“We live in the shadows for those who we hold close and those we’ve never met.”
Mission: Impossible- Dead Reckoning (Part I) is a 2023 Paramount Pictures release. This film has the bones of a good story, the idea that data isn’t reality, but we (or many of us) insist it is. What if we can’t agree on what is real? It’s a modern-day Allegory of the Cave, being released in a time where many Americans have retreated to epistemological bubbles with basic facts questioned by conspiracy theorists and motivated individuals with axes to grind.
In this film, that motivated individual is an AI with the identical ambitions of Wintermute, the master manipulator in William Gibson’s seminal, classic cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer from 1984. The Entity wants to grow, it wants to evolve, it wants to be free. What happens if humans are no longer the smartest life forms on the planet? Would an AI share our morals, mores or concerns? Would an AI have ANY morals or mores? These are heady questions. Unfortunately, these philosophical concerns take a back seat to car chases, explosions, vengeance quests, personal squabbles, petty politics, and property damage. Perhaps they will be followed up on in the sequel. As it is, this reviewer is hard-pressed to evaluate Mission: Impossible- Dead Reckoning (Part I) on its own merits, because it is only half of a movie.
Dead Reckoning (Part I) is a sequel to 2018’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout. It is the continuation and culmination of the film franchise that began with Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible in 1996, which is itself based on the CBS television show of the same name that aired from 1966 to 1973. Dead Reckoning (Part I) is the seventh entry in the series and is directed by Christopher McQuarrie from a story he wrote with Erik Jendresen and Bruce Geller. Dead Reckoning (Part I) stars Tom Cruise alongside several actors who return from the earlier pictures, including Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Vanessa Kirby, Rebecca Ferguson, and Henry Czerny. They are joined by Cary Elwes, Esai Morales, Shea Whigham, Pom Klementieff, and Haley Atwell.
The steam train running in the climax of Dead Reckoning (Part I) is both older and slower than the Chunnel bullet-train used in the last act of the very first Mission: Impossible, just like Tom Cruise. Some scenes go on for too long, just like this film series. The quest for yet another McGuffin is well handled, the “why” in this film is highly motivating for all parties. However it, like each of the McGuffins in the entire franchise, are more or less there as excuses for huge tent-pole action set-pieces, which in this film amounts to constant chases all over Rome and Venice, the destruction of cars on a scale not seen since 1980’s The Blues Brothers and some monkeying about in and atop a racing steam train. Mission: Impossible- Dead Reckoning (Part I) plays on the highly topical fears of AI domination and plugs that particular concept into the standard Mission: Impossible formula of action- McGuffin-exposition- chase-action- McGuffin-exposition–chase that has worked well for the earlier movies of this series. It works here, too. Mission: Impossible- Dead Reckoning (Part I) is an entertaining watch, a reprise of many familiar features with a few new fresh beats plugged into the program. It’s just that the impossible premise and themes are getting stretched thin and threadbare, the seams are starting to show and the series feels a little tired, retread and worn out.
“This conversation is technically treason.”
“So, in other words, it’s a Monday.”
The Sevastopol is down; Sensor ghosts and a misfired torpedo have led to the sinking of the most sophisticated Russian submarine ever launched. Its cracked hull sits on the ocean floor, the corpses of the crew floating frozen in the Bearing Sea. The Operations Key is missing. Every government, intelligence agency, and mercenary group in the world wants to get their hands on the key.
When it turns up in the hands of unpredictable MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Ferguson), IMF operative Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is sent to recover the key and bring her in. He fails. Without further information or context, he is at a loss until he confronts Kittridge (Czerny), his former boss at the Impossible Mission Force.
He learns that a global network led by the enigmatic and elusive Gabriel (Morales) is using an incredibly powerful AI known as The Entity, to rummage through the files of every intelligence service on Earth looking for information about the key. International relations are tense and a global conflict could easily be triggered- yet no one seems to actually know what the key is for.
Hunt pulls together a veteran IMF team of friends, with Benji (Pegg) and Luther (Rhames) eager to help. Before they can grab the key, it’s stolen from the courier by Grace (Atwell), a supremely talented pickpocket. Gabriel’s men are hot on her heels, prompting Hunt to intercept. They banter, they flirt, they rob each other repeatedly. Though Ethan tries to bring her in, Grace refuses to trust him despite Gabriel’s men chasing Ethan and her through the city streets. Gabriel’s gun-toting goons are led by the happily homicidal Paris (Klementieff), who takes a special glee in her work, smiling sweetly at the courier before she caps him.
Grace needs protection and heads to her handler, black market arms dealer, Alanna Mitsopolis (Kirby), known as the White Widow, who is headlining a terrorist arms bazaar and auction being blatantly held out in the open in a nightclub. Her concern is a family business and Mitsopolis has taken the reins since her mother, Max, was taken into custody and incarcerated at the end of the first Mission: Impossible movie. Unfortunately for Grace, Ethan’s team catches wind of the auction and head to Venice to prevent the handoff. Unfortunately for the IMF, so does Gabriel and the AI that employs him. A standoff ensues and Gabriel gives Ethan the choice as to how to end it.
Will Hunt allow the Operations Key to fall into Gabriel’s grasping hands? What does the AI entity actually want? Can the IMF team prevent the AI from achieving its goals? Will they learn what those goals are? What does the Operations Key DO? Will Grace be able to stay one step ahead of the pursuing hordes? Where can she run to that the IMF or the AI can’t find her? Will Benji and Luther regret coming out of retirement? Will Alanna prove herself worthy of stepping into her mother’s shoes? Is Gabriel using the machine, or is the machine using him? How many spies will die during Dead Reckoning (Part I), and how many cars will they crash? Please see Mission: Impossible- Dead Reckoning (Part I) to find out.
