This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being covered here wouldn't exist.
by Philip Price
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson & Hayley Atwell
Rated: PG-13 (intense sequences of action & violence & some language)
Runtime: 2 hours & 43 minutes
When you’re seven films into a franchise and up has been the only way to go for the better part of a decade there are bound to be those who look at a next entry that does the same things the last handful of entries have done, both positive and negative, and decide they’re tired of the schtick and that it’s time for the narrative to change so that the star and his brand may redeem itself at least once more. This is what seems to be happening with “Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part 1” (the cockiness of the cliffhanger likely making certain folks more eager to put the franchise in its place) yet this seventh film in the series and the third written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie only continues to improve upon or at least operate at the same level these films always have if not becoming slightly more preposterous by attempting to tackle a more contemporary and relevant issue through its story. Though story is obviously important to the ‘Mission: Impossible’ films it is not their top priority, and it surprises me that such quandaries around plot semantics are what will seemingly rewrite the cultural narrative around these films that are largely lauded for their stunt work and commitment to their practicality. Personally, if Tom Cruise and McQ want to get a little more outlandish (and there is an admitted silliness here) with their antagonists I’d say they've earned a little wiggle room as they still deliver tenfold when it comes to the aspects people pay to see these excursions on the big screen for.
Having not had a chance to re-visit any of the previous films prior to experiencing ‘Dead Reckoning Part 1’ I’m unsure if any of them have tapped into this as keenly before but given the core team has now essentially been the same for the whole of the McQ run there is an emphasis on the IMF being this island of misfit toys if you will. Whatever the politics were around the disavowing of the team and organization prior there seems to be no lack of backing presently as Henry Czerny returns as Agent Kittridge who is again sending those cool little "to accept or not to accept" mission invitations. This most recent invitation places Cruise's Ethan Hunt on a globe-trotting mission to find his old friend (and lover?) Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) has come into possession of one-half of a cruciform key which all the world’s governments are seeking even if most don't seem to know what it grants them access to.
The other half of the plot concerns an A.I. program on the loose called "The Entity" with a main lackey in Gabriel (Esai Morales) who seems to have a history with our hero and who has his own lackeys led by Pom Klementieff. Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg return, which is of course, instrumental in that aforementioned emphasis on this team in particular, what led them to this lifestyle, and why they continue to do what they do. I'm not saying ‘Dead Reckoning Part 1’ gets super psychological, but you repeat the same crazy behaviors enough and you start to question what attracts someone to that lifestyle and this film is at least aware enough of that to comment on it.
While still finding this to be as fun and engaging as any of the other films in the series I understand the waning enthusiasm given the weakest links are two elements that have both been introduced here making them all the more glaring. For starters, while the timing is obviously impeccable the execution has yet to be perfected, but I guess that's what happens when you're on the front lines. The ‘Mission: Impossible’ franchise has never shied away from using real-world influences to inform their villains and while the concept of "The Entity" is in fact a genuinely frightening one it simply doesn't test the boundaries as it should. This antagonist is an all-knowing, all-powerful, but obscured being who will always lurk in the shadows; a veritable threat, to be sure. What detracts from the menace of such a threat is the physical manifestation of it via screensaver-like graphics in a nightclub setting along with the conveniences it seems to allow for when it chooses to interfere and when it doesn’t. Oh, Benji is able to put his vehicle in "self-drive" mode so he can focus on assisting Ethan without the Entity mucking up his route. Sure. The CIA wants to track a known thief who is interfering in Hunt's mission. You'll need to go completely analog. Like, it's a great launching pad for a series that likes to place its heroes in tough spots where we question the odds of their survival (even if we know they'll make it) and yet McQ and Erik Jendresen's screenplay doesn't go as crazy as it could have.
Next is the addition of Hayley Atwell's "Grace" as the previously mentioned thief interfering in Ethan's mission as Gabriel has hired her to lift the cruciform key from the IMF agents. Atwell is obviously a capable action star and she's more than believable as something of an inversion to Ethan Hunt morally, but without venturing into spoilers it is more the function of her character in relation to other characters in the story that set her character up for failure - at least in the eyes of the viewers. The sheer existence of Grace as played by Atwell will draw comparisons to Ferguson's Faust whom Grace is not as capable as and somewhat annoyingly so given her arc as well as representing something of a pattern in these movies that could have been so easily rectified at this point that it's difficult to believe this is the route McQ and co. chose to take. It's unfortunate given Atwell's natural charisma and screen presence that her character has been somewhat plagued with all this baggage, but with only one more film left in this Tom Cruise-led series – supposedly - it's a real mystery how a movie based around an evil supercomputer with all the knowledge and decision-making logic in the world couldn't draw a better, more logical conclusion than the writers did here.
Nevertheless, I will always admire a film that waits a solid half-hour to drop a title card and ‘Dead Reckoning Part 1’ relishes in this choice. The way Lorne Balfe's score bursts onto the screen with said title card after having allowed the audience to settle into at least three different scenarios prior feels less like it takes one out of the action and more like it propels you forward at full speed into the rest of the mission. At two hours and 43 minutes, this isn't a concise film necessarily, but the pacing is so frenetic, and the stakes so involving that the runtime flies by. To this point, Balfe's score is both literally and figuratively instrumental in the construction of large swaths of the movie as McQ and editor Eddie Hamilton (“Top Gun: Maverick”) rely heavily on a montage-like structure to shape the focus of the film around the action while treating the brief, but crucial dialogue scenes and exposition dumps like interludes on an album.
While not as operatic or visually stimulating as “John Wick: Chapter 4,” it is still the kind of boots-on-the-ground, balls-to-the-wall style of filmmaking you want to see more of in the action genre. In fact, ‘Dead Reckoning Part 1’ shares a fair amount of similarities with another big-budget studio release this summer that is also a sequel in a long-running franchise that also features a car chase in Rome, an antagonist who enjoys suffering more than the actual death, and a cliffhanger of an ending set on an exploding bridge, but what differentiates ‘Mission: Impossible’ from this other franchise (which I admittedly also enjoy, but for very different reasons) is the filmmaking behind it. Cruise is obviously committed to delivering legitimate spectacle on a scale like few others and between the Fiat car chase, the claustrophobic alley fight, and the final train car sequence in this film it is beyond evident that his commitment to the theater-going experience is as strong as ever even if that commitment also continues to solidify his legacy ... but you know, it's probably for the greater good.