It’s the beginning of the end as Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise debut Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One.
Arguably the best thing about Mission: Impossible films is their consistency. Say what you will about the second film (which still has its share of fans), the overall series is one of the most reliable franchises of the last twenty-five years.
Dead Reckoning clearly intends to send off Cruise’s IMF agent Ethan Hunt on a series high (pun intended considering the much publicized stunt that ends the film). Unfortunately, Part One involves some aches and pains.
One immediate (and obvious) challenge is that this is only half of the story. Despite clocking in at over two and a half hours, this is not a stand-alone film, which results in uneven pacing and story beats. Whether this will play better once Part Two is released is uncertain, but as a solo franchise entry, some elements here don’t entirely satisfy.
This includes a cold open involving a Russian submarine that is fooled into firing missiles in the Arctic, as well an exposition dump as Cary Elwes‘ Denlinger, the Director of National Intelligence, is briefed on the latest global security threat by IMF director Kittridge (Henry Czerny). The threat this time is a sentient AI that is focused on the world’s intelligence agencies, effectively rendering all online data or knowledge null. It should come off as a “ripped from the headlines” storyline, but it is wrapped in so much nonsense political science jargon that it ultimately feels like word salad. None of this opening is particularly gracefully, leading to a mildly jarring and awkward opening for the film.
It’s not until Hunt and the series’ trusty face masks emerge that Dead Reckoning Part One finds its groove, and then it hums along nicely until the mid-way point of the film when the narrative hits a major speed bump.
Turns out the exploding Russian submarine is both the inciting incident and part of the film’s MacGuffin because it reveals that the AI can, in fact, be controlled or destroyed by two (aesthetically garish) keys. One of them is being sold off by franchise utility player Alanna Mitsopolis (Vanessa Kirby) while the other winds up in the possession of Grace (Hayley Atwell), a highly skilled thief who becomes embroiled in the globe-trotting mission.
Like nearly every M:I film, the plot is overly convoluted and exists first and foremost as a excuse for over-the-top practical stunts. Dead Reckoning Part One is no different: it boasts at least three stand-out sequences that could conceivably vie for a spot on a future listicle of the franchise’s most memorable set pieces.
These include a sequence set in the Abu Dhabi airport in which Ethan, Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) track Grace and the key while avoiding Jasper Briggs (Shea Whigham) and the team of men who have been ordered to bring Hunt in. Then there’s the Rome car chase sequence which amusingly finds Ethan and Grace handcuffed to each other, driving a tiny yellow vehicle, still avoiding Briggs, but with the added complication of French assassin Paris (Pom Klementieff) who drives a giant humvee.
Finally, there’s the climactic train sequence as Ethan battles the film’s villain Gabriel (Esai Morales) aboard a decoupling train in spectacularly dramatic fashion. It’s exciting, even if the outcome is expected.
That’s unfortunately a criticism that applies to the entire film, which suffers from a higher than usual level of predictability. As great as Atwell is, you can feel McQuarrie and co-writer Erik Jendresen desperately trying to shoehorn Grace onto Hunt’s team at the expense of Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). This is particularly evident in the Venice sequence at Alanna’s extravagant party, which confirms the suspicion that McQuarrie and Jendresen are desperate to raise the (life and death) stakes in a way they think is befitting of this final entry.
Alas it doesn’t work.
Partially because it treats a beloved character in a (at best) predictable and (at worst) insulting fashion, but also because it necessitates retconning Hunt’s own history. Suddenly he has a tragic origin story involving Gabriel that’s clearly meant to make this mission Hunt’s most personal one yet. It’s yet another of McQuarrie and Jendresen’s obvious attempts to make Dead Reckoning a spectacular send-off, but considering Morales’ limited screen time and the fact that Gabriel isn’t given anything resembling a proper motivation, it’s a baffling creative decision.
Again, this may all play better once Part Two unspools, but for now, it reeks of the screenwriters desperately trying to up the ante of the film’s central conflict.
The Bottom Line: The actors are good and reliable, and the action is exciting, but between having to effectively restart the plot post-Venice and the unconvincing backstory between Gabriel and Ethan, the plot and pacing of Dead Reckoning Part One needed a bit more ironing out. 3.5/5
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is out in theatres now