In certain ways, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is exactly what it needs to be; in other ways, it falls short, as the series has pretty much since the beginning. Fortunately, it works in the ways it most needs to, especially right now, as moviegoers are starved for unabashed entertainment devoid of hideous CGI and a dearth of lectures from our Tinsel Town betters. Tom Cruise wasn’t lying when he said his foremost concern was to entertain. However, some plot elements and the hollowness of the characters keep it from being everything it could have been. But it does have one secret weapon: Hayley Atwell.
Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is sent after the two halves of a missing key that will unlock the secrets of an artificial intelligence algorithm called the Entity that can give whoever possesses it total control of information. But Hunt decides that’s too much power for anyone – or any government – to wield and goes rogue to destroy the key and the Entity. But Hunt and his team aren’t the only ones after the key, and soon, he’s got to contend with Gabriel (Esai Morales), a dangerous man with ties to Hunt’s past; Jasper Briggs (Shea Whigham), an enforcer for the IMF sent to bring Hunt in before he causes too much trouble; Alana “White Widow” Mitsopolis (Vanessa Kirby), the arms dealer he contended with in the last movie; and Grace (Hayley Atwell), a professional thief who may be in over her head.
If that sounds a little confusing, you’re not alone; Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is convoluted, especially when it comes to the Entity. Trying to keep track of what this thing is, how it works, and what it can do gets to be a pain, with several conversations in the rare slow moments of the film dedicated to explaining it. Essentially, it can do pretty much anything from getting and controlling information to infiltrating any computer system it wants and taking over, and if I recall correctly, it blends a mean smoothie. I’m okay with this kind of movie having a ridiculous plot element like the Entity, but I’d prefer it if it were a little more understandable. I also wish it were used consistently well; sometimes, the movie does some clever and interesting things with the Entity, but other times, it not only stretches credulity but undercuts some important characters. Just a simple “It can manipulate information, and everyone wants to control it” would have been fine.
Fortunately, the hunt (make that a pun if you wish, leave it if you don’t) for the key to the Entity is a lot more entertaining than the electronic gobbledygook itself, and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One excels when it’s throwing Ethan Hunt into another action sequence. Thankfully, this is almost all the time; the film rarely slows down, with Hunt going from a sandstorm shootout in the Namib desert to a pulse-pounding evasion through Abu Dhabi International Airport to a car chase in Rome to a foot chase in Venice to a constantly evolving climax aboard the Orient Express. Each one is not only exhilarating but distinct from the others, putting Ethan through various paces and forcing him to employ different tactics and skills each time, so the action never grows stale. And, of course, the big mountain-jumping stunt we’ve all been waiting for is a show-stopper that will make you appreciate Tom Cruise even more than you already do. Watching some recent films, it’s impressive how well this one manages its action, especially since the manic nature of it never allows it to feel managed. Christopher McQuarrie was a godsend to this series (although Brad Bird was great too.)
It’s good that the action is so well-executed and never lets up because the character work is mostly non-existent, as it usually is with this series. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One falls somewhere in the middle of Rogue Nation (my favorite of the franchise) and Fallout (second or third, pending a few re-watches); Rogue Nation kept everything subtle and related to the plot and the team, so it worked, while Fallout laid it on so thick that its artificiality was apparent and nothing felt real or earned. Dead Reckoning Part One does keep the emotional beats to a minimum and has seemingly learned from Fallout by jettisoning – or at least minimizing – some of the heart, so it doesn’t get bogged down in something it can’t properly execute. The trade-off is that it’s hard to care about much of the team beyond liking the actors, which is fine for Tom Cruise and Ving Rhames, but not so fine for Simon Pegg and Rebecca Ferguson, although your mileage may vary.
The team isn’t much of a presence in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, with Rhames and Pegg essentially background players and Ferguson popping up almost at random. That’s a result of having so many characters that even an almost three-hour movie can’t juggle them all. Ethan Hunt is the main show, as expected, and while I’ve never considered him a particularly great character, he works for a relentlessly paced action film, essentially a vehicle through which we can experience the fights, chases, and stunts, and Tom Cruise embodies that spirit as well as he always does. Hunt is more morose in this outing, not his usual charming self, but I don’t mind that; I prefer the entries where Hunt feels like he’s at a disadvantage, up against the wall with an enemy who outmaneuvers him and makes him feel vulnerable.
Esai Morales is that enemy – or the main one, anyway – and he’s good when he’s around, but he’s not around enough. Like so many modern movie villains, Gabriel is absent too often, and he’s never given any scenes to demonstrate his menace, like Rogue Nation’s Solomon Lane (still the series’ best bad guy). His ultimate motivations are silly and make him less intimidating than he would have been; there’s an argument for praising its slight unconventionality, but that only works when it isn’t dumb and as artificial as the Entity’s intelligence. Pom Kelmentieff plays his lieutenant, Paris, and she’s a lot of fun, a brutal little psychopath who has some great fights – and, to the film’s credit, she isn’t treated with kid gloves because of her sex. Actors like Shea Whigham and Henry Czerny are good more because it’s always nice to see them rather than anything the movie demands of them; the same is true of Ving Rhames, whose Luther Stickell has almost nothing to do. The same is true of Simon Pegg, and while I’ve liked Rebecca Ferguson in other things, she’s lifeless in this series, and Dead Reckoning Part One is no exception.
But there’s one who stands above everyone else in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One: Hayley Atwell. Her character, Grace, is a marvel, a holdover from a bygone era where women were allowed to command the screen through sheer force of will rather than because the awful script told us so. Grace is a femme fatale in the grand tradition, able to match Hunt’s considerable wits with her own, using her sex appeal to her advantage while keeping it subtle and unspoken (although Christopher McQuarrie knows just how to move the camera around her, God bless him). Atwell is incredible in the role, and not just because of her descended-from-heaven beauty; it’s the way she holds herself, how she moves just the right way every time, the way she speaks differently to different people at different times, how she can affect the scared girl or the confident woman when it suits her. And she’s not a superhero; she’s always vulnerable, even more than Hunt, and while she’s highly intelligent and skilled, she realizes quickly that she’s bitten off more than she can chew by getting involved in this spy adventure. Grace is the second-biggest role after Ethan Hunt, and thank God for that; I could watch a whole movie about her, and I can’t wait to see her again next year.
Next year is necessary, too, because the “Part One” at the end of the title means exactly what you think. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is the first half of a story, and when it ends, you can’t help but feel a bit dissatisfied. It’s not as bad as Fast X, but it doesn’t feel complete, either. Much is unanswered, like who Gabriel is and how he and Ethan know each other. (There is a repeated glimpse, but no meat to it.) We’re also not done with the Entity or its key, which is a shame because I don’t think it can sustain another movie. The worst thing about this is that it isn’t necessary; Dead Reckoning could have easily been one movie with some of the moving parts to this one trimmed. Certain characters lift out completely (notice how I haven’t mentioned Vanessa Kirby’s White Widow outside of the synopsis?), and one or two others had early potential exit points that could have been maintained to get the story done in one shot. The next one will likely feel a bit extraneous, and I can see the Entity becoming a drag.
But that’s mostly a problem for next year. For now, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is a fast-moving, entertaining action movie that delivers plenty of exciting sequences and, of course, fantastic stunts. The story is convoluted, the AI conceit is uneven, and the character work is mostly weak (though unobtrusive), but the action is excellent, and Hayley Atwell is wonderful. It’s certainly worth your time, even if it may not bring you back for repeat viewings.
Well, maybe Hayley Atwell will.