Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One Keeps Us As Committed As Its Star

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

Over the past 27 years, the character of Ethan Hunt, returning for Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, has been uniquely described in many ways by his pursuing enemies and authorities. They watch his preferred and habitual methods of misdirection over confrontation and call him a “rogue extremist” and a “gambler.” Alec Baldwin’s CIA director Alan Hundley, with this ominous mini-rant from 2015’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation directed at the Prime Minister of Britain right before a classic mask-pull swerve, might have said it best:

Hunt is uniquely trained and highly motivated – a specialist without equal – immune to any countermeasures. There is no secret he cannot extract, no security he cannot breach, no person he cannot become. He has most likely anticipated this very conversation and is waiting to strike in whatever direction we move. Sir, Hunt is the living manifestation of destiny – and he has made you his mission.

How do you top that doozy? Well, series newcomer Shea Whigham’s hired enforcer Jasper Briggs gives it his best shot in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One describing Ethan Hunt as a “mind-reading, shape-shifting instrument of chaos” who doesn’t die until “you put a stake through his heart.” That rings as true as a host of carillon bells. Like the vampirical suggestion in that line, leave it to Tom Cruise to continue to defy age and thrill us on the big screen as only he can do.

A group of government agents in plain clothes ascend a staircase.
Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

Mission Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One arrives with the promise to present the beginning of the end for Ethan Hunt. Pivoting from the closure of The Syndicate storeline in Mission: Impossible – Fallout five years ago, this film starts fresh to take its time to lay out an epic finale spread across two movies in two years. As a helpful boost for the mountain of jargon and trivialities to come, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie and polisher playwright Erik Jendresen let the audience in on the global threat double-MacGuffin in the opening scene.

Using the switcheroo move of subtitles turning to speech from The Hunt For Red October, a new stealth Russian submarine is observed undergoing wargame maneuvers in the Bering Sea. Unbeknownst to most of the crew and brass, the vessel carries the source code machine of what is being called The Entity—a super-sentient AI that has found its way into every tech system in every country. During an exercise, The Entity deliberately reroutes the Russians’ own torpedo to sink the sub, killing the entire crew and allowing the unlocked supercomputer to run on its own power and stash itself at the bottom of the ocean away from human interference. 

A man talks on a cell phone in a smoky room.
Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

On the surface, every major government agency is spooked by the invasive and “stateless” AI. Using typewriters and old Cold War satellites, intelligence outfits have begun to scale operations back to analog methods away from The Entity’s vast digital reach. The key to stopping The Entity is a key itself—a high-tech, two-part cruciform key retrieved from the recovered bodies of the submarine crew. Thanks to the pre-loaded dramatic irony from earlier, we know where the key goes and what it does when everyone else on-screen does not.

The goal to acquire the two halves of the cruciform key becomes the central pursuit of Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. Every major nation, including the U.S. intelligence war room led by Director Delinger (old Days of Thunder villain Cary Elwes) and a returning Eugene Kittridge (original ‘96er Henry Czerny), craves The Entity’s power to expose all secrets and control all truth as a potential indomitable superpower nation. Seemingly the only person who sees the big picture and wants to wisely destroy it is Ethan Hunt, which puts him at odds with multiple agencies of government spooks and deadly assets including his own Americans.

A man and woman stand outside a massive club party in Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One
Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

The first person to pop onto the grid with either half of the cruciform key is former MI-6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson, in her third M:I circus). She gains a $50 million bounty’s worth of attention from acronym-ed organizations and nefarious opportunists like Briggs and black market arms dealer Alanna “White Widow” Mitsopolis (The Queen’s Vanessa Kirby from Mission: Impossible – Fallout). Alas, wherever Ilsa is, Hunt and his IMF team of Benji Dunn and Luther Stickell (long-timers Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames) are not far behind. All the while, The Entity has its digital finger in every pie, manipulating this whole pursuit with the help of its own human operative mouthpiece Gabriel (Esai Morales of The Art of Love), a mysterious figure from Ethan Hunt’s pre-IMF past.

