Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One review — Cruise in control, for the most part

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie | Written by McQuarrie and Erik Jendresen, adapted from the TV series by Bruce Gellar | 163 min | ▲▲▲▲△

There’s a reason the Mission: Impossible franchise is considered the peak of Hollywood’s action mountain, a status it’s held for more than 25 years. The first four movies were each stylistically distinct, giving talented directors — Brian DePalma, John Woo, JJ Abrams, and Brad Bird —  a chance to make their own mark on the spy-action material. Since the fifth one, the Usual Suspects writer-turned-filmmaker McQuarrie has been Tom Cruise’s partner-in-espionage, which has made for two all-timers. I didn’t think the filmmakers could improve on 2015’s Rogue Nation, but 2018’s Fallout managed it.

Now Cruise and McQuarrie are back with a two-parter — which, unlike another recent blockbuster that hid its schism at least the chapter name is right here in the title — and it can’t quite match the wildly entertaining spygames of the past two. It’s too in love with melodrama and hammering us over the head with its thematic concerns, but the movie earns its positive rating with a great, game cast and state of the art action set-pieces.

Which is funny when you consider the opening, which kind of fails to launch. The picture starts with a submarine sequence deeply devoted to the memory of The Hunt For Red October, though less successful with the Russian accents. Then we’re off to the Empty Quarter in the Arabian desert not far from the Yemeni border, where Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is looking to meet frequent collaborator, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson, the best addition to the Impossible Mission Force, well, ever), but a Call of Duty- style action scene and a sandstorm — they already did that back in Ghost Protocol, and did it better — feels a bit rote.

Faust has one half of a key that will give its holder the control over the film’s villain, a sentient AI that everyone calls The Entity. Naturally, this AI — which is more than sentient, it’s brilliantly antagonistic — wants the key to its own lockbox, too.

A lot of folks have said the film is analogous to Cruise’s war against streamers and the digital enemy that diminishes the in-cinema experience and his intent to make it as real as it can be. Maybe, or maybe the filmmakers saw the writing on the wall and knew we’d all be talking about AI this year. Either way, it works.

The AI has gone ahead and employed a French assassin named Paris (Pom Klementieff) and a shadowy figure from Hunt’s past, Gabriel (Esai Morales). Also after the key is that CIA asshole from the first Mission: Impossible movie, Kittridge (Henry Czerny), and his boss, Denlinger (Cary Elwes). Other American agents are on the case, too — Shea Whigham and Greg Tarzan Davis, I never caught their character names — though in their work dissatisfaction they may be seeing the logic in Hunt and his team always going rogue. The people in charge are entirely corrupt, and the film isn’t shy about taking a shot or two at the American military industrial complex.

Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg) are also still supporting Hunt — the “men in the chairs” for his high-tech missions.

In the middle of all this is Grace, played by the phenomenal Hayley Atwell. She’s a talented thief. Would it be too cheesy to suggest she steals the whole movie? I’m gonna say it.

It’s hard to find female leads with whom Cruise has any chemistry — with all due respect to Jennifer Connelly, she doesn’t — but maybe the highlight action set-piece of this movie is a car chase through Rome where Hunt and Grace are handcuffed together. It’s fabulous fun, deliriously staged and shot.

I wish all of what’s going on in this movie was as much of a blast. Mission 7 telegraphs a character’s death with an entirely tacky sequence in Venice, especially how it sets up Hunt to have to choose between two people in his circle — which makes no sense because one he’s been close to for years and another he met hours before. That’s where the melodrama comes in — it’s a shame since the doomed character in question deserved a lot better send-off than they get, especially with the suggestion that a replacement  is already in the offing.

The origin of Gabriel is dubious, too, because it suggests Hunt’s motivation for trying to make the world a better place was born out of a case of classic fridging. It’s unnecessary, and a rare scripting misstep by McQuarrie and his collaborators. A lot of Lorne Balfe’s score suits the film, but it plays its Hans Zimmer booming hand a little too often. And did I wish the movie was less than two-and-a-half hours long? Yes, yes, yes.

As mentioned, Atwell’s charm is such a welcome addition, but parts of her character are a little poorly drawn: She’s a crack thief, but is she also a skilled martial artist? I sort of wish she was more of an innocent — which was suggested in the trailers — so she could bring more fish-out-of-water humour, an avatar for the audience and a commentary on all the ridiculous action. Beyond that car chase, the picture could really use more laughs.

As we go along the energy and professionalism of the production starts to carry the day. We get an impressive sequence in the modernist miracle that is the Abu Dhabi airport involving a possible nuclear explosive in the luggage area, which precedes that terrific Rome sequence. A final action extravaganza on the Orient Express (actually shot in Norway) is a whole lot of fun — Vanessa Kirby does fine work bringing back her White Widow as a broker for that key that everyone wants.

The presence of so many fascinating women in this film really elevates the material, especially given the somewhat clumsy energy around Hunt’s central concerns between wanting to protect the world — a dull patriarchal thrust there — and a fidelity to his pals who he expects to forever endanger their lives for his missions.

What’s funny is in actuality Cruise would rather endanger his own life for these films in an effort to keep the stunts as real as possible, and he’s to be applauded for that. Compared to another 2023 summer blockbuster — the train sequence here is head and shoulders above the one in Indiana Jonesand that’s because you will believe Hunt and his fellow combatants are on the top of that train rather than lost in a CGI slurry.

The irony that a much marketed stunt of Cruise jumping off the cliff on a motorcycle is somewhat diminished on the big screen if only because you can see it coming, and will have seen it before.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.