HomeReviewsMission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One

The markings of COVID production hamper this hotly-anticipated sequel in the wake of its masterful predecessor.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

This article predates the Odd Trilogies website.
It was originally published on Film Yap.

In 2018, Mission: Impossible – Fallout utterly entranced me.

Its unparalleled in-camera action, combined with brooding, steely aesthetics and lean but perfectly-dialed drama put forth a new mission for the franchise: to commit to screen Tom Cruise’s love of defying death for an audience in the most jaw-dropping ways possible. With the series’ sixth entry over 22 years, Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie had achieved an exhilarating culmination of all the things Cruise had gleaned from his everyday-learner lifestyle and his collaborations with other filmmakers across the franchise and beyond. They had achieved not only the peak of the Mission: Impossible series, but the perfect action film.

Top Gun sequel and a global pandemic would mean it would be another five years before we finally got a follow-up to that masterpiece, but here we are. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One seeks to up the ante after the franchise and Cruise himself have become synonymous with insane stunts that would drive any production’s legal team to the bottle.

And how does it fare, this follow-up to an all-time action great, having faced an uphill battle not only against a worldwide shutdown but also a hard industry shift further and further into the digital space?

Unfortunately, Dead Reckoning feels a bit kneecapped and disjointed, burdened by digital effects and forced to rely on, essentially, repackaged setpieces from previous films. It doesn’t compare favorably to its immediate predecessor. But on the bright side, it’s still a Mission: Impossible movie full of Tom Cruise doing cool action stuff.

This time around, Impossible Mission Force agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) faces off against artificial intelligence. (It may seem all-too timely in 2023, but keep in mind that this was filmed mostly in 2020.) An AI program known as “The Entity” has been set loose around the world, infecting Internet spaces and infiltrating world governments while remaining totally invisible. No amount of encryption or virtual security is too tall a wall to keep out this evil algorithm. At the end of the day, only real, flesh-and-blood people have the power to stop it, and Ethan’s rogue band of IMF agents are the ones to do it.

Benji (Simon Pegg), Luther (Ving Rhames), and Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) return to aid Ethan in his crusade against the maniacal machine, a quest that begins with tracking down a physical key, broken up into two parts. We know what it unlocks, thanks to an opening sequence on a submarine housing an ominous orb of a supercomputer, but Ethan and crew do not. They only know, thanks to a trademark prerecorded message from their superiors (delivered this time via DoorDash), that it is quite literally the key to stopping this otherwise unstoppable threat.

As it turns out, Ethan and crew are not the only ones interested in finding that key, though they may be the only ones in it for altruism. A third party who calls himself Gabriel (Esai Morales), and who shares a dark history with Ethan dating back to his pre-IMF days, is interested in the key for personal gain, global chaos, and, seemingly, for the sheer prospect of causing Ethan untold suffering.

Others are interested too. Most notably, a professional thief, Grace (Hayley Atwell), who has no idea the power or danger of the thing she’s trying to steal, gets literally linked to Ethan as they cross paths in their quests for the key. The White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), conniving broker of terrible goods and services, returns from Fallout to complicate Ethan’s mission.

Meanwhile, even Ethan’s own government is at odds with him over the key. Agent Kittridge (Henry Czerny), Ethan’s superior from the original 1996 film, is still active within the agency and seeks the key on behalf of US Intelligence. Alongside him is a new high-ranking official, Denlinger (Cary Elwes), who classically mistrusts the IMF and their roguish, loose-cannon actions at a fundamental level.

The plot trappings of Dead Reckoning Part One are among the most convoluted and nebulous of the franchise, which may turn some people off, but then again, Irrefutably Perfect Film™ Fallout has a single scene containing, like, half a dozen cascading plot twists, so an overly complex narrative is not inherently a problem. It does, however, feel a tad stale in Reckoning—this kind of generic, cyber-security future-terrorism has been at-large in even the Fast and Furious films since 2015.

It doesn’t help that The Entity, though repeatedly referred to as “invisible,” makes itself known through a digital, blue, eye-like animation (akin to the visualizer in Windows Media Player, for those acquainted) that appears on nearby displays, along with a raptor-like alien warble that echoes over the soundscape whenever the algorithm is enacting its evil plans. It’s often unclear throughout the film whether or not this “voice” is diegetic, but it feels a bit silly either way.

But if you’re showing up to a M:I film primarily for coherent plot and brazenly unconventional storytelling, you’re doing yourself and these movies a disservice. Ultimately, these are cinematic vehicles for Tom Cruise and his castmates to do cool shit with cars, guns, and any assortment of other vehicles and weapons on-camera.

Fortunately, at least in terms of quantity, Dead Reckoning delivers. Much like Fallout, its nearly three hours are comprised largely of multiple action sequences strung together and successively escalated in scope and intensity. Cruise, Atwell, Ferguson, and others get to spin, flip, punch, kick, crash, and fly their way across the screen in a smorgasbord of action that makes most everything else in theaters look lazy by comparison.

At his point, however, it’s hard not to compare Reckoning’s spectacle to that of its own franchise—and on that scale, it feels less impressive. In fact, Reckoning feels like a few steps back, coming off the upward trajectory of its three most recent predecessors, all of which built on one another toward more dizzying and dramatic physical stunts and action.

