In the current cinema game, there is nothing more excellent than the Mission: Impossible franchise. Led by Tom Cruise, the casts and crews of each film dare to get bigger and push further with their stuntwork and film bravado while making audiences worldwide squeal and swoon with delight. Each successive film bears a reason to go back to sitting in a darkened auditorium with an expectant crowd: the promise of action delivered upon in such a way that leaves us breathless.
From nearly getting his eye gouged out with a knife (Mission: Impossible II) to dangling from a cargo plane door (Rogue Nation) to doing a dazzling HALO jump (Fallout), Tom Cruise continues to give his all to this franchise. Having worked in this industry for over 40 years, he knows how to pick ‘em and win, and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One finds him in truly winning form. Sure, he might be a little more talkative this outing than in previous films (as he has to pick his spots for more physical encounters), but the magic he conjures with his presence and his stuntwork is still as potent as ever.
Also returning is his collaborator of 9 films, director and co-writer Christopher McQuarrie. After making his mark as the culprit responsible for frying cineastes’ minds with his screenplay for The Usual Suspects, McQuarrie has a knack for staying close to the real and tangible. Not one for improbable pursuits (well, Edge of Tomorrow was improbable and impossible, but he found a way to make it stick), his scripts and films always feature some kind of centered gravity which puts the visuals in his directorial oeuvre within physical reach.
The Fast and Furious films are, in ways, the bratty younger sibling to the Mission: Impossible series, featuring CGI-fueled car play and stunts that easily and repeatedly break the laws of physics and believability. With Fast X having made its bow in theaters earlier this year, it’s like Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One showed up to say, “You were good, kid… now here’s how it’s done.” Both films have a ringleader and a team handpicked from previous escapades; surprisingly, both of their most recent outings feature an adrenaline-packed car chase through Rome, among other similarities. But while one aimed for maximum carnage (or is it car-nage? Sorry – I’m a dad) and CGI spectacle, the other let the cameras do the talking, with driving stunts, physical action, and practical backgrounds highlighting every move.
And another edge that Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One has over Fast X is that the story and script aren’t just a means to an end for action scenes. Here, the story is part of the action and vice versa, symbiotically carrying the weight of the stakes involved. This time out, instead of some simple handheld MacGuffin like the Rabbit’s Foot of Mission: Impossible III, we’re chasing after a two-piece key that unlocks “The Entity,” a sentient artificial intelligence capable of destroying the world as we know it. And it doesn’t take us long to realize just how deadly this AI is – all we need to do is ingest the deadly submarine game in the film’s prologue, where World War III is potentially started by American and Russian submarines firing their missiles at each other.
Once again into the fray Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) must wade, having lost new recruit Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) in the wind. When master thief and pickpocket Grace (Hayley Atwell) gets her hands on one piece of the key, she becomes the most hunted person in the world, as governments everywhere will stop at nothing to get something this powerful. Imagine being able to change truth as we know it at the push of a button, commit acts of cyber espionage and leave no trace, or destabilize world governments on a whim. That’s what’s at stake here, and it’s the fight of Hunt’s life as he runs, flies, punches, and runs some more to keep this key out of enemy hands.
This film’s enemy has something on him, though; through this villain, we’re treated to more of Hunt’s backstory than we ever have been before. The darkness that we’ve always seen just behind Hunt’s eyes is given context and meaning, even if we’re only given scant clues and hints rather than the full tale. Opposite Hunt is someone figuring largely into this backstory, a man with the mononym Gabriel (Esai Morales – YAY! I love that he gets this time to shine) who was at the turning point of Hunt’s life that led him to the IMF. Bearing the aloofness and scary omnipresence of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Owen Davian (the best villain this series has seen), Gabriel’s a threat even above Davian himself, armed with knowledge no one should have. In ways, he’s a mix of The Fate of the Furious’ Cipher and Charles Augustus Magnussen from BBC’s Sherlock – both being all-knowing, powerful villains whose access to secrets is a powerful weapon.
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One even brings the original film full circle, upgrading that film’s NOC list for The Entity, with the chase being led by none other than Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny) himself, Hunt’s former superior whose stringent methods didn’t allow for Hunt’s kind of by-the-seat-of-his-pants tactics. After a 27-year absence from the series, Czerny steps back into Kittridge’s cold, particularly humorless persona without missing a beat. This reunion between superior and agent lends more than its fair share of fire to this explosive adventure. Numerous script callbacks to the original – the involvement of arms dealer Max’s daughter, an “If you knew what you were getting into, you never would have done it” analog script bite, a fight on a train, and even a repeat of “I know you’re upset” directed at Hunt, and a few others – goose us into remembering just how far both Hunt and Kittridge have come.
New additions Hayley Atwell and Pom Klementieff (serving as Paris, Gabriel’s second-in-command) meld seamlessly with the senior cast, the former establishing her mettle as a Nyah Hall-type burglar (from Mission: Impossible II) and the latter stepping into the quiet killer role with savvy ease. It’s fun watching Atwell’s Grace mix it up as someone who knows she’s beyond her depth but throws her weight around with purpose, whether it’s splitting time in the driver’s seat during a fantastic car chase or solemnly considering the choices she has between a life on the run and working with Ethan’s team. Balancing her out on the villain side, Klementieff exudes a danger that raises our alert levels every time she appears; she’s brutal and lethal, bearing an angelic countenance one minute which turns horrifying the next minute as she’s dispatching anyone standing in her way.
Combined with Christopher McQuarrie’s solid, singular direction, the efforts of cinematographer Fraser Taggart, editor Eddie Hamilton, and composer Lorne Balfe turn Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One from a star-studded action film into a gargantuan, steamrolling behemoth that pulls the audience into its grasp and transforms us into both witness and participant. Each set piece feels like its own mini-epic, with intricate set design captured with care to show off every last inch and cut so that we feel the enormity of what we’re looking at. Whether it’s a sandstorm-ridden hut, a wild techno-party (similar to the one seen in Mission: Impossible – Fallout), the Orient Express, or the death-defying motorcycle jump of the film’s adverts, enough time and space are given for us to appreciate this kind of grand moviemaking. We’re not in “13 cuts for one fence jump” Taken territory here; this is the kind of effort that visual artists like Buster Keaton, Jackie Chan, and others so painstakingly put into their pictures to show off dazzling work. Balfe’s score – featuring Lalo Schifrin’s memorable theme bolstered by a full orchestra replete with a cracking performance by the Top Secret Drum Corps – keeps all these elements tied together with lively and brooding motifs, becoming just as much a thrill driver as the onscreen action.
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is why we go to movie theaters. It’s big-screen wonder that ushers in a one-of-a-kind feeling that those of us who remember seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark felt in theaters in 1981. Tom Cruise has evolved Ethan Hunt in both staggeringly dramatic and physical ways, but one thing that has evolved as well is how much of an event his character and the films are. James Bond, Hunt’s not; he’s a man putting the safety of the world at large above his own, and Cruise wears this weight with every step Hunt takes. Instead of this responsibility dogging him or slowing him down, he uses it as the energy he needs to leap into action… and into cinematic history. Don’t be surprised if your jaws drop and a stray “Jesus CHRIST!” slips out of your mouth (as it did mine) when you see this film’s centerpiece stunt on a theater screen; it’s just one ingredient of a hearty repast, where every item on the menu commands your awe.