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Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning: Part One

Last summer, Tom Cruise was given credit for saving the theatrical experience with the widely beloved “Top Gun: Maverick.” One of our last true movie stars returns over a year later as the blockbuster experience seems to be fading with high-budget Hollywood endeavors like "The Flash" and "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" falling short of expectations. Can he be Hollywood's savior again? I hope so because “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” is a ridiculously good time. Once again, director Christopher McQuarrie, Cruise, and their team have crafted a deceptively simple thriller, a film that bounces good, bad, and in-between characters off each other for 163 minutes (an admittedly audacious runtime for a film with “Part One” in the title that somehow doesn’t feel long). Some of the overcooked dialogue about the importance of this particular mission gets repetitive, but then McQuarrie and his team will reveal some stunningly conceived action sequence that makes all the spy-speak tolerable. Hollywood is currently questioning the very state of their industry. Leave it to Ethan Hunt to accept the mission.

While this series essentially rebooted in its fourth chapter, changing tone and style significantly, this seventh film very cleverly ties back to the 1996 Brian De Palma original more than any other, almost as if it's uniting the two halves of the franchise. It’s not an origin story, but it does have the tenor of something like the excellent “Casino Royale” in how it unpacks the very purpose of a beloved character. “Dead Reckoning Part One” is about Ethan Hunt reconciling how he got to this point in his life, and McQuarrie and co-writer Erik Jendresen narratively recall De Palma’s film repeatedly. And with its sweaty, canted close-ups, Fraser Taggart’s cinematography wants you to remember the first movie—how Ethan Hunt became an agent and the price he’s been paying from the beginning.

It’s not just visual nods. “Dead Reckoning” returns former IMF director Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny) to Ethan’s life with a new mission. Kittridge informs Hunt that there’s essentially a rogue A.I. in the world that superpowers are battling to control. The A.I. can be manipulated with a key split into two halves. One of those halves is about to be sold on the black market, and so Ethan and his team—including returning characters Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg)—have to not just intercept the key but discern its purpose. The key only matters if IMF can figure out where and how to use it.

After a desert shoot-out that ushers Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) back into the series, the first major set piece in “Dead Reckoning Part One” takes place in the Dubai airport, where Hunt discovers that there are other players in this espionage chess game, including a familiar face in Gabriel (Esai Morales), a morally corrupt mercenary who is one of the reasons that Hunt is an agent in the first place. Gabriel is a chaos agent, someone who not only wants to watch the world burn but hopes the fire inflicts as much pain as possible. In many ways, Gabriel is the inverse of Ethan, whose weakness has been his empathy and personal connections—Gabriel has none of those, and he’s basically working for the A.I., trying to get the key so no one can control it.

At the airport, Ethan also crosses paths with a pickpocket named Grace (Hayley Atwell), who gets stuck in the middle of all of this world-changing insanity, along with a few agents trying to hunt down the rogue Ethan and are played by a wonderfully exasperated Shea Whigham and Greg Tarzan Davis. A silent assassin, memorably sketched by Pom Klementieff, is also essential to a few action scenes. And Vanessa Kirby returns as the arms dealer White Widow, and, well, if the ensemble has a weakness, it's Kirby's kind of lost performance. She has never quite been able to convey "power player" in these films as she should.

But that doesn't matter because people aren't here for the White Widow's backstory. They want to see Tom Cruise run. The image most people associate with “Mission: Impossible” is probably Mr. Cruise stretching those legs and swinging those arms. He does that more than once here, but it seems like the momentum of that image was the artistic force behind this entire film. “Dead Reckoning Part One” prioritizes movement—trains, cars, Ethan’s legs. It’s an action film that's about speed and urgency, something that has been so lost in the era of CGI’s diminished stakes. Runaway trains will always have more inherent visceral power than waves of animated bad guys, and McQuarrie knows how to use it sparingly to make an action film that both feels modern and old-fashioned at the same time. These films don’t over-rely on CGI, ensuring we know that it’s really Mr. Cruise jumping off that motorcycle. When punches connect, bodies fly, and cars crash into each other—we feel it instead of just passively observing it. The action here is so wonderfully choreographed that only “John Wick: Chapter 4” compares for the best in the genre this year.

There’s also something fascinating thematically here about a movie star battling A.I. and questioning the purpose of his job. Blockbusters have been cautionary tech tales for generations but think about the meta aspect of a spy movie in which the world could collapse if the espionage game is overtaken by a sentient computer that stars an actor who has been at the center of controversy regarding his own deepfakes. There’s also a definite edge to the plotting here that plays into the actor’s age in that Ethan is forced to answer questions about what matters to him regarding his very unusual work/life balance, a reflection of what a performer like Cruise must face as he reaches the end of an action movie rope that’s been much longer than anyone could have even optimistically expected. Cruise may or may not intend that reading—although I suspect he does—but it adds another layer to the action.

Of course, the most important thing is this: “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” is just incredibly fun. It feels half its length and contains enough memorable action sequences for some entire franchises. Will Cruise save the blockbuster experience again? Maybe. And he might do it again next summer too.

In theaters on July 12th.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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Film Credits

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One movie poster

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One (2023)

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some language and suggestive material.

163 minutes

Cast

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt

Hayley Atwell as Grace

Ving Rhames as Luther Stickell

Simon Pegg as Benjamin 'Benji' Dunn

Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust

Vanessa Kirby as The White Widow

Henry Czerny as Eugene Kittridge

Esai Morales as Gabriel

Pom Klementieff as Paris

Cary Elwes as Denlinger

Shea Whigham as Jasper Briggs

Director

Writer

Cinematographer

Editor

Composer

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