It’s clear the ambition was there with Reckoning—you need look no further than the countless featurettes and promos showcasing the danger and complexity of Cruise’s bike-to-parachute-off-a-cliff stunt released over the past year—but COVID-related limitations on production (and perhaps even simple overambition) lead to many sequences being either drenched in digital scenery, or feeling like little more than callbacks to previous films, or both. Those that feel most original also feel the most digitally altered, and those that feel most raw and real also feel the least creative. Knowing that the production team actually threw a train off a bridge doesn’t amount to much when the sequence looks entirely comprised of green screen and digital environments.

Granted, it’s worth noting that even these more artificial sequences are more dynamic than lots of what else is coming out as of late. Marvel, DC, and Star Wars still look ugly and amateurish by comparison. When Ethan Hunt is fleeing from falling train cars, or whipping a ramshackle Fiat through the streets of Rome while handcuffed to his passenger, you feel the danger (and ironic comedy) of his situation and the thin, tenuous skin of his teeth. It may not be the armrest-clenching intensity of a lightning strike during a HALO jump or the wince-inducing vertigo of a downward helicopter spiral, but it’s still weighty and fun.

It would be easier to dismiss my superficial nitpicks over plot, or even my more substantial quibbles over quality of action, if Ethan and his friends were given more resonant emotional through-lines. Unfortunately, Ethan’s arc is largely built on a brief flashback that is denied context (likely to reserve revelations for Part Two) and an assertion that the greatest ghosts haunting his psyche are those of all the women he has lost, or could lose—a conflict that A. was seemingly (beautifully) addressed and resolved in Fallout, and B. feels strangely dated in its focus on women, predominantly those with whom Ethan has been romantically involved.

The Dead Reckoning trailers emphasize Ethan’s willingness to lay down his life for all of his team members. “If anything happens to them,” Ethan says, “there is no place that I won’t go to kill you. That is written.” These words are played over shots of the team, Benji and Luther included. Previous films emphasize this in small ways as well. In fact, some of the most powerful drama in these movies—even this one—comes from moments wherein Benji is the most endangered character; a testament to Pegg’s skill as a dramatic actor.

But in the context of the film, that line refers specifically to an endangered Ilsa and Grace, and Luther later exposits this theme of Ethan’s problem of “losing women” more explicitly. At this point, it just feels like a miscalculation in characterizing Ethan. Fallout lays out a perfect thesis for Ethan’s ethos, in the words of the late Secretary Hunley (Alec Baldwin):

“Some flaw deep in your core being simply won’t allow you to choose between one life and millions. You see that as a sign of weakness. To me, that’s your greatest strength.”

Secretary Hunley (Alec Baldwin) to Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) in
Mission: Impossible — Fallout

I see no reason why this dilemma at the center of Ethan’s humanity needs to be made an inherently romantic one. I mean, shit, that quote isn’t even about a woman. It’s about Ethan choosing to save Luther’s life over preventing a case of plutonium entering the wrong hands.

To make that issue more glaring, Ilsa is also given a somewhat disappointing role this time around. Introduced in Rogue Nation and officially solidified as Ethan’s “will they, won’t they” flame in Fallout, she’s given significant attention only in this film’s early minutes, and then is something of an afterthought from that point on. She doesn’t get a whole lot to do, besides functioning as an example of Ethan’s internal conflict about the women in his life.

Anyway, those less invested in Ethan’s characterization and his arc across the series will likely take less issue with these thematic shortcomings. But I find Ethan Hunt to be a genuinely fascinating character, particularly as a lead in a spy franchise (Bond has hardly gotten so much introspection across sixty years), and as a parallel to Cruise himself—a topic I won’t get into in this review.

Still, the fact remains that this is the first entry in the series since M:I3 to feel a bit like its spinning wheels and recycling elements from before. Which is, yes, remarkable for a 27-year-old, seven-movie-long franchise, but also notably disappointing coming off of the awesome ascent of the last three films.

Even so, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One manages to deliver kinetic action and high-flying fun that I think just about any audience member could find compelling. While its action may feel derivative and its drama awkwardly calibrated, I retain hope that many of its issues are complications resulting from its difficult production, and seeing as Part Two is still in production, it could very well be entirely free of the issues that plagued Part One, and could even potentially heal some of those frustrations in how it concludes the two-part story.

Oddly enough, despite being, for my money, the weakest in the franchise since 2006, this might actually make for a good jumping-on point for newcomers. I imagine the spectacle would feel more impressive to someone unfamiliar with the franchise, while also enticing such a newcomer to watch what came before.

I mean, frankly, you could jump on at just about any movie in this series. That’s the fun part: while the espionage plots may be consistently convoluted, they ultimately don’t matter. You’re here to see Ethan Hunt outsmart, outrun, and out-luck his way through it. And Dead Reckoning stays true to that.

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Wishes he could forego sleep to watch more movies. Besides co-hosting Odd Trilogies and writing reviews, Andy builds Gundam models, loves on his three cats, and spends way too much time managing his Plex server. You can follow his movie-watching habits on Letterboxd.

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