“Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part One” Movie Review
When Tom Cruise signed up for Mission: Impossible in the mid-1990s, it was a single job. With Cruise as the star, the Brian DePalma-directed movie version of the classic television series became one of 1996’s biggest attractions, opening in between Twister and Independence Day and performing remarkably well. Twenty-seven years later, Mission: Impossible is a not just an action film franchise, but a Hollywood institution that has been around for most or all of many a moviegoer’s life. In a career full of marquee roles and as an enduring as any, this has unquestionably evolved into Cruise’s signature undertaking.
For nearly three decades now, the spy series has existed as big-ticket, high-value entertainment. Virtually nothing else among 1996’s offerings — Michael Jordan as movie star, John Grisham legal thrillers, Eddie Murphy as an obese caricature, Arnold Schwarzenegger as an action hero, Demi Moore as sex symbol, John Travolta as box office gold — continues to exist as mainstream cinema. But the line on which Cruise made his producing debut somehow marches on, as good and relevant as it’s ever been with a perfect marriage of old school production values and state-of-the-art technical mastery.
The full title alone of the seventh installment, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part One, ought to elicit chuckles or groans. Cruise is sixty years old and both he and this saga should be long in the tooth and well past their prime. But they’re not. Almost twenty years after the uncomfortable couch jump on Oprah and all the personal baggage it encompassed seemed to launch Cruise off of Hollywood’s A-list, he’s still around and he’s still got it. There is nothing desperate or unhip about his long-running franchise, especially not after his last sequel, last summer’s Top Gun: Maverick, arrived 36 years after its predecessor and improbably became one of the highest-grossing and best-reviewed movies of all time.
At a time when the very practice of moviegoing is in jeopardy and the industry seems plagued by both the sameness of its brand-driven output and the unreliability of the economics that allow them to exist, Cruise, who was voted the biggest money-making movie star in 1986, has emerged as the patron saint and potential savior of all things Hollywood. Cruise, who insisted that his untimely Top Gun sequel be released to theaters and not until the public was comfortable seeing it en masse. Cruise, whose leaked explicit outburst over COVID-19 protocol breaches in 2021, divided audiences and drove some crew members to quit but validated the importance of the industry’s work and safety. Cruise, who in this age of reckoning for tempestuous and predatory power players has remained unscathed, adding nothing of great concern to his once-controversial Scientology affiliations or his history of high-profile romances, marriages, and divorces.
Cruise’s legacy will be his ability to draw moviegoers, something he has now been doing consistently for forty years. For a long time, that was principally the result of the actor choosing wisely from the surely many offers to come his way, movies like 1988 Best Picture winner Rain Man, the stage-adapted A Few Good Men, and Grisham bestseller-based The Firm. On the Mission franchise, Cruise’s involvement goes way beyond just saying “yes.” In this line, he has clearly been a hands-on producer, assembling trusted talent in all areas, sticking with them, and being as willing as any actor to risk life and limb all for the sake of delivering death-defying stunts in the most convincing and creative manner possible. The Mission adventures are movies, not films. They are pure escapism akin to the Bond and Bourne franchises. No one is changing the way they think about things or how they live their life based on what Ethan Hunt and his associates are doing. And yet, they’re great fun, a unifying and unproblematic kind of timeless entertainment that has carried me from the beginning of my teens into now my forties.
Despite being the seventh installment, Dead Reckoning…One does not demand or expect too much of viewers. All you really know coming in is that Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his trusted Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg) make up the Impossible Missions Force (IMF), the top-secret organization tasked with the most dangerous and complex of covert jobs. This film opens with a gripping albeit disjointed prologue in which a Russian submarine deploys a missile on a fast-approaching but inexplicably disappearing enemy ship, a fatal mistake that ends with crew members floating below the icy surface of the unforgiving sea. That sequence relates to the rest of the movie in that it introduces a mysterious two-piece key, a MacGuffin for the ages that is consistently driving and redirecting the action. No one knows what the key will unlock, only that it must be something extraordinarily powerful and seemingly related to “The Entity”, an artificial intelligence system that threatens to topple all of the world’s digital infrastructures. As armies of pencil pushers dramatically rush to create hard copy backups on all world knowledge, this ominous, far-reaching, semi-virtual threat hangs over every government interaction.
All of this means that Ethan’s longtime nemesis Gabriel, who we’ve never previously heard of or seen, is our principal villain here. Balancing both business and personal motives, the debonair silver fox (played by Esai Morales) tries to outwit Ethan, courting “The White Widow” (Vanessa Kirby, returning from 2018’s Fallout) pushing him to making a kind of Sophie’s choice between two attractive and highly skilled colleagues both twenty years Cruise’s junior. One of those is Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson, on her third Mission), who finds herself in heated gunfire in the desert. The other is Grace (Hayley Atwell), a newly-introduced pickpocket who Ethan catches with half of that proverbial key in a rousing and extended early airport sequence.
Dead Reckoning One is full of imaginative and implausible set pieces set all over the world. Ethan and Grace find themselves handcuffed to one another behind the steering wheel of a tiny yellow Fiat being pursued by all directions. The finale takes place on a hijacked moving train, which Ethan has to track down by motorcycle, mountain, and parachute.
In his third consecutive time at the helm of this franchise, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie is as confident and composed as ever. He rarely takes time to breathe as one big, dramatic spectacle spills into the next. The action is top-notch. The stunts and visuals, which are practical whenever possible, dazzle. The sound is stirring. This is pure, exhilarating genre cinema. It’s PG-13, so there are no John Wick levels of blood and death, although the threat always feels real and nearby. These superhuman characters wear suits and pantsuits, so there’s none of the superhero mythos that dominates tentpole movies today. And it’s still all a tad corny, but what four-quadrant summer blockbuster is not guilty of that to some degree?
With the exception of John Woo’s Mission: Impossible II, a misfire I’m still surprised didn’t sink the series, these movies have been so consistent in entertainment value. My fellow critics exalted Fallout more than others (my critics group awarded it Best Editing), although I did not find it to be quite a benchmark. On a first impression, Dead Reckoning One seems as good as that one and any of the others (meaning it’s definitely at least a half-step above M:I-3 and two above M:I-2). At 163 minutes, it is the longest entry to date, although it never becomes tedious or overextended. Despite the Part One in the title, this is not like the first Deathly Hallows or Dune movie. It is self-contained and fulfilling, even as it sets us up for another big adventure, which is already “in the can” and scheduled to open in a year from the day in which I’m writing this.
There is something pure and admirable about Cruise’s commitment to thrills which distinguishes this sequel from other summer movies offering comparable entertainment value, like Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and DC’s The Flash. The latter movies are pieces of bigger puzzles to be dissected in boardrooms and scrutinized on message boards. Cruise, McQuarrie, Paramount, and Skydance may be just as calculated regarding this franchise and maximizing its commercial value. But the series is clearly self-contained and sporadic. This poses no threat to the industry or blight on the medium. It really is just a bit of fun, but there’s great joy in getting there as the product of extensive collaboration, far-reaching creativity, and considerable craft.