Of the plethora of long-running action movie franchises in Hollywood today, Mission: Impossible has the steadiest track record. Some viewers may balk at John Woo’s over-the-top M:I-2 or J.J. Abrams’ relatively restrained M:I-3, but after three decades and seven installments, there’s never been a total dud. That’s including Dead Reckoning Part One, which comes to theaters on July 12th.
The first half of what’s rumored to be Tom Cruise’s farewell to the series, Dead Reckoning delivers all of the high-speed, high-altitude, captured-in-camera thrills that fans have come to expect. Where it falls short of greatness is the human element. Despite having 143 minutes to bring its story to the halfway point, Dead Reckoning doesn’t spare the time to make its characters feel worthy of the excitement unfolding around them. This time around, super-spy Ethan Hunt feels overshadowed by star and producer Tom Cruise and his own unquenchable desire to climb buildings, cling to airplanes, and sprint across rooftops. It makes for a great theatergoing experience, but not necessarily a great film.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — DEAD RECKONING PART ONE ★★1.2 (2.5/4 stars)
Dead Reckoning Part One pits Tom Cruise against his two nemeses: gravity and computers. Cruise’s willingness to put his body on the line in the name of cinema has become a major selling point in all of his films, and this one boasts some truly remarkable stunts. (This featurette about the making of Dead Reckoning’s signature motorcycle parachute jump is as thrilling as the film itself.) It almost goes without saying that the action in this film is a cut above the other blockbusters this summer. Cruise is right about the benefits of getting as much of the aerial and automotive action in the camera as possible, and director Christopher McQuarrie is more than equal to the film’s many technical challenges.
Cruise’s other enemy is the one we’re all struggling against right now: Our own obsolescence amidst the rise of artificial intelligence. Like in last year’s Top Gun: Maverick, Cruise’s character must prove that he’s capable of defeating the machine designed to replace him. This time, the villain is the Entity, an AI designed by the US government for espionage and sabotage that has become sentient. Control of the Entity could make any nation the new uncontested superpower, assuming it can be controlled at all. So Ethan Hunt and his team set out to destroy the Entity before any one government can lay claim to it.
Of course, Tom Cruise vs. a computer program wouldn’t necessarily make for riveting cinema, so we also have some flesh-and-blood obstacles on deck. Esai Morales plays Gabriel, a figure from Ethan’s past who is now the Entity’s ambassador in the physical world. Vanessa Kirby returns to chew the scenery as the White Widow Alanna Mitsopolis (and if only more of the cast rose to her level of camp). Pom Klementieff appears as a stylish but mostly silent enforcer, and Henry Czerny reprises his role from the first Mission: Impossible film as shady US intelligence baron Eugene Kittridge. Each brings a different variety of menace, but unlike the James Bond movies, Mission: Impossible has never been about memorable, larger-than-life villains. Cruise has only been upstaged once in the series, by the incomparable Phillip Seymour Hoffman in M:I-3, and that has never been allowed to happen again.
While the lack of an iconic villain isn’t a huge loss, especially considering the film’s chilling and enigmatic computerized threat, it’s a shame that Hunt and his team don’t have more time to function as human beings. Dead Reckoning reunites Ethan with the crew he’s been gradually tweaking over the course of the series. This is the third go-around for Rebecca Ferguson’s stone cold assassin Ilsa Faust, the fifth for Simon Pegg’s frazzled computer nerd Benji Dunn, and the seventh for Ving Rhames’ tech wizard Luther Stickell. Yet the characters constantly need to remind the audience, verbally, how important they are to each other, because otherwise they’d feel more like coworkers than found family. 2019’s Mission: Impossible — Fallout saw these characters actively demonstrating their commitment to each other, as well as highlighting the emotional weight of Ethan’s world-saving work. In Dead Reckoning, their intimacy is taken as a given. Quiet moments are few and far between, with the time between action setpieces occupied by dense technical conversations about plot complications. As if desperate to keep this dialogue from slowing the pace, McQuarrie and editor Eddie Hamilton rarely let a character complete a sentence without cutting from one close-up to another of the same character from a different angle. The disorienting effect is certainly intentional, but it’s also distracting.
The exception to all of my complaints here is Grace, the new character portrayed by Hayley Atwell of Marvel fame. Atwell’s cunning and slippery thief is introduced as Dead Reckoning’s second lead, but structurally, it’s her story. Grace is the only character who experiences real growth, and as unfortunate as it might be that her development comes at the expense of the rest of the supporting cast (especially Rebecca Ferguson), this investment could prove worthwhile if Atwell gets tapped to carry the series forward. Atwell demonstrates the charm, range, and cardiac conditioning necessary to lead Mission: Impossible, should Cruise and Paramount (PARA) finally decide to pass the torch.
Which brings us back to the Ethan Hunt of it all. At his best, Ethan is the anti-Bond, a secret agent who refuses to accept the moral compromise and collateral damage inherent to global espionage. Franchise entries M:I-3 and Fallout explore Ethan’s impossible attempts to maintain normal human relationships. Dead Reckoning teases that Ethan will finally get a backstory in Part Two, but it also emphasizes how little we understand the character at this point. Throughout the film, the sinister Entity asks characters what is most important to them. The story is set up to challenge whether Ethan is more committed to his mission or to the lives of his friends; what astonished me isn’t that I didn’t know, but that I didn’t care. It took going back and rewatching Fallout to remember that I was invested in these characters in the first place.
Perhaps the film itself isn’t so much to blame as the film’s promotion. I’m beginning to wonder if there isn’t a sort of horseshoe effect to emphasizing the insane lengths that Cruise and company went through to execute the action. Can the fact that a movie star is really jumping that motorcycle become so apparent that you skip right past being concerned for the character directly to being impressed with the actor?
Tom Cruise can convince me that his motorcycle stunts are real. He can convince me that the wind on his face is real, and the G-force he’s experiencing is real. But, the thing is, he doesn’t have to. They are real. His job is to convince me that Ethan Hunt is real, and he hasn’t done that. If the wild in-camera stunts don’t make me believe that Ethan Hunt, not Tom Cruise, is jumping that motorcycle, then they might as well have rendered them in a computer.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.