“I’m going to need a few more details.”
“They tend to get in the way.”
While Mission: Impossible films have always tried to be over the cutting edge when it comes to technology, the show McQuarrie puts on here defiantly prods disbelief: Sonar doesn’t create 3D holographic images that float in the air. You can’t remote-detonate a torpedo. IEDs and bombs don’t have bright red LED timers. The bomb-with-countdown clock has been a movie trope forever, but yeah, no. Not in real life, not on real bombs. Gabriel has dozens and dozens of them, sticking his bombs with their glowing timers to the undersides of things everywhere he goes like he’s discarding chewing gum. They grind the timer-trope to dust in Dead Reckoning (Part I). The Entity must have control over a clock factory along with scores of bomb-makers on staff.
Humvees aren’t particularly fast, they’re not particularly agile, they’re big and clumsy. An armored one would be even MORE clumsy. No way can a Hummer H2 make turns like the turns in the movie. The chase sequences have nothing on 1968’s Bullitt, directed by Peter Yates, William Friedkin’s The French Connection from 1971, or even John Frankenheimer’s sublime 1998 spy-flick, Ronin, with several ultra-fast car chases which were bottled kinetic energy let loose in the tight streets of southern France. They really don’t quite compare to chase sequences in earlier Mission: Impossible movies, which for a variety of reasons, are faster, more dangerous, and exude more possible peril for the principal characters and other participants.
McQuarrie makes bizarre directing choices absent in earlier films. Chase sequences are clear as day, fight sequences are hard to follow spatially. The camera won’t sit still, spinning around brawls to the point that the choreography is obscured. The fights are by no means shaky-cam or Bourne-esque but are muddy and unclear. There are many strange, extraneous quick cuts; in the fights, in the dialogue moments, cut/cut/cut/cut. 2-camera conversation scenes don’t need quick cuts, especially non-contextual quick cuts.
Weaving in fan service creates many predictable moments. McQuarrie leads the audience around by the nose in certain sequences, with blatant runway lights telegraphing to the viewer what is to come. Some Easter eggs from the earlier pictures work, but others totally miss the mark because it’s so obvious they’re coming.
The Entity and its disciple Gabriel also make strange choices that predetermine predictions made by the AI. A character is told that computer models indicate her betrayal. She is then forced into her betrayal when Gabriel attacks her and she has no one else to turn to other than Ethan Hunt and his IMF team.
In 1999, the writer Gail Simone coined the term, “Women in Refrigerators” to capture the trope of under-developed female characters who have horrible things happen to them that only serve as motivations for the male main character. The Mission: Impossible series as a whole leans on this trope again and again in various pictures, but it is drawn upon heavily in Dead Reckoning (Part I). Rebecca Ferguson’s formerly formidable Ilsa’s role is basically that of damsel in distress and then ‘fridged lady’ throughout, albeit with misdirection and sleigh-of-hand owing to her top billing. Ethan Hunt has a wife from his pre-IMF days seen in brief flashback. This reviewer can’t remember if they gave her a name, but she is woefully underwritten and her murder is merely used to prod Hunt’s hatred of Gabriel. For the remaining run of the picture, Grace plays a slightly modified version of that part as Ethan spends the rest of his time trying to keep her out of the refrigerator.
There are strange parallels with 2023’s Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, both in theme and in certain plot points. Both are about adventurers, men of action, dealing with age although in vastly different and practically opposite ways: Dial of Destiny embraces Indy’s age-related descent into decrepitude and acknowledges star Harrison Ford’s 79 years of age. Jones doesn’t beat anyone down in a fistfight. He doesn’t leap, bounce around or swing with his whip. He drives. He rides horses. He uses his razor-keen wits, expansive experience, and vast intellect to solve problems and get out of scrapes. It mostly works.
Dead Reckoning (Part I) really doesn’t want to accept that Tom Cruise is in his 60’s. His hair is kept as thick and black as it was in 1996. He does the ‘Tom Cruise Run’. As an actor, he is best when seething under pressure, then allowing that pressure to burst free using his expressive physicality, boundless energy, and inconceivable agility. The problem arises when the energy isn’t boundless anymore when that physicality begins to falter. There are strange things going on in Tom Cruise’s face, a thickening of his jawline and brow. His attempt to arrest the passage of time is doomed to fail and it’s probably best to end this run while he can still run.
The two films do share some similarities, including the international black market/ terrorist/ arms bazaar held with public knowledge, a trope frequently seen in James Bond movies and early Iron Man films as well as 2022’s Jurassic Park: Dominion, which this reviewer guesses is a thing now. The plunder train that plunges into a river due to a destroyed bridge in Dial of Destiny’s opening is shot on the same set with the same length of track used in Dead Reckoning (Part I)’s climactic moment. However, what follows, the following train-fall, track-trestle, smashy-smashy scene is straight out of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted video game series and really goes on far too long.
In the final analysis, Mission: Impossible- Dead Reckoning (Part I) is an entertaining film but for all intents and purposes, it’s a placeholder. It is not telling a complete story. Ultimately this reviewer can only wait for the sequel to evaluate the plot in its entirety.
Mission: Impossible- Dead Reckoning (Part I) is in theatres July 12th.