While watching “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part One,” I often found myself thinking about another recent action blockbuster, “Fast X.” Both movies involve action sequences in Rome, both movies involve a bridge lined with explosives, both movies involve an all-knowing computer program, both movies involve a villain from the protagonists’ past, and both movies involve a makeshift family of globetrotting heroes attempting to thwart an insidious plan in the face of opposition from law enforcement. They even tout bombastic spectacle in their action sequences, but only one makes these moments truly visceral. That’s because, despite all these surface similarities, the two films are polar opposites.
Like the most recent entries in the franchise, “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part One” (what a marathon of a title) uses action to reveal its characters. While there is (attempted) humor in director Christopher McQuarrie’s film, it’s not the quippy kind found in most modern blockbusters. It’s derived from the scenarios themselves and the audacity that the filmmakers (and star Tom Cruise) have in realizing their visions so acutely on screen. It’s a movie with some issues around plotting, amongst other aspects, but despite those missteps, it is still an incredibly entertaining slice of cinema that wows constantly in its stunts and set pieces.
IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is dispatched to find the second half of a key that is crucial to the fate of the world. (Truly, that’s all you really need to know.) He enlists help from his usual cadre of friends (played by Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames) while tangling with an expert thief (Hayley Atwell). He is forced to do the seemingly impossible in order to execute his mission and defeat those stacked against him. Those include mercenaries, CIA agents (led by Shea Whigham) and a pair of operatives whose allegiances are unknown. The key is somehow the secret to destroying (or controlling) a self-aware and all-powerful algorithm known as The Entity, which would disrupt the world in spectacularly horrific fashion.
It’s rare that the willing suspension of our minds extends beyond the narrative and into the filmmaking itself. In most movies, certainly most blockbusters, you know that the hero will succeed over the villain, but we get drawn into the stakes and actions by simply putting that obvious knowledge on hold for the film’s runtime — assuming it’s a good movie, of course; otherwise, that just becomes another flaw in an already marred cinematic experience. But that same disregard for familiar logic is present in the stunts of “Dead Reckoning.” We know that Cruise survived these incredible sequences, yet we still hold our breath when we see him go over a cliff or pilot a car in some busy streets. He is doing the seemingly impossible (no pun intended), and we are mesmerized by his accomplishment.
It would be enough if that were all these scenes provided, but McQuarrie (who co-wrote with Erik Jendresen) uses these death-defying moments to also illustrate the Hunt character and the world in which this story takes place. Ethan Hunt inspires his friends’ loyalty because he’s willing to put himself on the line in extraordinary ways. He is also a formidable hero because he finds a way to get the job done, no matter the staggering forces against him. And this is all taking place in a fairly grounded world that is populated by people capable of performing exceptional acts. Cruise scaling a speeding train isn’t just a cool moment visually; it’s an informative one for the series as a whole.
That ability to inspire jumps from the movie into real life, as it’s clear everyone in the cast is willing to do their utmost to keep up with the unstoppable star. They can’t, of course, but that still spurs them on to turn in exciting performances while embracing an impressive physicality. Atwell and Pom Klementieff are true highlights in this area, as they deliver mesmerizing performances, the latter made even more impactful given she only has a small smattering of lines. Meanwhile, the less stunt-driven roles bring a charged intensity that captivates your attention, like those from Whigham and Henry Czerny. Czerny is a noteworthy addition, as he’s reviving his role as Eugene Kittridge from the first film almost 30 years ago. It’s probable that the “Dead Reckoning” movies are the end of the “Mission: Impossible” series (in its current form, anyway), and the filmmakers are finding fun ways to reference all the previous titles as if it’s part of a farewell tour. None of these are flashy or heavy-handed, but they are present for fans of the movies.
As mentioned, even amidst all of the amazing moments that McQuarrie, Cruise and company execute, there are still some minor problems with the film. Like almost all the “Mission: Impossible” movies, the plot is pretty easy to figure out, so you are often a few steps ahead of the protagonists. (The only one that tried to change this was part three, which is truly a lesser entry.) Waiting for Hunt and crew to catch up can be aggravating, as these are folks touted as super spies. Esai Morales is also a less-than-interesting villain, relying more on Hunt and others to explain how sinister he is than showing it. He’s supposed to be interested more in suffering than the kill, but most of his murders are fairly quick, and none of them show a certain maniacal glee. These aren’t enough to derail the excitement of “Dead Reckoning,” but it’s unfortunate that the antagonist isn’t as evil as Hunt and company are good. That lack, along with a see-through narrative, creates an imbalance that is felt throughout the film.
Yet anytime those issues truly start to nag at the brain, an amazing sequence fueled by inventive stunts and stellar acting comes along. It’s a bit of a razzle-dazzle distraction from its flaws, but it works because we have never seen anything like what is unfolding on screen. Many current blockbusters follow a rote format and are populated by well-known tropes. While there are many films that appear to be like “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part One,” none of those titles carry the same wondrous heft. The franchise is a uniquely amazing group of movies, and the latest entry is no different in its innovation of entertainment.
Starring: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Hayley Atwell, Vanessa Kirby, Esai Morales, Pom Klementieff, Shea Whigham
Director: Christopher McQuarrie