Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One expands on the themes of technological anxiety that animated last year’s Tom Cruise vehicle, Top Gun: Maverick, which McQuarrie co-wrote and began with the threat of human pilots being phased out in favor of drones and artificial intelligence. Here, the generic roster of villains that dot the Mission: Impossible franchise reaches its logical endpoint, with the interchangeable global terrorists replaced with an experimental A.I. dubbed “The Entity” that’s become sentient and gone rogue, prompting various national agencies and independent parties to embark on a hunt for the program’s site of operation to either destroy it or weaponize it for their own ends.
In both movies, the thematic subtext of A.I.’s looming threat is obvious, as much a warning against dehumanized warfare as a commentary on the increasingly soulless, anti-human nature of blockbuster filmmaking that Cruise’s old-school allegiance to practical stunts and star power seeks to defy. Admittedly, there’s a sense of having one’s cake and eating it to this idea, not only because both films are pieces of franchise IP, but because Dead Reckoning Part One in particular throws up a completely boilerplate Mission: Impossible plot of Ethan Hunt (Cruise) attempting to thwart global disaster while also protecting those closest to him.
Every installment of this franchise uses these narrative touchstones as launching pads for the main draw of spellbinding action, but Dead Reckoning Part One treats its formulaic plot as if it were newly concocted. Much is made of how Ethan’s comrades are targeted in order to get to him, but this has been a common feature of all of the movies in this franchise, and the film isn’t done any favors by his long-standing comrades feeling so bland and dispensable.
In fact, the supporting player with the most gravitas and who’s given the most attention isn’t even a returning character like Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn and Ving Rhames’s Luther Stickell but newcomer Grace (Hayley Atwell), a thief whose attempts to steal the key to The Entity place her in constant conflict with Ethan’s team as they seek the same device. It’s a bizarre pivot, as it robs some heavy moments between Ethan’s teammates of their intended gravity.
Still, Atwell makes a phenomenal addition to the series and is the most consistently engaging actor here. The film doesn’t attempt to set up Grace as another doomed romantic partner for Ethan, instead letting the actress channel some of that adventure-serial sass and self-reliance that she brought to her Peggy Carter in the first Captain America. McQuarrie has gradually amped up the comedy in this franchise over the course of his involvement, and Atwell proves to be the most reliable mouthpiece for his blend of Wilderesque banter and screwball physicality.
Compared to Grace’s complexity, it’s hard to overlook how poorly defined the film’s antagonists are. When it comes to The Entity, that lack of definition is initially presented as a feature and not a bug, with its faceless, incorporeal presence contributing to its omnipresent menace. But there are too few demonstrations of the A.I.’s actual power, and in the place of showing The Entity in action there’s endless exposition from other characters about its potential to do harm.
The Entity’s chief human asset, a mysterious figure named Gabriel (Esai Morales), is even less defined, though that’s partially by design. With the final Mission: Impossible installment now split into two films, basic details about Gabriel’s background are withheld from us, effectively reducing the man to little more than a reciter of generically menacing monologues. An ingenious moment, in which the possibility of a secret mastermind manipulating Ethan and the villains alike is teased, harkens back to the post-Cold War commentary of Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, only for the film to immediately walk back that idea.
Happily, the film finds its footing when it comes to its action, even blatantly echoing signature moments from the franchise. The first, a frantic car chase through Rome, recalls the Paris segment from McQuarrie’s Fallout (and inadvertently features a moment of careening down the city’s Spanish Steps that greatly resembles a moment in this year’s Fast X). Meanwhile, a climactic brawl on a train can’t help but bring to mind the conclusion of the first film in the franchise. But Dead Reckoning Part One approaches these sequences from fresh angles.
During the car chase, McQuarrie makes excellent use of sudden intrusions of civilian cars into the edges of the frame to heighten the chaos of Ethan barreling down ancient streets as police and special ops assassins pursue him. The pandemonium of a random driver accidentally colliding with Ethan and sending his car spiraling out of control brings some of the real world into the cartoonish antics of Mission: Impossible and forces the spy to think quickly on his feet.
Those cartoonish aspects are riotously reinforced, though, in a climactic train sequence that’s as much a straightforward action showstopper as it is a tribute to Buster Keaton’s The General, with Ethan and others frantically attempting to reckon with a runaway locomotive careens toward a ravine. The absurd images of characters clamoring out of a series of rail cars slipping into oblivion cap off a recurring element of visual comedy that runs through the film. Ethan repeatedly and amusingly stays one step ahead of his pursuers, often sprinting away in the background as agents in the foreground look around for him in frustration.
The action consistently snaps the film into focus, but it also further illustrates how badly the decision to split this narrative into two parts throws off the delicate rhythm that’s made Mission: Impossible arguably the most consistently entertaining American action franchise of all time. When Dead Reckoning Part One settles into its set pieces or moments of caper comedy, it soars. As such, it inevitably makes one hope that the overabundance of setup will translate to a second part that sends Ethan into the sunset on a more streamlined and refined note.
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