Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One review: when self awareness goes wrong

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Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One being waylaid for years by a global pandemic only to ultimately hit theaters at a time when the public’s becoming more attuned to the spread of AI tools does a lot to make the film feel eerily prescient — not about the state of the technology itself but the degree to which it’s on people’s minds. In his latest outing as Ethan Hunt, Tom Cruise delivers exactly the kind of seasoned, charismatic, and more-than-put-upon performance necessary to sell the seventh installment of an action franchise about an aging super spy whose longtime team of allies are all getting on in years. 

But for all of Cruise’s pitch-perfectness as a stunt-oriented action hero and director Christopher McQuarrie having a keen eye for crafting spectacular action set pieces that genuinely feel like they’d be impossible to survive, Dead Reckoning Part One can’t stop getting in its own way with an overreliance on self-referential jokes, and pre-chewed cliches.

Set some time after the events of Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Dead Reckoning Part One tells the winding and often rather circuitous story of how Impossible Mission Force operative Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his team of fellow agents are tasked with saving the world from a sentient, Machiavellian artificial intelligence that has the power to set off the next series of global wars. Throughout the film, no one seems to fully understand just what “The Entity” — Dead Reckoning’s deeply unimaginative name for its amorphous, faceless, mostly-digital antagonist — is or what it was originally meant to be used for. But after a mysterious accident unleashes the program into the wild along with the two halves of a physical key necessary to control or destroy it, a covert international arms race is set off with multiple world powers — including the US — vying to get their hands on it in hopes of shaping the future in their favor.

Image: Paramount Pictures and Skydance

The Mission: Impossible movies have always prioritized suspense, intrigue, and action ahead of telling stories that make all that much sense. But Dead Reckoning spends so much time trying (and often failing) to clearly explain things — like what the Entity is and how it’s unlike anything Ethan, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) have ever encountered before — that the movie frequently feels firmly grounded in parody territory.

Aside from Cruise, who delivers a surprisingly restrained, contemplative performance as Hunt — who never says anything about feeling like a 59-year-old man being portrayed by a 62-year-old but still feels appropriately aged — virtually everyone else in the film feels curiously stuck in a higher, more excited gear of action movie acting that tends to feel hollow. This becomes especially apparent in the movie’s many dramatically shot exposition dump sequences, where the over-the-shoulder glances are so sharply choreographed and executed that it’s easy to imagine the actors practicing them while listening to the most melodramatic music possible.

But while there are plenty of instances in which the vibe skews a little off, there are also a handful of moments built around new characters like Hayley Atwell’s Grace and Pom Klementieff that stand out because of how well the actors are able to compliment rather than approximate, Cruise’s energy. Throughout the film, it’s clear that while Paramount might have longer-term plans for the larger Mission: Impossible franchise, Ethan Hunt won’t always be the centerpiece, and one of the more impressive things about Dead Reckoning is how well it’s able to telegraph that a changing of the guard is on its way without feeling like an overwrought goodbye to Cruise.

What’s most impressive, of course, are the movie’s action sequences — or at least, they would be were it not for the way that Dead Reckoning’s ad campaign has prominently featured (and kind of spoiled) many the more inspired set pieces that take Ethan and co. around the globe. In the same way that Dead Reckoning’s delay wound up making its AI focus feel in sync with the current news cycle, the film premiering just a couple weeks after Fast X — which also featured a cartoonish car chase through a cramped Italian city — creates an unfortunate sense of deja vu that’s amplified by its many, many nostalgia plays.

For all the groundwork it’s laying for the franchise’s future, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One (probably correctly) assumes that it can play to its core audience by rehashing beats from previous films and jazzing them up with a heavy pour of meta humor meant to make you feel in on the joke of it all. But while that approach might work for folks who’ve been faithfully following Ethan Hunt’s adventures for the past 27 years, it could be a tough sell for newcomers — especially considering that this is just half of the story that next year’s Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part Two is meant to finish.

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One also stars Esai Morales, Vanessa Kirby, Henry Czerny, Frederick Schmidt, Greg Tarzan Davis, and Shea Whigham. The movie hits theaters on July 12th.

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