TEXAS, USA — A funny thing happens when you least expect it late in “Dead Reckoning,” the seventh “Mission: Impossible” installment and distinctly the first of a two-part outing: As the spark nears the end of the proverbial fuse in the form of Tom Cruise plunging over a cliff’s edge, we start to forget our beloved Ethan Hunt while returning repeatedly to franchise newcomer Grace (Hayley Atwell, a worthy addition) mulling a decision the world has already made for her.
She’s engaged in a much quieter faceoff than Ethan, whose extended dirt-bike pursuit up a mountain slowly becomes an in-joke given how overwhelmingly the movie’s marketing has centered around this particular stunt, as if we didn’t see Cruise jump from 25,000 feet a few years back. In what is either an incredibly cosmic coincidence or a supremely confident gamble on the part of Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie (I’m inclined to believe it’s the latter), it’s the moral standoff between surrendering to circumstance or winning her emancipation simmering within Atwell’s for-hire thief that begins to propel the sequence.
Besides, we know Cruise survives that jump, even if we don’t exactly know where he’ll end up. Spoiler: You won’t see that coming either.
Such is the exquisite immediacy of “Dead Reckoning - Part 1,” a stellar “M:I” entry that takes a foundational element of Ethan’s world-saving, that of choice (or the illusion of it), and fashions it into a metatextual anchor point for a moviegoing populace that’s perhaps never had less agency in our algorithm-driven era. What powers “Mission: Impossible” is that when we take our seats, we’re preparing to see the world through Cruise’s daredevil eyes. We’ve accompanied him hurtling through skies and streets. But it’s never been more clear what he’s outrunning—the encroaching artificiality of an art form that's historically thrived in accordance with its human component. One exciting “Dead Reckoning” reunion sees the original movie’s Kittridge (Henry Czerny) back in the mix, trying to convince Ethan that his latest rogue mission isn’t one sanctioned by the powers that be… you can guess how the spy responds.
In the hands of a team less invested in keeping the rewards of cinematic spectacle alive, this might all have come off as grasping at thematic straws (“Dead Reckoning” was written by McQuarrie and Erik Jendresen, and I wouldn't be surprised if Cruise contributed). But this is also a movie that’s addressing us directly when a longtime member of Ethan’s team declares, “Nobody’s making us do this; we're here because we want to be.” Cruise, McQuarrie and company are clearly happy to be here. And, heck, they’re sure happy you are, too, even as the audacity of the stuntwork shifts partially to the backseat in favor of a script going out of its way to call checkmate on the real-world – and real-world – forces it’s up against. Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Forget everything you thought you knew about the “Mission: Impossible” movies. Toss it out the window of the Burj Khalifa.
Oh, not to worry; the franchise’s defining action component is still intact, matched by virtually nobody else in the Hollywood blockbuster space. There’s a beauty to the way a mission inside the world’s most pristine-looking airport unfurls, the operational chessboard re-arranging itself on a minute-to-minute basis (franchise mainstays Simon Peggas and Ving Rhames return to provide necessary doses of slapstick and gravitas). The upcoming “Oppenheimer,” meanwhile, has its work cut out for it thanks to a duststorm-swept shootout in "Dead Reckoning" that had my non-IMAX seat rumbling. Ethan runs, jumps, fights and flips, which of course here means Cruise – the medium’s most committed showman – runs, jumps, fights and flips, as dedicated as ever to the mandate that audiences deserve their spectacle to be as convincingly rendered as possible.
But the greatest stunt “Dead Reckoning” pulls is how thoughtfully its narrative harmonizes with the movie’s thrills, not merely to inform character but to reflect the scenario of entry No. 7. The story pits our heroes (including Rebecca Ferguson’s returning buttkicker-in-chief Ilsa Faust) against an everywhere-but-nowhere artificial intelligence threat dubbed “the Entity,” which can just about make anyone God if they find both halves of a fancy-looking key unlocking the Entity’s supposed nerve center. Go ahead—laugh! This movie, the franchise’s weirdest since John Woo made motorcycles twirl like ballerinas, would understand. But you have to hand it to Cruise: We can add foresight to the list of apparent superhuman qualities he possesses, given the topicality about the impact of A.I. on life in and outside the cinema.
