Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One Review – Doesn’t Exactly Hit the Ground Running but Delivers When it Recalls What Audiences Wants

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to wade through the distinctly overlong and uneven Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, or MI7. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) returns after the events of Fallout (a much tighter film) and is contacted by the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) to find disavowed MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who is holding something that world governments and other hostile agents are after. One part of a key that forms a cruciform to unlock the OS of a newly self-aware and dangerous AI known as The Entity.

The film doesn’t start at that point. Instead we are on a submarine named The Sebastopol in the Bering Sea. Something is messing with their systems and they are on a dead reckoning (a navigational course based solely on the last known position). A secret is being hidden and will soon sink.

Mission: Impossible films have evolved to involve world ending threats. By today’s standards Brian De Palma’s 1996 film that revolves around a stolen NOC list seems quaint. It’s a little like the Fast and Furious films going from stolen electronics to nuclear subs, but a tad less absurd. What both franchises have in common is a commitment to action and increasingly long runtimes. As MI7 is a two-parter the runtime is felt – it’s a flabby film that could have trimmed off most of the first act to get to what people really want to see, which is Tom Cruise performing life-threatening stunts and doing a lot of running.

Instead, we are given a retconned history for Ethan via the returned former IMF boss Eugene Kitteridge (Henry Czerny) which involves a young Hunt being blamed for a murder committed by the newly introduced big bad, Gabriel (Esai Morales). The audience also gets to meet ‘The Community’, a kind of heads of government intelligence agencies led by Denlinger (Cary Elwes) whose conversation with the other members acts as exposition for what The Entity means. As anyone who has watched a movie would know (Terminator anyone?), self-aware AI is a bad thing. Anyone who can find where the AI is located and gain access to its OS can control the world.

Christopher McQuarrie is a very skilled action director and knows how to create visually and auditory set pieces that lean into being the very pinnacle of action spectacle. Unfortunately, the audience has to sit through sloppy pacing before these spectacles occur in the film. The sequence in Abu Dhabi is quite good and gives a taste of what people fork over their cash for. However, the film slows again with a long scene in an airport which introduces us to the newest leading woman, Grace (Hayley Atwell) a nimble Artful Dodger who has been hired to get the cruciform. There are red herrings handled by franchise staple Luther Stickwell (Ving Rhames) and returning character Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) that involve a bomb and riddles, but it’s all a bit of guff that serves to add some kind of tension to the flirty “getting to know you” scenes between Grace and Ethan.

Things get a lot better when the team touch down in Rome as The Community’s men Degas (Greg Tarzan Davis) and Jasper Briggs (Shea Whigham) hunt down Ethan and Grace as they do a balletic car chase in a Fiat 500 through the crowded streets. Particularly good is the verbal and physical interchange between Ethan and Grace as they try to drive the ludicrous car while handcuffed to each other.

When the action moves to Venice (and of course a speedboat in the canals) the film droops again until new assassin Paris (Pom Klementieff) hired by Gabriel turns up to liven up the hand-to-hand combat. Venice is also where we meet Ilsa again and see the return of Alanna Mitsopolis /White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) who was the proposed buyer for Grace’s part of the cruciform. Gabriel does something deeply cruel and triggering to Ethan and then the race/chase moves on.

The next set piece (it may seem objectionable to divide the film this way, but it is what McQuarrie is doing) takes place on a train where almost everyone is involved. As shown in the trailer and in the mass of pre-release hype, Ethan must parachute drop off a cliff from a motorcycle to get on to the train where Grace is now acting as a team member. From here audiences get exactly the Mission: Impossible film they want. The tension is extreme, the stunts are outstanding, and the film hits the sweet spot. The clarity that was missing from the earlier parts of the film is now present and the stakes feel essential.

Tom Cruise has had other action roles – at first it seemed his one off as Maverick in Top Gun would be just that, but Joseph Kosinski (and McQuarrie as a writer) gave audiences Top Gun: Maverick which was a massive hit for all involved. McQuarrie less successfully introduced Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, but it was his work with Cruise on the Mission: Impossible franchise that made McQuarrie a go-to director and had people suggesting that Tom Cruise was the last Hollywood movie star (a claim that was also made about Leonardo DiCaprio, so take that as journalists feeling nostalgia about a certain kind of actor). Certainly, in action stakes Cruise is well up there, but so too is Keanu Reeves and as Chad Stahelski’s John Wick 4 proved it’s possible to make a long action film that flies by and never lets up.

The biggest addition to MI7 is Hayley Atwell’s Grace. Atwell is probably known best to international audiences as Peggy Carter from the MCU, but she has a resume that includes many dramatic television roles and some refined prestige period drama. As Grace she’s using her varied skills as an actor to portray a character who seems ambiguous and adventurous but maintains a sense of humour and vulnerability that is charming. Perhaps to highlight Atwell, McQuarrie and co-writer Erik Jendresen decided that side-lining other female characters was necessary, so we see less of Kirby and Ferguson. What is interesting is that Grace is one of the few female Mission Impossible leads that hasn’t been marketed for her seductive qualities (I think we can all recall the shot of Faust in a thigh split dress holding a rifle).

MI7 has its pleasures and they are mostly when the film favours action over exposition and doesn’t try to sell us another “emotionally wounded Ethan” narrative. When the movie does what it is supposed to do – entertain with the impossible – it works a treat. Audiences know that there is a second part coming and hopefully McQuarrie will iron out some of the wrinkles inherent in MI7. Globe hopping adventures with visceral and kinetic action is the key to the later Mission: Impossible movies, so fingers crossed Ethan Hunt’s final outing sticks the landing.

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Cast: Tom Cruise, Hayley Atwell, Rebecca Ferguson

Writers: Christopher McQuarrie, Erik Jendresen, (based on the television series created by Bruce Geller)

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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