Tom Cruise’s massive hubris is once again put to the test for our entertainment in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. Reuniting writer-director Christopher McQuarrie and Cruise, the movie kicks off the two-part finale of the franchise with all the globe-trotting antics and high-flying acts you can expect. However, this time around things have taken a turn for the sodden and maudlin, mishandling the comedic underpinnings and bending over backwards to create needless lore. The result is a mixed bag despite all the genuinely thrilling set pieces. This mission, should you choose to accept it, is Worth a Look.
The Mission: Impossible film franchise is a genuine rarity in the year of our lord 2023. It’s not the kind of superhero fare filling seats or the prestige, high-budget epics that win awards. Rather, it’s the kind of franchise that’s endlessly reliable for providing the rollicking, high-wire thrills and big comic gags that are so lacking in today’s stream of self-serious, downtrodden action films. And at the center of it all is Dorian Gray himself, Tom Cruise, a one-of-a-kind screen presence that people have literally grown old with over the past few decades. The franchise constantly returns to Cruise because he’s got just the right brand of light, self-effacing humor to make it all work, plus he’s still an action star that puts his body on the line for entertainment. However you feel about the man, his films endure because he’s good.
Enter Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, which has been touted in its press tour as the beginning of a massive promise from Cruise: to top every entry preceding it in story and action. Such a serious promise is taken much too seriously, as the film ends up being a hasty grafting of other current successful franchises and the natural (but wrong) intention to buy further into Ethan Hunt’s value as a character. Mission: Impossible is fun when it’s poking fun at Cruise’s infallibility by tossing him around like a rag doll with explosions, kicks, punches, jumps and so much more. As Alec Baldwin’s character in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation put it so eloquently: “Ethan Hunt is the living manifestation of destiny.” To depict him as less only reveals the half-baked concepts of emotional buy-in.
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One follows Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his IMF team (Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames) as they rush to find two halves of the Dragon Egg’s key, a key that holds the power to control a rogue AI responsible for bringing the entire world to its knees. Ethan wants to destroy the AI, while other world powers would rather control it and use it as a weapon (yes, even the US), thus a race is on to find the key. Along the way, an expert thief named Grace (Hayley Atwell) joins the team, and Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) comes out of the shadows to fight for good. Oh, and there’s a mysterious guy (Esai Morales) from Ethan’s past that’s acting as a human cypher for the rogue AI. He’s also trained in bone-crunching martial arts and global espionage, of course.
It brings me not great pleasure to report that the film falls flat in its drama despite the constant string of enlivening, actually funny physical gags and frequently self-effacing humor that the franchise is best known for. But unfortunately, governing it all is not just another end of the world plot, it’s an end of the world plot that throws that artificial intelligence buzz word around like it’s supposed to have the weight of the world behind it. So, the film saddles itself with an unseen enemy and its human cypher that’s a thin new character from Ethan’s past. The dialogue, again unfortunately, calls constant attention to the story and its many dramatic failings. The film stops dead in its tracks whenever exposition needs to be dumped, and it all usually concludes with a big score swell and a revolving shot of Cruise looking contemplative.
That isn’t to say that Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is without humor, which can’t be further from the truth. Set pieces are designed to constantly pit Cruise against the impossible and finding the humor in that, whether it be that shocked look he gives after being shaken by a big stunt or his dogged determination to use his body like a swiss army knife. It’s just that the humor is constantly deflated in the face of all that sodden, dry dramaturgy. Watching Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation again, the first in the franchise to have the McQuarrie-Cruise collaboration, only reveals that the light touch there has been replaced with a heavy sense of purpose here. Dead Reckoning Part One doesn’t fly between set pieces with the sense of self-effacing parody because it wants to be something that means something. Who cares?
To say Dead Reckoning Part One does a disservice to its many recurring players would be an understatement. In its attempt to set up a mentoring relationship with Cruise and Atwell’s characters, it treats others like background players there to re-assert that Ethan Hunt is a suicidal force of good. Even Ilsa Faust’s return rings very false, with her character now a depressive mental case who barely talks and fears for the end of the world. It’s all very silly, so why aren’t they treating it as such?
As for the set pieces themselves, while I found that giant train sequence teased in every preview to be quite fun, engaging and working to the strengths of each of its characters, others lack the kind of full-throated dedication that I found in Rogue Nation’s rollicking opera and motorcycle chase sequences. A desert shootout early on in the film impresses but feels incomplete, and is then used as a flashback further into the story. That all said, the car chase through Rome in a Fiat 500 is exactly the kind of goofy, dangerous thrill-ride that this franchise is famous for providing.
It may seem that I’m endlessly criticizing Dead Reckoning Part One for being a movie that it isn’t, but it doesn’t exactly know what it wants to be either. All of the action beats are frequently thrilling, and there’s an all-timer of a physical gag during the train sequence that ranks with the best of the franchise, yet this entry frustrates in its attempts to build on top of what was already good. Sometimes things don’t need to be improved upon. Just keep hitting your beats well and people will stick around.
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One was viewed in Dolby Cinema at AMC Theaters Boston Common with a 4K Dolby Vision presentation that impresses with crisp colors, deep contrast and rich hues that come with the improved 4K laser projection. You can really tell the difference between the sequences shot normally and those framed for IMAX, though I don’t really fault the film for that, as the presentation on the whole is vivid and eye-popping. You won’t be disappointed by seeing it in Dolby Vision at a Dolby Cinema theater, though everything is cropped at 2.39:1. If you see this film in IMAX, certain sequences open up to the full-frame 1.90:1 ratio. The film was reportedly shot completely on Sony CineAlta Venice Cameras, made popular for their use on Top Gun: Maverick, which explains why everything is so crisp and vivid.
At the time of press, we didn't have confirmation that there wouldn't be any open frame 1.90:1 IMAX sequences - given past blockbuster titles and Mission: Impossible entries it was a safe assumption. After finally getting clarifications and numerous readers letting us know, the IMAX version of Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One does not have expanding aspect ratio sequences and is apparently fixed at 2.39:1. Apologies for the confusion there.
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One was viewed in Dolby Cinema at AMC Theaters Boston Common and the Dobly Atmos audio presentation was befitting of this franchise. I frequently heard that brash Lorne Balfe score coming from the downfiring channels on the ceiling, and directional effects like Cruise zipping across the frame on a dirt bike are rendered wonderfully. Gun shots are loud but lack the kind of oomph given to kicks, punches and explosions, though the presentation makes full use of them all.
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One offers the kind of thrills and humor you’d expect from this franchise, but they’re supplanted by a morose plot that can’t get out of its own way. The action is impressive, though it lacks the elegance of previous entries, and some characters are really given short shrift here. There’s definitely room to grow in Dead Reckoning Part Two, so here’s hoping. This film is Worth a Look.