VERDICT: Hits all the marks of an adrenaline-packed summer spy thriller, with pacing that makes 163 minutes zip right by.
Tom Cruise and his creative team have the Mission: Impossible moviemaking process down to a science, but Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One never feels clinical or by the numbers. A throwback to an era when “summer movies” represented something distinct from what studios produced for the other nine months of the year, Dead Reckoning offers 163 minutes’ worth of adrenaline and excitement that never overstays its welcome.
No one’s going to confuse the proceedings here for the cerebral geopolitics of a John Le Carré novel, but in terms of international hijinks, breathtaking chases, and heart-in-the-throat stunts — with more laughs than one might expect along the way — the seventh big-screen outing for the Impossible Mission Force (the third in a row with Christopher McQuarrie in the director’s chair) raises the bar for Summer 2023 popcorn entertainment.
Amidst the latex masks and trademark “Tom Cruise runs” scenes, Dead Reckoning throws in character development, offering some of the first hints about why Ethan Hunt (Cruise) joined the IMF and who he was before doing so. We get glimpses at a life of nefarious activity, a mysterious woman who mattered to him, and her death at the hands of Gabriel (Esai Morales), a shadowy figure suddenly back on the scene.
The MacGuffin created by McQuarrie and co-writer Erik Jendresen (Ithaca) ranks among the better fictional techno-doodads in recent movies – a program known as “the Entity.” Every country on Earth is duking it out to get their hands on a key (made of two separate pieces) that can control this newly self-aware AI; the Entity not only can make its way into any digital system, but it can also send phony texts and voice messages, and even literal “fake news” to social media. If messages from the Entity are indistinguishable from the real thing, a single government could control the mass of digital information, leading to chaos.
Getting the key and keeping it out of the wrong hands sends Hunt and his comrades Benji (Simon Pegg), Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), and Luther (Ving Rhames) on a round-the-world chase. Along the way, they cross paths with Gabriel and his deadly sidekick Paris (Pom Klementieff) as well as the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby, returning from 2018’s Mission: Impossible — Fallout), a very skillful pickpocket named Grace (Hayley Atwell), and Ethan’s not-necessarily-trustworthy handler Kittridge (Henry Czerny). And as if saving the world yet again wasn’t enough, Hunt’s also eluding capture by government agent Jasper Briggs (Shea Whigham), who’s always one step behind what he calls Hunt’s “mind-reading shape-shifter” abilities.
Editor Eddie Hamilton (Top Gun: Maverick) skillfully gauges the audience’s heart rate, building the tension further and further within each action set piece before allowing some recovery time between them. (Lorne Balfe’s score works with Hamilton, effectively making the thrills more thrilling and the emotional scenes more moving.) Like last year’s Maverick, only with a more satisfying screenplay, Dead Reckoning has a similar agenda of manipulating viewers’ central nervous systems, as Tom Cruise seemingly dices with death again and again for our collective entertainment.
If there’s another connective thread with the Top Gun sequel, it’s in the celebration of older tech — because the Entity so effectively invades any computer operating system, the IMF team is forced to rely on outdated, analog walkie-talkies and other pre-digital tech to try to confound it. (This twist puts the movie in conflict with its product-placement deal; even though all the characters are supposed to be avoiding digital tech, Benji still lets his BMW’s auto-drive system chauffeur him around the Austrian Alps.)
The returning players know precisely what they’re doing, maintaining Wes Anderson levels of deadpan no matter how over-the-top the situation. At the same time, newcomer Atwell gets the luxury of being gobsmacked by all this nutty espionage business. She also gets the chance to show off her action chops and bantering skills in a way that the MCU rarely allowed during her stint as Agent Peggy Carter.
As for Morales, it’s no mean feat to play someone who is taking the side of an AI program over humanity — he’s a one-man technology cult — but Gabriel’s a cool enough customer to be believable as maybe the only person on Earth who could match Ethan Hunt in hand-to-hand combat atop a speeding train. (Until Dead Reckoning Part Two, anyway.)
The climactic action sequence involving the Orient Express immediately joins the ranks of the series’ most memorable and breathtaking set pieces, and if Dead Reckoning winds up being Cruise’s farewell to the franchise, this final chapter is off to an extraordinary start.