MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – DEAD RECKONING PART 1 [Film Review] – Uncharted Territory

J.L. Caraballo
IG @captzaff007
Letterboxd @CaptZaff

If someone back in 1996 had told 10-year-old me that Tom Cruise‘s Mission: Impossible would not only spawn six sequels, but that they’d get better and better with each installment, I would have told you to shut your filthy little mouth. You whore. But here we are, over 25 years after Cruise’s Ethan Hunt dangled into the CIA’s most impenetrable vault (that…could probably have benefited from a security camera or two), and being thrilled with the seventh film in the series, the first to end on a veritable cliffhanger (in nearly every sense of the word).

Yes, this series has perfected itself in such a way that each installment is not only more exciting that the previous, but each practical set-piece manages to one-up its predecessor as well. Dead Reckoning Part 1 mostly continues with that trend…mostly. In terms of sheer summer popcorn fun, this series has yet to top Ghost Protocol, and in terms of plotting, drama, tension, set-pieces, and just plain ol’ solid thrilling filmmaking, Fallout still remains the pinnacle in this series (and probably big-budget American action films, in general).

Opening with the series’ longest pre-title teaser ever (and one which focuses at first on none of the IMF team), we are introduced to the main antagonist, a military-grade AI known only as The Entity. During what is initially a war game, the Entity seems to grow beyond its initial programming, and intentionally sinks itself, killing the Russian crew aboard and sinking beneath the Arctic Ocean. But soon after this (literal) cold start, we’re reintroduced to Ethan Hunt (Cruise), disavowed MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), and stalwart team members Benji (Simon Pegg), and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames). Through machinations and double-crosses, we learn that access to the Entity can be controlled via a master key that is split into two parts, one of which is in the hands of returning character, black-market dealer Alanna Mitsopolis (Vanessa Kirby), and the other is being hunted by the Entity’s human counterpart, Gabriel (Esai Morales), a man with a close personal connection to Hunt’s past.

In what seems almost counterintuitive and paradoxical, Dead Reckoning Part 1 manages to focus so tightly on its plot that it feels more constrained than any of its predecessors. To its credit (and occasional detriment), the Mission: Impossible series had verve and energy that derived from the conceit that the plot (and, hell, the entire series itself) was nothing more than Scotch tape holding together a series of improbable, dangerous, practical, yet incredibly thrilling stunts. And it worked like gangbusters. The fanatical thrill, for me, in each entry is the giddy way in which set pieces that would be built up for an entire film’s runtime are routinely, flippantly executed (to whit: Fallout’s very first major stunt is the single-shot HALO jump actually featuring Cruise). The build-up to Dead Reckoning‘s base-jump is almost, if ever so slightly, undercut by how heavily it featured in the marketing, and how long it took to set up.

The stuntwork here — as with every single entry — is likewise thrilling and exciting and practically done (if not A BIT derivative in elements) to feel fresh, even if at least some of its influences and inspirations (*coughcough-multipleBondmovies-cough*) are more apparent and obvious this time around. Two characters handcuffed together, arguing over who gets to drive a vehicle? Check. A comically tiny yellow European car engaged in a car chase? Check. Remote control spy car? Check? A base jump off a mountain? Check. A more-specific base jump off a MOTORCYCLE? Sure. A fight on top of a train? Check, and check. A fight INSIDE a train? Don’t mind if I do. An even more absurdly-specific fight INSIDE the Orient Express? Check. Chasing someone through a crowded airport? YASS. Deadly fisticuffs in a ridiculously tiny location? CHECK. Am I….am I making myself clear? As a pastiche, Dead Reckoning is great, and it keeps the pace up wonderfully…but the influences are a little easier to spot this time around.

And…***SPOILER ALERT***…this movie (and series) does Ilsa slightly dirty. After spending two whole movies trying to win her life and identity back, she winds up stabbed in the chest by Gabriel, herself sacrificed for the newest addition to the team, professional (if naive-in-the-ways-of-spycraft) Grace (Hayley Atwell). Ilsa was always an interesting character, never quite up front with her motivations, and yet always a character to root for. She had her own country betray her (or try to) more than once in the course of these films, so for her to finally be taken out was disappointing. This wasn’t so much as her being fridged (she and Ethan never seemed to have anything more than professional respect for each other), and her confrontation with Gabriel was entirely her own choice (refreshingly), but my aforementioned favorite of the series, Ghost Protocol, had such a wide variety of characters on the team that it felt unique and interesting, watching each improvise, play off of, and showcase their expertise off of each other. Grace, in comparison, is less interesting than Ilsa, less complex, and less developed. All that might change in Part 2, but Ilsa’s death felt less like “her story’s done”, and more like the series itself conforming to “we can only have one of X type of character in IMF” (case in point: M:I 3 killed off Keri Russell‘s Lindsey to retain Maggie Q’s Lei; Ghost Protocol featured ONLY Paula Patton‘s Jane Carter, who we never see again; Ilsa filled the role of female IMF spy for Rogue Nation, and Fallout…and to date, Luther Stickell is the ONLY major Black character to appear more than once…sooooooo…).

Does all this detract from the movie? No. Christopher McQuarrie still has a keen eye for action, pacing, composition, and knowing how to stage action in the clearest, easiest-to-follow way possible. And as much as I slightly bemoaned the base jump stunt, the build-up to it was actually palpable, and the audience let out an audible gasp when Hunt jumped off. Pom Klementieff seems to throw herself head-first into the role of soft-spoken assassin Paris, and has such a giddy, fun time, it was a delight watching every scene with her. While composer Lorne Balfe does as well here as he did in Fallout, there isn’t anything quite as memorable as Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, nor the always-great Michael Giacchino‘s works on their respective installments. And, finally, the script Erik Jendresen and McQuarrie, does the work of finally detailing exactly what IMF is, and its relation to the government at large, but relies just slightly too much on an audience having a clear memory of events and characters from anywhere from five to twenty-seven years prior. Having just rewatched the series, the name “John Locke” still resonated, but someone coming in fresh? I loathe to think how they might have reacted.

Finally, there’s something inherently silly about the villain being the very concept of AI. It’s a bit on-the-nose, and while it’s interesting to see Ethan Hunt try to outsmart a learning program, and while the audience has the burly presence of Gabriel as a stand-in, the Entity just doesn’t have as much weight or presence as an outright villain. A scene set at a party planned by Gabriel and the Entity…replete with a wavy eyeball-like algorithm hovering on a wall of monitors behind Hunt…played a bit silly visually. And, hell, Gabriel’s revelation of his plan with the Entity, told to Cary Elwes‘ Director of National Intelligence, Denlinger, actually elicited laughter in my screening. It’s just…silly.

This is still the summer series to beat, and Tom Cruise once again kickstarted the salvation of the summer season for the second year in a row (at least until Barbie, and Oppenheimer, send the box office in to overdrive). Expertly paced, tense, and exciting, but not without some of the seams showing, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is a prime lead up to Part Two. Here’s hoping it sticks the landing when the follow-up gets released.

3.75/5 masks being ripped off

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is currently playing in theaters everywhere