Film

Is Mission: Impossible on Cruise control?

Even a timely AI baddie can't stop Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One feeling like a rare step back for the Tom Cruise franchise.

Hayley-Atwell and Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One.

Hayley-Atwell and Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. Credit: Paramount Pictures

Christopher McQuarrie – the screenwriter turned director who has overseen the last three Mission: Impossible movies – is a generous raconteur happy to answer filmmaking queries on social media and podcasts. He is fond of saying that making a Mission: Impossible movie is just like an actual impossible mission: you and your hand-picked team led by Tom Cruise start with a carefully conceived plan; that plan immediately goes out the window; everyone is forced to scramble, improvise, vamp, tap-dance; then Cruise does a big terrifying stunt (and maybe breaks his ankle).

The way McQuarrie cheerfully describes the constantly mutating Mission production process it seems a miracle that this franchise has not just persisted but thrived on his watch, always going bigger but somehow also feeling sleeker and more stylish.

After 2018’s headlong Fallout the latest instalment, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One (AKA Mouthful: Impossible), feels like the first time this seat-of-the-pants approach has not fully paid off. There were discomfiting moments in Fallout – notably dream sequences that curdled into nightmares – but they were in keeping with that film’s sweeping sense of paranoia and dread.

Esai Morales and Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One.
Esai Morales and Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. Photo: Paramount Pictures

Five years on, Dead Reckoning has lost some innate sense of Mission rhythm. The usual cinematic symphony of high-wire tension and bedlam that swirls around Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his capable off-the-books allies (Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg) feels a little off-balance and unwieldy. Perhaps it is a byproduct of snapping a story in half like a Kit-Kat – Part Two is due next June – but between barnstorming action beats, Dead Reckoning hiccups where it should glide.

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What it does have, by accident or design, is an antagonist that is remarkably of the moment. A lengthy opening flashback on a Russian sub establishes a rogue military AI – the Entity – that decides to turn on its masters and quietly take over the world. If that seems like pushing the series fully into science fiction, the Entity’s subtle approach involves scuttling all the tools of modern espionage. When fighting an intangible enemy who can clone comms channels, sabotage satellite feeds and rewrite classified databases in real time, Hunt and his team must go back to old-school guts and gumption, which feels like a conscious nod to the franchise’s pre-digital 1960s TV roots.

Not even Tom Cruise can land a punch on ChatGPT but if Hunt can lay his hands on a one-of-a-kind cruciform key, he could potentially unplug the Entity. The only snag is that everyone is after this particular MacGuffin (which, cutely, also comes in two interlocking parts). There’s the Entity’s zealous flesh-and-blood envoy (played by Esai Morales) who has bad blood with Hunt; shifty old spymaster Kittridge (Henry Czerny, returning to the series after 27 years); a dogged US government bloodhound (Shea Whigham, entertainingly channeling Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive); slinky Fallout frenemy the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) and a nimble-fingered, caught-in-the-crossfire thief (Hayley Atwell, the cast addition who gets the most to do and seems to relish the opportunity). 

Throw in Guardians of the Galaxy veteran Pom Klementieff as a hyper-theatrical, high-kicking French henchwoman and fun faces like Mark Gatiss, Rob Delaney and Cary Elwes as officious suits and there is a lot to pack in, even with a roomy running time of 163 minutes.

Ahead of release, much was made of the vertiginous motorcycle jump that Cruise personally undertook, revving a scrambler off a cliffside outcrop that in the final product looks a little too much like the Paramount studio logo to just be a coincidence. It is just one impressively staged feat in a film crammed with smashing stunts, from an extended car chase in Rome featuring a plucky yellow Fiat 500 to
a swashbuckling duel on a historic Venice bridge. 

For the most part, it makes for a wildly entertaining rollercoaster ride though gorgeous locales. But after spending the last few films gunning for and then arguably overtaking Bond, Dead Reckoning feels like Mission: Impossible settling into some sort of holding pattern. 

Perhaps like the dinky cruciform key it will all satisfyingly click into place when Part Two drops. But for a series that thrives on sheer goddamn momentum, this off-kilter opener feels like a rare step backwards. 

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is in cinemas now

Graeme Virtue is a film and TV critic

@GraemeVirtue

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