In the same way that the James Bond franchise has its own “shaken not stirred” shtick, the Mission: Impossible series does its own self-mythologizing and internal one-upmanship that makes each successive film more enjoyable, not less. Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One has arrived in theaters five years after the breathtaking sixth installment Mission: Impossible — Fallout and absence has certainly made the heart grow fonder. Dead Reckoning Part One delivers all of the action and story beats the series’ fans expect while also introducing exciting new performances and a timely antagonist.
The seventh M:I installment finds Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and Impossible Missions Force partners Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) racing against time to defeat a new global threat: a rogue AI program called the Entity, which has supposedly infiltrated the network of every global intelligence agency and could wreak havoc at any moment. A two-piece key exists that can supposedly harness the Entity, but Hunt believes it would be too powerful for any one world power to possess, so he has gone rogue from the CIA to destroy the program. As the IMF crew tries to find and combine the key’s pieces, they encounter Hayley Atwell’s Grace, an international super-thief, while also being chased by U.S. officials and a mysterious figure from Ethan’s past named Gabriel (Esai Morales).
If that description sounds convoluted, that’s because it is. In any given scene, there are at least three, and often four, distinct parties trying to prevail over each other in a chase or open combat. But the M:I franchise’s strength, at least in the past two films, lies in writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s ability to make something complicated on paper easily understood in the film’s visual language.
For one, McQuarrie frequently employs Dutch angles in his camera work, shots that are tilted horizontally to instill a sense of tension. McQuarrie does this partly to call back to the original Mission: Impossible film directed by Brian De Palma, who loved a Dutch angle, but also because the shot makes a typical cross-cutting expository dialogue scene much more engaging.
But for all of Dead Reckoning’s tech-debate timeliness, it still falters slightly with its human villain, Gabriel. In the era of ChatGPT and Hollywood’s writers and actors guilds striking in part due to disagreements about AI, the Entity has a compelling relevancy and the film’s opening sequence makes it clear why the sentient software poses a threat. Except, it never clarifies why Gabriel wants to be the flesh-and-blood extension of its power, why it even needs him to be, or how he discovered it in the first place. It’s worth remembering that this movie is the first of two parts, so McQuarrie could answer any or all of those questions in Dead Reckoning Part Two. But it certainly makes it harder for the viewer to buy into Ethan and Gabriel’s psychological battle during the movie, especially since the Gabriel character has not actually appeared in any of the previous M:I films.
This is not to say that Morales, who plays Gabriel, fails to give a compelling performance. Even with what little the audience knows about the character, Morales still imprints Gabriel with a smugness and ruthlessness that shows, rather than just tells, why the IMF crew needs to stop him. The series’ other first-time performers, Atwell and Pom Klementieff, the French actor best known for her performance as Mantis in the Guardians of the Galaxy series, both deliver performances worthy of a top action movie. Klementieff barely has any lines to deliver, but still imposes her physical will on the story as a hyper-competent hired assassin helping Gabriel to chase down Hunt and his allies. Atwell also develops a brilliant chemistry with Cruise throughout, although her role leaves Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust character in an awkward position.
Best of all, Dead Reckoning’s chase scenes and action set pieces will simply leave you with your jaw on the floor. Every sequence is tightly edited and dynamic from start to finish with bone-crushing collisions and slick knife fights. McQuarrie and co-screenwriter Erik Jendresen also ensure that there’s a slapstick–y, physical comedy in the various sequences that lets the audience know its creators are in on the joke, none more so than the absurd face mask disguises that have been a part of every installment.
Mission: Impossible is best when it leans into the over-the-top action and meta-commentary about how physically far Cruise is willing to go to make those impossible stunts believable. As thrilling as car chases across Rome and knife fights in Venice are, at the end of the day, all the average Mission: Impossible fan wants is Pegg and Cruise to banter about how he needs to drive a motorbike off a cliff then unfurl his parachute to land on a train. On that front, this film delivers with aplomb.