Franchise resurrection. That’s a feat in Hollywood rarely ever achieved by most franchises, outside of, perhaps, Fast and Furious. Much like that movie series, there was a time when the Mission: Impossible faced the relative threat of extinction. But suddenly, it came skyrocketing back in 2010, with Ghost Protocol and the insane stunt work of its maestro, actor and star, Tom Cruise.
And since then, with the help of director and writer Christopher McQuarrie, the series and the stunts have only ever gotten bigger and better with every installment. The previous installment, Mission: Impossible — Fallout was perhaps the strongest entry in the franchise. And while, unfortunately, Dead Reckoning doesn’t reach the heights of either Fallout or Rogue Nation, it’s still a solid blockbuster good time and one of the most epic thrill rides of the year!
Cruise has been on a huge high, with Top Gun: Maverick becoming the highest grossing movie of last year domestically, and even garnering Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay among many others. And the Mission: Impossible franchise, as well, is at its prime given how good Fallout was. And as such, coming off such such tremendous successes, Dead Reckoning Part One does feel like a little bit of a step down. Expectations were high, and the movie doesn’t quite deliver on those. And it’s not because of the epic achievements in stunt work or the excellent action scenes. It’s unfortunately because they make a couple of really controversial narrative choices here that many will feel do not work for the franchise. So while I enjoyed this movie immensely, and while it is genuinely one of the most fun times I’ve had in the theaters this year, let me preface the review by saying I anticipate this being a potentially divisive movie for fans.
The storyline for this one revolves around a mysterious AI called “The Entity.” It’s a device — a weapon — that makes ships and missiles basically invisible to radars, sonars, etc., and can even control and alter the very digital fabric of security in the country to suit the needs of whatever power possesses it. Thus every country, including the United States, wants it. And it’s up to Ethan Hunt and the rest of the IMF to track down the two keys that have the power to disable or destroy the device, and get to it before anyone else can.
Right from the get-go you’ll notice the digital aspects of the summary lend themselves to something a lot more sci-fi than what we’re used to with this action franchise. Which in and of itself ends up being perhaps the first major divisive element of the movie. I’ve seen reactions range from praise to contempt of the film’s villain. And I’m somewhere in the middle. My favorite aspects of the McQuarrie era of this franchise had to do with the spy vs. spy thrills of seeing the IMF do battle with the Syndicate. It was a conflict that felt both urgent and grounded at the same time in the past two films. And while still urgent, I think in some ways this installment steps away from all that to a conflict that’s actually quite far fetched for this franchise. And that part, I didn’t love. However it’s still one that I appreciate and see some of the brilliance in, when taken as a meta-commentary about the state of entertainment and action films today.
When we think about what the Mission: Impossible franchise represents when compared to blockbuster juggernauts of the Fast, Transformers, and MCU franchises, Cruise’s preference for filmmaking will always lie with that of real action and real stunt work over CG overkill. Real directors and writers over A.I. software and ChatGPT. And I think, at its heart, in a way, these next installments are meant to be a giant middle finger to that aspect of the franchise. It’s literally Tom Cruise doing battle against A.I. using real stunts and real action both on and off screen. And that’s admirable. Does it really have a place in a narrative about spies that remove their faces like Halloween costumes? Maybe not. But I respect it, and for the most part, I still found myself engrossed by the conflict.
And that’s partially because I come to this franchise, not for the stories, but for one thing above all: the action. And as with its predecessors, Dead Reckoning stuns and manages to deliver as much, if not slightly less, than what came before. I say slightly less because there were scenes I found myself comparing to previous scenes in the franchise that I found better. For instance, there’s a terrific Fiat chase sequence in the movie that really reminded me of the Marrakech scene from Rogue Nation. But here, the chase is played mostly for laughs, and it’s a fun trip, but I preferred the intensity and less silly tone of the latter. In fact the movie does that a fair amount, which I didn’t love. There’s even a resolution to one action sequence at the end that just felt a little goofy, and reminded me of the Kool Aid man busting through a wall randomly (you’ll see what I mean when you watch it). There are also several sequences that, while fun, border on Fast and Furious levels of ridiculousness, despite there being a lot of real-life coordination for all of them.
