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Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One

(2023) *** Pg-13
163 min. Paramount Pictures. Director: Christopher McQuarrie. Cast: Tom Cruise, Hayley Atwell, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Esai Morales, Vanessa Kirby, Henry Czerny, Shea Whigham.


"I'm going to need a few more details," says one character to another in Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One, only to receive the response "Yeah, they tend to just get in the way." The knowingness of the joke reflects the narrative fatigue of the franchise, its unsustainable model of pushing to ever-greater extremes. On Bruce Geller's 1966-1973 CBS spy procedural, an episode could be more like Ocean's Eleven or a David Mamet con-artist movie, but small-scale cleverness isn't enough for big-screen blockbusters, so Tom Cruise's seventh outing as superspy Ethan Hunt of the Impossible Missions Force again finds nothing less than "the fate of the world" hanging, sometimes literally, in the balance.

That's all well and good when the brain trust—producer-star Cruise and director-producer-co-screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie—find just the right rhythm, tonal finesse, and emotional hook to propel audiences from action setpiece to action setpiece with little inclination to stop and think about the preposterousness of it all. But Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One stutter-steps enough to suggest franchise fatigue even as it remains at the top of the action game with its pricy James Bond-style action sequences. The tropes of the Cruise series—as opposed to the Mission: Impossible trappings of self-destructing mission briefings and rubber masks—have begun to tire and resemble self-parody: the excuses for Cruise to break into headlong, air-sawing sprints, the rueful eye contact between agents, the portentous musings about the spy game ("We live in the shadows—for those we hold close and for those we never meet"). 

Although McQuarrie recently insisted that next summer's Dead Reckoning Part Two will not be the end of the series, the double-sized story has the feel of a finale, bringing back Henry Czerny's Eugene Kittridge from 1996's Mission: Impossible and circling back as it does to Ethan Hunt's previously unexplored origin story to introduce the franchise's most fearsome human baddy yet (Esai Morales' terrorist Gabriel). Yes, "human baddy," because Dead Reckoning also introduces an inhuman baddy, a "self-aware, self-learning, truth-eating" A.I. "entity." That timely choice of existential threat comes with a zetigeisty frisson but also insanely raises the stakes above the pay grade of the IMF, whose agents come to seem like pawns in a game of four-dimensional chess. The human-sized intigue deals with examining "the choice" (ya know, "if you choose to accept it") offered to specially skilled people who find themselves in over their heads: die on the streets, rot in prison, or join the IMF for life.

The MacGuffin presents a challenge big enough for two movies, but the split story does take the wind out of the film's sails when it comes to the parceled-out human drama, which involves Hunt's family-style dedication to protecting the lives of his team (Ving Rhames' Luther Stickell and Simon Pegg's Benji Dunn) and the complication of feeling the same responsibility to the women he both works with and romances (Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa Faust and Hayley Atwell's new arrival Grace). Hunt and his IMF remain as reckless and selectively stupid as ever, as the plot requires, to tee up the giant-size globetrotting action sequences. It doesn't help that promotion has centered so heavily on Cruise's big cliff-jumping motorcycle stunt as to render it anti-climactic for anyone exposed to the trailers and ads, and there's a been-there feel to the car and motorcycle chases, as well executed as they are.

With a script that, cut in half, plays mostly like a silly delivery system for action, it comes down to the extended climax to make or break Dead Reckoning Part One, and happily, the finale delivers with what could be the most impressive train shenanigans since Buster Keaton's The General (although some have accused Dead Reckoning of ripping off the train action from Shah Rukh Khan's Pathaan). Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One may not be as exhilarating and witty as we've come to expect from the last few entries in the series, but its $290 million budget is all on the screen, making it the most expensive "coming attraction" ever and an impressive-enough action extravaganza in its own right.

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