Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One: Dismantling the Artificial with Practical Genius

You have stepped into a world of lies.

In a world that no longer seems to be in pursuit of the truth, where do we turn? When everything is obfuscated, targeted, designed to be unsolvable and ineffable, how do we operate? When agents who defend the reality of the free world are faced with an enemy who is now faceless, incorporeal, inhuman, and all-knowing, how do we prevent the world from careening into free-falling chaos? Everything was once defined by clear lines, no matter how labyrinthine allegiances and defections became, protecting the world from harm and terror at all costs. Now, it’s a lot more muddy. Though the mission remains the same, it no longer feels like there is anyone to side with. The world has been plunged into such unclear disarray and all that’s left is one final line of defense between the reality we once knew and a world of unchecked cyber-fascism. Entities as allies have evaporated, no government is on our side, and the enemy is both everywhere and nowhere. The impossible has reached a fever pitch.

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning presents a challenging conundrum, an attempt to tackle a reality so cutting-edge and extant that nobody quite understands it. In the past, our villains were powerful people – terrorists with grandiose plans of nuclear warfare or biological attacks, singular threats to track down and dismantle. Those days are long gone, a past era of simple solutions to complex problems. As the world moves at a breakneck pace towards submitting every facet of our daily existence to artificial intelligence, so does this notion creep its way into the world of espionage. Centering now around a rogue AI known only as “The Entity,” the threat here is as vague and hazy as The Entity itself. There is no path to anything resembling objective truth here, a fitting concept for a landscape mired in falsehoods and misdirection, but these muddled ideas of the enemy we face make for a difficult cinematic foundation.

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. Dir. Christopher McQuarrie.

The film’s grand operatic machinations are tougher to chew on than ever – we may be accustomed to the laughable complexity of the spiderweb plots of allegiances and threats in this series, a constantly moving target where our characters often suffer similar fates and consequences ad infinitum, but the ideas here have become so stratospherically impossible to pin down that it often stumbles over itself. However, we do not return for the details. We return for a franchise that has repeatedly proven itself a stunning showcase of cinematic fervor, spanning decades and a litany of auteurs and ideas that consistently reinvent the blockbuster. From the tight espionage thrills of Brian De Palma’s original film, to the heroic bloodshed chaos of John Woo’s sequel, to Brad Bird’s high-rise acrobatics, to Christopher McQuarrie’s balletic stunt showcases, the series has always felt refreshingly free, packed full of brilliant setpieces and a deluge of perfect character actor performances.

Dead Reckoning Part One, despite its toweringly labyrinthine plot and perhaps the least compelling villain of the series, remains absolutely incredible blockbuster filmmaking – a nonstop thrill that rides on razor-sharp tension in every single moment, ratcheting the stakes into a white knuckle finale that rivals the best stuntwork in the franchise. McQuarrie weaves together the forward motion of so many opposing factions with incredible ease, each character on their own individual trajectory without ever losing track of where anyone should be, flowing from movement to movement with unwavering, unflinching confidence. Unparalleled filmmaking on such a massive scale, slowly injecting a stream of characters who effortlessly weave themselves through each moment with explicit purpose. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has returned, stepping forth from the shadows as he is needed to tackle this new unforeseen threat, and as he moves through these spaces it all turns inward, everything in the orbit of his past, his present, and his future, ghosts returning to haunt while the extant pressure of what’s next bears down. All of it shattered and reformed within the context of this omnipresent enemy capable of planning out so many eventualities and possibilities, it seems the only way out is to commit to The Entity’s Machiavellian schemes and brute force through them like never before.

The whole world is once again on the line but now there is nobody to turn to for help. The returning sneer of Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny) moves Ethan and Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) like pawns in a bid for American domination, a dusty desert shootout opening the film before moving to an Ocean’s heist of misdirection and moving parts at an airport, only to swiftly escape into the narrow streets of Rome for a high speed, tires-spitting chase. This first hour of the film is flawlessly executed, out of this world pacing moves it all along with ten-ton propulsive force, dropping returning favorites Luther (Ving Rhames), and Benji (Simon Pegg) back into the mix while also introducing Grace (Hayley Atwell), Paris (Pom Klementieff), and retconned ghost of the past Gabriel (Esai Morales) as a looming threat. It all moves with impact and power thanks to McQuarrie’s commendable commitment to practical setpieces, but the flow is effervescent and breezy, always hitting each beat right where it needs to be before moving on to the next climb of rising action, and by the time it reaches one of the most incredible finales yet – a sky high motorcycle jump and a duel atop a moving train, it feels like it’s barely begun.

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. Dir. Christopher McQuarrie.

Here it is equal parts success and failure. Following an increasing trend of splitting stories across multiple films and leaving audiences sat with frustrating cliffhangers (recent examples Dune (2021), Across The Spider-Verse, and Fast X all find themselves cutting off unceremoniously, lacking a proper arc within their individual films), Dead Reckoning Part One successfully feels whole, a complete arc with a tangible conclusion that leaves open threads for its finale. The biggest problem upon leaving the story here is that the continuation of this threat just isn’t that compelling. There’s no doubt that Part Two will deliver more tightly threaded filmmaking with incredible, definitional setpieces and a signature sense of charm that’s always present and never overbearing – McQuarrie has proven enough his directorial prowess to implicitly trust his output – but with Esai Morales as a limp puppet and The Entity as a vague, indeterminate threat, it’s less of an exciting invitation to see that continued.

Each of these complaints, however, are minor bumps in the road for a film that is a constantly breathtaking and thrilling approach to its franchise. Lorne Balfe returns with another booming symphonic score that takes the wheel and drives the intensity from one moment to the next with each blaring horn and beating drum. Cinematographer Fraser Taggart shoots each scene with feverish reverence, wielding sharp Dutch angles with the energy of De Palma’s work with Stephen Burum and always shooting a refreshingly open view of each moment of action. Cruise continues to pull off incredible, physics-defying stuntwork (and continues to be in contention for best running in cinematic history). While McQuarrie’s script might miss the grand notes it delivers impactful emotional beats for Hunt and his IMF team, and this interpersonal punch is what ultimately delivers Dead Reckoning Part One as another unforgettable thrill ride entry into this series.


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