That being said, you simply cannot watch a movie where an A-List actor drives a motorcycle off a cliff and parachutes down into a canyon by himself and not consider it one of the most thrilling films of the year. Because at the end of the day, no other franchise is doing what Mission: Impossible is doing, apart from maybe John Wick. And between the installments we got in both franchises this year, action fans are surely eating, because they truly are among the best this industry has to offer for this genre. What we see in Dead Reckoning may not be the best of the franchise, but they’re no less short of absolutely breathtaking.
On a performance level, Cruise and the team are terrific. They can play these characters in their sleep. Cruise is always a consistent badass as Ethan Hunt. Ving Rhames is always going to be good old, faithful Luther. Simon Pegg will always be charmingly hilarious as Benji. Joining the cast, however, in a dynamite, charming performance as Grace is Captain Carter, herself, Hayley Atwell. Atwell’s character is a morally ambiguous thief that demonstrates a lot of potential as a future IMF agent. She’s funny, she’s endearing, but she’s also resourceful; in some ways a comparable “Selina Kyle” figure, and a new favorite.
Among the other newcomers that make a definitive impact, Pom Klementieff, who really needs to be cited as the most underrated scene stealer of the summer between this and absolutely making us tear up as Mantis in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3, does a terrific job of making us despise her as the villainous, menacing Paris. She’s the right-hand woman of Esai Morales’ Gabriel, a role that allows Morales to chew the scenery as a worthy adversary to Ethan. Equal parts smarmy and sinister, his character and his performance make you leave the theater really rooting for a deserved horrible ending for his character.
And in a bit of an Agent Carter reunion, Shea Whigham plays Jasper Briggs, an agent of The Community (a collective of government intelligence leaders) trying to bring down Ethan before he can shut down The Entity. Whigham’s character is played mostly for laughs, being the only character that seems to be five steps behind everyone else in his pursuit of the IMF.
The biggest sin of Dead Reckoning, however, is how it wastes two of its best talents with Fallout MVP Vanessa Kirby, reprising her role as The White Widow, and franchise mainstay Rebecca Ferguson, reprising her role as Ilsa Faust. Don’t get me wrong, both actresses are nothing short of spectacular in their returns to the role. But once more Kirby’s irresistible charisma is relegated to a few short, but still important scenes (albeit more this time than Fallout). And she still manages to make a significant impact, as she had in the previous films. But one can’t help but want for more of her as the franchise continues.
Whereas Ferguson, who has arguably been the best character in the franchise since her introduction in Rogue Nation is criminally underseen throughout the movie. And what we do get of her results in significant baffling decisions that are made about her character, that will ultimately get fans of the franchise very upset (and we’ve never seen them very upset!). Cite that as the second major divisive element the movie presents, as they are decisions that frankly really did not sit well with me.
It’s hard to stay mad a movie that entertains so much though. And though the movie is at a hefty two hours and 40 minutes, there’s a good balance here of character development, plot development, and action. I know many who found the runtime to be a bit on the tedious side, but it actually flew by pretty well for me. Is there a world where maybe some things could have been trimmed? Sure. But the length of time didn’t bother me, because I felt the movie was set up and executed quite nicely. In fact, one of the best things about the movie was that, as the third “To Be Continued” movie we got this summer (Fast X and Across the Spider-Verse being the other two), this one really didn’t feel incomplete. It felt like a full movie. Granted Spider-Verse did as well, but there was a legitimately abrupt “To Be Continued” cliffhanger for that film that deliberately informs you the story will conclude in the next film. Whereas if you end up not seeing Part II of Dead Reckoning, it would almost be okay because Part I feels like a singular complete cinematic experience. And that’s pretty refreshing.
On a technical level, the movie is excellently shot by cinematographer Fraser Taggart, who manages to capture the beauty of locale like Rome and Switzerland while the craziest stunts and events are happening. And the return of Lorne Balfe to conduct the terrific and tense score for the film was an excellent choice. The movie looks and sounds incredible. Only the best for Cruise and team!
On the whole, while Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One isn’t the best we’ve seen of the franchise or of Cruise in recent years, it still is one of the most epic thrill rides of 2023. Cruise and team have officially lit the fuse for what’s sure to come in an exceptionally entertaining, explosive finale. And I am on pins and needles to see how it ends, even though, as a whole film, it stands on its own terrifically. And despite it’s lengthy runtime, the movie zips by super quickly because it’s still quite engaging. And despite some potentially divisive decisions that may or may not sit well with fans, overall, it’s still one hell of a blast!
Overall Score: B