“Details would only get in the way,” intones Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, Shaun of the Dead) to newcomer Grace (Haley Atwell, Captain America, Black Mirror), who looks back at him in stark disbelief. That Benji could very well be describing the Mission Impossible film franchise isn’t lost on the viewer. Based on the classic 1960s TV show of the same name and its 1980s follow-up, Dead Reckoning Part 1 is the seventh entry in the film series that began in 1996 with director Brian De Palma’s (Dressed to Kill) first Mission: Impossible movie.
From the moment 2000’s flagrantly over-the-top M:I-2 (directed by action auteur John Woo) opened with Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise, Top Gun) free-climbing a sheer rock face, these movies have become less about espionage than showcases for Cruise to pursue increasingly dangerous stunts. The successes of the films that followed lay in how well their directors could balance the daredevil whims of their stars with compelling scenarios that called for them. In Mission: Impossible III (2006), director JJ Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) brought Ethan back down to earth, while re-establishing the team dynamic that had made the original tv series so successful. Director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) would go on to successfully deconstruct the franchise’s most iconic elements in Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol (2011), before Cruise and his Jack Reacher writer-director Christopher McQuarrie would team up to redefine the series anew.
Assembled under the philosophy of designing the set pieces first, then filling in the story details later, Cruise and McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015) was a brilliantly paced thriller that ramped up the signature action while introducing the series’ single best character, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson, The Greatest Showman). McQuarrie would push the formula further as the series’ first returning director with Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018), which upped the stakes and paid off continuity threads from the last three movies. (The fact that it turned Henry Cavill’s arms into a massively meme-worthy movie moment was a bonus.) With McQuarrie firmly at the helm, the latest release, Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning will reportedly serve as the first of a two-part finale for the franchise.
The story opens in tense fashion, with Russian submariners launching an attack that could spark an international conflict. When the sub’s actions spur the world’s governments to retrieve an all-important key from Ilsa Faust, Ethan Hunt and the IMF will have to decide which side they’re fighting for. At the same time, an enemy from Ethan’s past has resurfaced, one who will stop at nothing to accomplish his own dark mission.
Dead Reckoning has everything we’ve come to expect from these films–an overly-complicated plot, multiple double- and triple-crosses, masks, gadgets, and, of course, huge action sequences where Tom Cruise gets to do his thing. Unfortunately, the patchwork means by which he and McQuarrie have been assembling them doesn’t quite work this time around, with awkward edits, isolated characters, and some blatant dialogue overdubs being used to justify the action taking place.
Maybe we can chalk it up to the numerous filming delays caused by the global pandemic, or maybe McQuarrie and Cruise just bit off more than they could chew, but Dead Reckoning’s narrative, tone, and pacing are genuinely all over the place. In concept, the notion of Hollywood’s biggest star Tom Cruise going up against a malevolent AI in all of his old-school glory is timely beyond reason, but, as executed, it just means that the film grinds to a halt for interminable exposition dumps whenever there isn’t a fight or chase occurring.
The connective scenes that used to tie everything together, formerly functional, and even witty in places, are now self-referential and tedious, filled with the sort of portentous prattle a first-year philosophy student would have come up with. The attempt to grant these scenes gravitas through Dutch-angled close-ups and half-witted musings on destiny and choice just makes it even more pretentious. In any case, we know the film wants us to consider this as the "most important mission ever" due to the musical score’s continuous attempts to orchestrally beat us into submission.
On a technical level, the action remains well-designed and constructed, but the inexplicable decision to play them mostly for laughs ends robs them of any tension. Take, for instance, the much-hyped motorcycle jump off a mountain that starts out incredibly (dodgy CGI to mask the launch ramp, notwithstanding), but is almost immediately undermined by a slapstick landing that just looks embarrassing for everyone involved. To a lesser degree, the same applies to a Rome-based car chase whose pacing is so disjointed as to be staccato, rendered all the more baffling by the fact that the exact same filmmakers did it earlier and better in the previous film’s Paris section.
As Hunt, Cruise’s super spy is almost a caricature of the confident superspy he started out as, espousing platitudes on friendship and loyalty (that wouldn’t be out of place in a Fast & Furious movie), while his enemies are all either falling in love with him or straight up talking about how great he is. Oh, and he’s saddled with a (hitherto unknown) tragic backstory that the filmmakers are shamelessly leaving for the second part to explain. Even the murder of a trusted ally that propels the film’s final act fails to elicit any emotion other than outright anger over that character’s wasted potential.
Of the newcomers, Haley Atwell’s Grace comes across like the film’s action sequences: She starts out strong before it becomes clear the filmmakers have no idea what to do with her, leaving her to flail in search of a direction, vacillating between being supremely competent and absolutely helpless, depending on what the scene needs. Seeing as Grace is literally the second thief (after Thandie Newton’s character in M:I-2) whose spontaneous love for Ethan convinces her to betray her employer(s), it probably wouldn’t have hurt to make her the tiniest bit more proactive in the overall plot.
When all is said and done, the bulk of Mission: Impossible films that came before were intelligent, well-executed action romps that excelled at highlighting Tom Cruise’s increasingly rare brand of cinematic star power. Dead Reckoning Part 1 has all the ingredients for a hit. Cruise and McQuarrie, however, slipped up in fantasizing that this series had anything important to say or do beyond giving audiences a good time. For the inevitable Part 2, one hopes that they get their focus back. In any case, they would do well to just heed Benji’s advice, and cut back on the stuff that gets in the way.
Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One is now showing in Philippine cinemas. Watch the trailer below.