McQuarrie and Jendresen’s use of artificial intelligence is a timely topic for sure, but brings its own tangled mess of narrative wires and power cords. Starting with Luther Stickell as the smartest guy in any given room (and crowned by likely the actor’s own sharp-ass chapeaus), conundrums and crossroads in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One require our heroes to think unemotionally like The Entity with coding and logical odds in mind. All the plan-hatching talk of “The Entity already knows” or “The Entity already thought of that” can get confusing, exhausting, and tedious in the lengthy movie (and just a Part One at that). By operating in an invisible battlefield of supposed certainty waiting for audibles to inexplicably work, the excitement level reduces slightly for long stretches. 

Three men look towards a new ally in an underground room.
Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

If your mental grasp is slipping, you’re not alone, even with the double-MacGuffin help provided from the first act. For example, to see Morales’ evil messianic fanatic and Guardians of the Galaxy’s Pom Klementieff playing his underwritten ramrod of a henchperson spin the very ambiguous yarns of the “godless” machine is an out-of-step stretch that will require patient investment for a future payoff next summer. Along the same lines, when Grace, a skillful pickpocket played by fellow MCU star Hayley Atwell, gets caught up in this globe-trotting rabbit hole of lies with Ethan and becomes the linchpin, she implores to Benji “I’m going to need more details.” The tech guru’s frank reply is “They just get in the way.” Sheesh, good luck, young lady! Her exasperation is right. This might be the most M:I minutiae yet.

While that confusion is semi-expected for this series and the slow burn of Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, that’s a shaky stance. This film swells to nearly be too big for even itself. Don’t get me wrong. We can all sit back and gasp, but it’s much more fulfilling when your brain is as challenged as your nerves. Luckily, the razzle-dazzle of fancy action filmmaking is there to inject your noggin with hits of unmatched spectacle and welcome distractions. McQuarrie, Cruise, and studly stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood have devised a hellaciously fun obstacle course of vehicular battles, choreographed hand-to-hand combat, and a hailstorm of bullet squibs for Dead Reckoning that rattle your theater seat top to bottom. 

Two men find hand-to-hand on the top of a moving train.
Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

Director of photography Fraser Taggert (Doctor Strange, Edge of Tomorrow) spins the maze every which way with blanketing visual angles while composer Lorne Balfe hammers the hard piano and doom-filled low strings. More often than not, the action, unlike from lesser other movie sources, feels reasonably natural (even with the VFX assistance from teams supervised by Alex Whittle and Robin Saxen) at being there to advance the plot and not just show off. The cool part is when the action scenes, like the much-hyped motorcycle parachute jump and a breathless little Fiat car escapade in Rome, can do both. Call it suspense’s hog heaven without the fat, and they justify the movie.

Through it all, we’ve always been here in Mission: Impossible for Tom Cruise and the human touch of his enormous loyalty factor. The pendulum of friends beings strengths and weaknesses, which happens every movie, is both Ethan Hunt’s largest Achilles Heel and his strongest vertebra of morality. As precarious as matters always get, he chooses the lives of his closest peers over the immediate chess move, and the acceptance of that path makes him heroic in a special way—potential undoing be damned.

A man puts his hands up for police with a woman behind him.
Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

Adding some worthwhile breadth for the now-61-year-old actor still ramping up his own cardio, a sizable chunk of the foreboding drama in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One all cycles back to Ethan Hunt’s untold origin story. Flashbacks offer glimpses that lead to reflective hefty talk of IMF’s “The Choice” and “The Oath.” Greater than the resulting swashbuckling and bravado that follow, full-circle emphasis is made on how lives and fates are changed by decisions that are offered to people, not ordered. 

After nearly 30 years, we are locked in and present for all that these dire missions entail– consequences and all, hope and all. We’ve made our choice and signed our own oath of fandom to chase our own tails and hang on every clue. Give us one more adventure, Tom. We’re as ready and committed as you are.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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