It lends these movies the most immediate, most potently existential tenor it’s seen since Jon Voight double-crossed Ethan in 1996. The stakes were personal early in the life of this 27-year-old series; you could feel Ethan’s world threatening to crumble as he dropped in from the ceiling of CIA headquarters or swung between skyscrapers in Shanghai. “Mission: Impossible” then transformed into “Mission: Unmissable” at the hands of Brad Bird and McQuarrie, who, egged on by a death-defying Cruise, engineered increasingly IMAX-ready sequences on the world’s tallest building (“Ghost Protocol”) or the outside a plane at liftoff (“Rogue Nation”). But as elegantly as those entries’ most memorable set pieces were, they often felt stitched together by ambiguous threats; we started to see Tom Cruise onscreen instead of just Ethan Hunt as the movies acknowledged, to mostly effective ends, that archetypes are archetypes for a reason. With the operatic “Fallout,” “Mission: Impossible” reached new highs, planting its flag into territory that harmonized what we were seeing and what we were thinking into a refined image of Cruise, Movie Star. Finally, his level of dedication had become almost totally indistinguishable from the Impossible Mission Force operative he’s played for years.
Where else for “Dead Reckoning” to go, then, but to render the IMF practically defunct and the world Ethan’s repeatedly saved as one that now feels like it’s hunting him around typically gorgeous locales? The spy is referred to as a “mindreading, shapeshifting incarnation of chaos” – check, check and check – but even the trajectory of his latest mission isn’t entirely clear. The Entity doesn’t play by the same rules as the Syndicate, John Lark or other villains of recent “M:I” fare, which is why it might take you most of “Dead Reckoning’s” first act to warm up to the fact that it can seem like it’s making it up as it goes along. But Cruise is ever the generous star, and the film's structural disorientation empowers you to believe the stakes are as high as you can imagine them. The movie involves its audience in ways different than impossible missions past.
You feel it in the movie's breathlessness, and in Cruise's wide-eyed portrayal of an agent who's never tried this hard just to keep up, whether it means playing hide-and-seek with a gleefully homicidal Pom Klementieff in the streets of Venice or hopping his way through a falling train car. Blockbusters of this magnitude have been categorized as escapes from reality, but that’s never been quite enough for Cruise, whose dedication to the legitimacy of the big-screen experience is matched only by the size of his apparent death wish (this is the set where, if you’ll remember, Cruise let loose a rant of frustration on crew members who weren’t following COVID protocols).
His mission – Cruise’s, that is – has never been more transparent than it is here. In “Dead Reckoning” there is talk of ghost enemies and intangible digital realities—surreal concepts we never fully wrap our minds around through Ethan’s eyes, which is frustrating only until the point it becomes absolutely thrilling because do we really know what Netflix is talking about when it’s talking about algorithms? What’s going through ChatGPT’s artificial mind when we humor it to come up with a dad joke? “Dead Reckoning” takes after the very real forces it’s going up against, and delights in being a few steps ahead of us. Some words of advice: Let it be. An American blockbuster hasn’t exuded such a sheer sense of vertigo since “Matrix Resurrections,” and like that movie “Dead Reckoning” is likely to be controversial among moviegoers looking for the same musically constructed plot as “Fallout.”
This is very much not another “Fallout,” and despite a couple moments of limp dialogue affirming how immaculate that movie’s chemistry was, “Dead Reckoning” isn’t trying to be. The story here is messy, purposefully and engagingly so, flipping between several factions that clash dizzyingly in a roadway pursuit where we’re reminded just how great an improviser Ethan Hunt is. That sequence comes soon after a wonderfully loony submarine-set prologue establishing how the villain this time around isn’t one of flesh and blood (though its apostle of sorts, a shadowy figure from Ethan’s past played by Esai Morales, is). The film is mighty self-reflexive, certainly a reckoning for this size and scale of blockbuster, and one that stands at enchanting contrast to recent “M:I” films.
Perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than the fight sequence where my jaw dropped the widest, set in a claustrophobic, dimly lit alleyway where the camera somehow manages to stay just out of reach of swinging fists and knives. Given this series' reputation for going big, bigger, biggest, it’s nice to know Cruise and company can still take our breath away with more intimately scaled stunts where desperation is captured in a different light. Yes, this is only a Part 1. But given the urgency of Cruise's offscreen mission, and the glorious ways its portrayed onscreen, we can certainly afford him the flexibility.
"Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part 1" opens in theaters Wednesday. It's rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some language and suggestive material. Runtime: 2 hours, 43 minutes.
Starring Tom Cruise, Hayley Atwell, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg
Directed by Christopher McQuarrie; written by McQuarrie and Erik Jendresen