film’s climactic train scene. The brilliance of this sequence is that it’s not just one setpiece, it’s actually three setpieces in one. That the sequence does not peak at the moment that Tom Cruise rides his motorcycle off a cliff to parachute onto a speeding train is a testament to just how far the Mission: Impossible films have pushed the envelope when it comes to stunts. Each new twist threatens to stop the heart, and each new fall, or explosion, or screeching turn around the bend rattles your teeth so hard you can feel your pulse behind your eyes. Despite a surprising amount of CGI used for the sequence, it’s the cinematic magic that McQuarrie and Cruise have managed to concoct since getting together in 2015, and it’s never been better.
Still, outside of that magnificent train sequence — in all its moving parts, including the nail-biting sequence when Cruise and Atwell scramble through falling train carriages that feels like an homage to James Cameron’s Titanic — Dead Reckoning Part One struggles to come together. The Cold War-esque dread that McQuarrie attempts to conjure results in 70 percent of the film becoming an exposition dump. (McQuarrie and co-writer Erik Jendresen try to liven this up by having the information delivered by several somber-faced characters at once.) But it’s the movie’s almost comical level of self awareness that saves it. Characters still call Ethan Hunt things like “a mind-reading, shape-shifting agent of chaos,” and the movie can never get enough mileage out of the absurd thrills of having some random man pull off his mask to reveal he’s Tom Cruise. Cruise is exceptional at this part — as much credit as he gets for pulling off each amazing stunt, not enough can be said for how good he is at playing an extremely determined guy who is very, very tired.
Matching Cruise’s energy is franchise newcomer Shea Whigham, who brings a salt-of-the-earth attitude to the movie as the agent tasked with bringing Ethan Hunt in, and steals the scenes as the regular dude in ludicrous situations. Esai Morales’ villain Gabriel brings an interesting flavor to the film, as a chilling, all-knowing figure who may have a tie to Ethan’s past. But it’s his henchwoman played by Pom Klementieff (doing a slinky audition for Harley Quinn) that matches the heightened weirdness that Mission: Impossible has become known for. However, the film’s MVP is Hayley Atwell, whose double-crossing thief is an inspired addition to the team. Atwell takes to the action like a pro, and has a tense dynamic with Cruise that escalates the stakes in entertaining ways.
Despite the components all working great separately, something struggles to connect. It might be because Dead Reckoning is a movie very much structured around its setpieces (mind-blowing though they are), while the story clearly came later. Or it might be because there’s no central heist tying those sequences together. The most likely culprit is that subtitle: Part One. Dead Reckoning is very much a set-up film, feeding us bits and pieces of a larger plot, but not giving us the satisfaction of a clear endgame. It feels like a feature-film version of holding our breath right before Tom Cruise leaps off that cliff: it’s thrilling stuff, but we’ll have to see where he lands.