Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One 2023 Movie Review
Sooner or later, Ethan Hunt will face a mission he really ought not to accept. But for the time being, he remains the one man on Earth willing to attempt the impossible without questioning the motives of those who require his services. That’s the deal with America’s most dutiful Boy Scout, Tom Cruise, who’s carried the billion-dollar “Mission: Impossible” franchise across 27 years without losing steam. Compare that with Indiana Jones, who’s failed to connect with a younger generation, or the “Fast and Furious” movies, which aren’t running out of gas so much as guzzling the laughing sort.
“Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One” finds Cruise, now in his 60s, still running from one side of a very big, very wide screen to the other as if his life — and the lives of all 8 billion people on the planet — depended on it. This is Hunt’s seventh blockbuster outing, with a last franchise-capper set to release next summer, and while it can’t eclipse what came before (“Fallout” was the series high), director Christopher McQuarrie delivers a formidable concept and several hall-of-fame set-pieces while somehow managing to tie the storylines back into these movies’ core mythology.
The villain this time around isn’t a person but an all-powerful artificial-intelligence whatsit known as the Entity, which fools a super-advanced Russian submarine into destroying itself in the film’s clever pre-credits sequence. In the moments just before the ship explodes (mere days after the Titan met a similar fate), the camera zeroes in on an unattended computer monitor, where something resembling a giant digital eyeball appears on the screen. Not red like HAL-9000, but more of an ominous blue orb staring out from a flow of “Matrix”-style digital code. It’s a serviceable solution to a tricky quandary: How to anthropomorphize something so abstract as rogue AI? In the decades since “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the general public has developed real concerns about such technology. Whereas Carl Sagan was dealing in speculative fiction, “Dead Reckoning” now seems incredibly timely.
Between the sub and the supercomputer, it feels as if McQuarrie and co-writer Erik Jendresen had the foresight to pull plot points from tomorrow’s news, which helps cover the fact that the action sequences are essentially just slick retreads of familiar stunts. How many times have we seen Cruise dangling over some high-altitude chasm, or watched grown men duke it out atop a speeding train? If and when human heroes are finally called upon to rein in artificial intelligence, it doesn’t seem especially probable that the showdown will involve anything so spectacular as speeding a motorcycle off a sharp Norwegian cliff. But watching nerds writing code in a boring computer lab (or whatever that scenario will ultimately entail) isn’t nearly so cinematic, so let’s be thankful that McQuarrie and company have such vivid imaginations.
While Cruise’s Hunt is busy being the movie’s action figure, he’s supported by tech agents Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), who give him pointers via headset. “Dead Reckoning” also brings back sharpshooter Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) and arms dealer the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), lining up a neat little ensemble of friends and associates that the AI can target and/or manipulate. The idea here is that the Entity’s mile-a-minute computation skills have concluded that the only thing that stands in its way is Hunt. And what is Hunt’s weak spot? Loyalty to his friends. As Hunt tells a gifted recruit known only as Grace (Hayley Atwell), “Your life will always matter more than my own.”
That’s just a flat-out lousy tactical philosophy, but it’s the kind of stubborn thinking that Cruise embodies so well: a blunt instrument traveling at extremely high velocity, guided by instinct and that inner ethical barometer. Even though we’ve just met Grace — who’s a pickpocket for hire, and not much of a team player — Hunt has decided she’s worth protecting. Heck, she could even be Impossible Mission Force material. So, when the Entity forces Hunt to choose which of his amigas to save, Ilsa or Grace, the guy all but short-circuits. In theory, that’s how you beat a virtual brain: You give it an impossible problem to solve (à la the tic-tac-toe game in “War Games”). For the moment, the Entity seems to be playing chess, not Risk, as “Dead Reckoning” has yet to show what renegade AI is capable of. Told that one of these women must die, Hunt does his darnedest to save them both. As usual, he’s got face masks in his arsenal, while the Entity has a nifty trick for pretending to be various people — a reminder that you can never trust your eyes or ears in an “M:I” movie.
Since Hunt can’t really deal with the Entity directly, the movie concocts a handful of human henchpeople to do its bidding (and punching, driving, etc.). To that end, Esai Morales plays a guy named Gabriel who’s been retconned into Hunt’s backstory, which supposedly makes this a more personal mission than those that came before — although the effect is no different than if he’d been invented for this movie. Gabriel takes orders from the Entity, while right-hand woman Paris (Pom Klementieff, who played Mantis in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies) proves the more threatening adversary. She first appears in Rome, where an elaborate car chase shot on location expertly balances thrills and laughter, the latter courtesy of a puny Fiat 500 and a pair of handcuffs.
As always, the plot is but an excuse for ever more elaborate set-pieces, executed so convincingly that Cruise has acquired a reputation for carrying out all the insane things Hunt is called upon to do in the movie. That’s a testament to more than just the marketing department; Cruise really is committed to topping his previous feats, and though there’s no shortage of good old-fashioned movie magic involved (in the editing and visual effects), the crew does a terrific job of making “Dead Reckoning” look real. At a moment when nearly every other franchise, from Marvel to “Avatar,” has embraced the fake look of CG cartoons, “Mission: Impossible” appears the most practical: So much of what we see was captured on camera, and that makes all the difference.
With just one film left in the series, “Dead Reckoning” starts to tie up loose ends, which means none of the canonical characters is safe — not even Hunt. Combine that with the Entity’s strategy of targeting his friends, and the movie succeeds in humanizing the stakes. At the core, this is still just an elaborate game of hot potato, as everyone chases the two-part key that went down with the Russian sub, and which keeps changing hands over the movie’s 163-minute running time. The action builds to the film’s best set-piece, as Hunt finds a novel way to board a speeding train — and an even more unconventional way to disembark once it starts sliding off a bridge, one car at a time. This outing may be one-half of a two-part finale, but it gives audiences enough closure to stand on its own, and every reason to expect the last installment will be a corker.