Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part 1 – Review

So let’s recap. Back in 1996 Brian De Palma teamed up with the then 34 year-old Tom Cruise to bring us Mission: Impossible. Thought to be a one-off, stand-alone spy thriller, receiving deserved critical and commercial acclaim. 4 Years later the less beloved M:I 2 came along, courtesy of John Woo, and though it had its moments, it was a marked step down from its predecessor’s iconic heists and twists. No less than 6 years on, J. J. Abrams defibrillates the flatlining franchise with help from a truly sinister villain in the form of Phillip Seymour Hoffman. But it’s Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, 2011, where they really start to crank up the crazy. The self-seriousness of the naughties was fading and it was time to not only welcome the bombastic nature of these movies, but to lean into it. With Cruise now fully embracing the producer / actor / stunt-man mantle, Ghost Protocol goes bigger and bolder than ever before, taking the series to new heights… literally. By this point, Mission had cemented its place among the ‘must see’ echelon of cinematic output. (Enter Christopher McQuarrie). Until now the franchise had never retained a Director across multiple instalments. McQuarrie didn’t just break that rule, he annihilated it. With two bangers in the shape of Rogue Nation and Fallout, he and Cruise are now a force to be reckoned with when it comes to the pinnacle of Hollywood blockbusters and this year they brought us their most daring offering yet…

For a film pushing 3 hours, it rattles along at a rapid pace and luxuriates in its many action sequences which are undeniably fun and at times nothing short of mind-blowing. This is a whole lot of movie so if you’re susceptible to sensory-overload, maybe wait until this drops onto streaming. Cruise and McQ give us the usual suspects within the action: car chases, masks and double-crosses a-plenty, but inject some innovation and no small amount of comedy to ensure they’re not simply retreading old ground. A particular sequence on a train throws some grin-inducing challenges at our heroes which I don’t recall having seen before, even if the broad strokes of the set-piece as a whole are familiar. The flagship clip from the marketing material of Cruise riding a motorbike off a cliff is just as spectacular as you would expect and what’s even more spectacular is how much money, time and effort went into it. Check out the behind-the-scenes on that one. 

Cast-wise we get a delightful mix of new and old faces. As standard, Ving Raimes, Simon Pegg and Rebecca Ferguson reprise their long-standing roles although they all feel somewhat sidelined in favour of Hayley Atwell’s audacious thief Grace, who shares much of Cruise’s screen-time. As charming as Atwell is (slotting into the core cast seamlessly) and as necessary as it is to make compromises when establishing a new character, the ratio of time spent with Grace feels a little high. We also welcome back Harry Czerny’s Kittridge, former IMF boss turned CIA higher-up, absent from the series since 1996. His motives here are as ambiguous and questionable as they were in the original and his presence adds an interesting wrinkle.

The weakest aspects by far become exponentially more glaring as an already shaky plot gets increasingly tangled and messy. The plots have never been the shining light of this series, and they are clearly secondary to the set-pieces, McQuarrie and Cruise have said as much. But an over-abundance of characters on disconnected paths coupled with poorly managed screen-time delegation results in a story that does not live up to its ambition. What worse is it’s way too easy to see where they could have streamlined. Sometimes a complex film justifies its density but here it feels like they were far too precious about elements that could and should have been cut. Shea Wigham’s character has absolutely no impact on the wider circumstances and any time spent with him is time that could’ve been spent with Benji and co. The villain this time round is coincidentally prescient as it takes the shape of a world-ending AI System known as ‘The Entity’ (whoever decided on that name should rethink their career). The exposition around this mysterious threat is blunt at best, painful at worst not to mention it has no real presence on screen, making the sense of danger and tension paper thin. The Entity does have a human representative which somewhat mitigates that issue, the AI fanatic Gabriel played by Esai Morales. Yet, so little is know about Gabriel (other than he has some connection to Ethan Hunt’s pre IMF past) that it’s pretty hard to care about anything he has to say or what bearing he has on the story going forward. Perhaps Part 2 will bring his character more to the fore and show us exactly why we should care. Speaking of Part 2… 

The ‘Part 1 / Part 2’ trend that seems to be taking over the blockbuster is all well and good when the independent parts still have the integrity to stand on their own, feeling like chapters of a bigger story rather than placeholders or a cynical money-grab. Both Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse and Fast X managed it earlier this year, so it can be done. The ultimate example is Dune, which was bought and paid for before its second half was guaranteed. Perhaps not knowing if he would ever get the chance to finish the story was a blessing in disguise for Denis Villeneuve. Perhaps this is what catalysed him to make the most epic, audio-visually staggering piece of cinema ever put to screen, regardless that it was, for all intents and purposes, a ‘set-up’ movie. The point is, Dune: Part 1 stands on its own two feet and doesn’t rely on a follow-up to make it feel worthwhile. Dead Reckoning’s plot relies far too heavily on its set-up phase, leaving pretty much every thread dangling, waiting to be tied-off in Part 2. I’m all for a good cliffhanger but this is painfully unsatisfying. I left the cinema feeling frustrated and in no small part cheated by the half-baked story. There’s only so far riding a motorbike off of a cliff can carry a film.

Ruling – Cruise and McQuarrie’s third collaboration sets them apart from all comers where set-pieces are concerned, but unlike their previous ventures, Dead Reckoning loses itself in its own convoluted plot and, in turn, loses all tension.