The seventh instalment of the Mission: Impossible franchise sees Tom Cruise’s super-spy Ethan Hunt face his most dangerous enemy yet: A.I. This ‘godless, stateless, amoral’ foe is ‘everywhere and nowhere’, having infiltrated the Federal Reserve, the stock market, the national power grid, the world banks, the military, and the intelligence network. It’s variously described as ‘a ghost in the machine’, ‘digital chaos’, a ‘worm’, and a ‘self-aware, self-learning, truth-eating digital parasite’. Or, as Simon Pegg’s technician-turned-field agent Benji Dunn puts it, ‘Monday.’
Benji’s being flippant, of course. Because the mission Ethan accepts in Dead Reckoning Part One – to retrieve both halves of a mysterious key that is the means of controlling this untold power – really might be impossible. Yes, even for the guy who scales the outside of the world’s tallest building with more ease than most of us clamber up the stairs to bed.
The mission is, naturally, a race against time, with every nation in it for themselves. And as Ethan streaks across the Arabian Desert, Rome, Venice, and the Austrian Alps, he encounters a host of familiar faces: old pals Benji and Luther (Ving Rhames), the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), and former IMF director Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny), the latter making his first appearance since clashing with Ethan in Brian De Palma’s 1996 original.
But that’s not all of the grains in the sandstorm. There are several new faces too, most notably skilled thief-for-hire Grace (Hayley Atwell), who helps Ethan for as long as it helps her, and enigmatic villain Gabriel (Esai Morales), who has ties to Ethan’s pre-IMF past (‘he made me who I am today,’ grimaces Hunt). And let’s not forget Gabriel’s fearsome henchwoman Paris (Pom Klementieff, hopping into the Mission franchise from the MCU), whose fight moves are one of the highlights of the film. In fact, her showdown with Ethan in the dark alleyways of Venice has enough grace and grit to make film fans forget any classic scenes involving Donald Sutherland, red macs, and meat cleavers.
But here’s the thing: just as Ethan playing ‘four-dimensional chess with an algorithm’ is his biggest challenge yet, star/producer Cruise and director/producer Christopher McQuarrie now also face a daunting task. Namely, how do they outdo their previous two Mission movies, Rogue Nation (2015) and Fallout (2018)? They’ve clearly gone to huge effort to try do just that: a globe-trotting (or rather, globe-galloping) scale, gigantic set-pieces, numerous parties fighting for control, plus a 163-minute running time that’s just half of the story (Dead Reckoning Part Two is due in June 2024). And yet they come up (relatively) short. Part One has neither the elegance and suspense of Rogue Nation, nor the momentum and crunch of Fallout. This instalment is so big that - at times - it borders on lumbering and unwieldy.
So, why the four stars? Because the above statement is judging Dead Reckoning by its franchise’s own gold standards. And for all the moments when the spectacle doesn’t quite hit the now-obligatory bullseye, or when the pace momentarily flags, it still leaves most action thrillers for dead. So, while an automatic gunfight in the desert is no match for the toilet scrap in Fallout, there’s a delightful car chase through Rome, with Ethan and Grace zigzagging past Polizia while handcuffed together in a yellow Fiat 500, like something orchestrated by Hitchcock or Hawks.
And though some caper-flavoured stalking and pilfering in a crowded airport doesn’t quite have the sophistication of the silkily fluent opera-house assassination sequence in Rogue Nation, a fight atop the Orient Express is sensationally staged. It’s just a shame that Dead Reckoning’s MVP stunt of Cruise driving a motorcycle off a cliff, for real, has been played on a loop for months to promote the film. The few extra seconds we get in the movie can’t replenish the diminished wow-factor. Modern marketing, eh?
Still, there’s more than enough here to ensure that no hard sell will be necessary to get punters lining up for Dead Reckoning Part Two next year. As themes of the inescapable past and of people being shaped by the choices they make swirl beneath the action, and as Lorne Balfe newly ignites Lalo Schifrin’s original theme tune with a percussive makeover that plays like syncopated detonations, it’s impossible to be anything but all-in as the excitement surges.
We can thank the ending for that, too. In a post-Avengers cinematic landscape where many major franchises are now splitting climactic stories over a couple of movies, Dead Reckoning Part One does so satisfyingly. No abrupt, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse-style cut-off here, just a natural pause for breath following an outrageous action sequence. The pieces on the four-dimensional chessboard are enticingly reset. Or, put another way, the fuse is lit…
Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One is in UK cinemas from July 10 and in US theaters from July 12.