Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
Written by Erik Jendresen and Christopher McQuarrie
It's too much to read something significant into something so small, but I want to read into it anyway. This franchise, having departed from ordinal numerals years ago, has now for most of its long existence used the cumbersome Mission Colon Impossible Hyphen Stupid Borderline Nonsense Phrase template, and it clearly won't stop using this, except presently to add a Part One to this first part of a simultaneously-produced two-part six-hour monster of cinema. The franchise has always managed to insert these phrases into the dialogue, not always making it sound particularly credible, though I guess it got close enough in the last one, Mission: Impossible-Fallout. When Fallout uttered its own name, it was out of the mouth of its villain, pontificating on the collateral damage of Ethan Hunt's (Tom Cruise's) heroism, all in keeping with the dourness of that film's mood, along with what I called then, and continue to call now, its insufferable self-importance.
Dead Reckoning, Part One, on the other hand, when it drops its title—in its very first spoken line—it places it in the mouth of some random tertiary character, who describes a submarine's act of navigation by dead reckoning, keeping up the tradition but signaling to the audience that its writers, Erik Jendresen and Christopher McQuarrie (the latter, of course, also directing), have closed off any further opportunity they might have otherwise had to attach any profundity to it, thereby representing, at last, this franchise's belated embrace of the Bondian "sounds cool, man" philosophy of movie titles. The Bond ones are usually a bit more baroque and evocative—the approach still needs some work!—but this is a relief, an accurate reflection that this film's made a full retreat from the suffocating, sepulchral feel that Fallout brought with it whenever it was doing almost anything besides throwing Tom Cruise out of airplanes or dangling him off cliffs, and which it was still bringing even when it was having him run for long distances in lateral tracking shots. Meanwhile, this scene in which the words "dead reckoning" are spoken even concludes—well, it climaxes with the submarine imploding, so as to kick off the world-threatening plot—but it concludes with its crew floating out of the debris and lodging against the underside of the Arctic ice cap, in a dreamy shot that feels tantalizingly like Cruise and his director slave are right on the edge of just doing a proper Bondian pop art opening, in the entirely correct belief that they have in fact usurped James Bond. For a good hour, that they lost their nerve was my biggest problem here. So not really any problem at all. If it wasn't that, then it was that dogshit "International Monetary Fund" joke. (Though fortunately it stands alone as the film's only line of off-brand, brainlessly-quippy dialogue.)
But otherwise Dead Reckoning was perfecting—and in many respects it still has perfected—the McQuarrie era of its franchise. Except—except—for all that its larkish, breezy kind of fun is exactly the corrective that the franchise needed, that becomes a genuine medium-sized problem, because it is very clear that Cruise and McQuarrie locked themselves into a larkish, breezy, fun spy thriller out of a need to differentiate it from the suffocating, sepulchral one before it, despite a screenplay (which in turn, I suspect, was dictated in some part by readily-justifiable extrinsic factors along the lines of "fine, I'll do one more for Rogue Nation's sake, but I don't actually enjoy getting thrown into things") which would have made sepulchral suffocation more appropriate for this movie than it was in the last one, when they were forcing it.
This is only a medium-sized problem, if that, for I'm not even entirely sure how I feel about it; a movie, let alone a 163 minute movie, can and almost certainly should have more than the one tone. If it's a problem at all it's a problem in the grand design rather than in the execution, then, for the execution of the relevant sequences is far better than it's ever been as regards this particular element of the franchise. But it sticks in the craw, maybe just because it feels like something so important ought to be a chapter-ending finale, or maybe it sticks simply because there's a dialogue exchange beforehand that explicitly comments upon the legacy of Ethan Hunt (and, I suppose, the whole corpus of super-spy cinema) as a legacy dependent upon a certain disposability of women, and then it goes ahead and disposes of the most important one anyway, with a new model already queued up, not merely waiting in the wings but getting most of the screentime and plot before the old one's even gone. Then again, by pretty much the exact same token, I'm impressed by the equanimity of the action scenes, which never feel designed to give a female character any handicap, and there's a dangerous unpredictability to that, notably in the film's best fight sequence (of so very many good ones!) where Ethan has been trapped in an alleyway the size of a coffin by the deadly, deranged female demi-villain, and accordingly Ethan just, like, bashes her skull into the walls with a dizzying physical realism, which is this franchise's hallmark, but also a shocking amount of honest-feeling brutality, which hasn't been, and as such provides some of that good old "tonal variety" I was just talking about. But to call so much attention to the martyrs' function women have undeniably so often played in this series, and then do it again, is downright pathological. So I don't know. Maybe I'm just never going to be completely happy with any movie that "stars" Rebecca Ferguson for maybe, at the outside, just 10% of its runtime; and anyway, I might say I want "suffocating, sepulchral" now, but I sure don't act like it, given my increasingly-muted reaction to the John Wick series jamming on that tone for four movies straight.
Apologies, then, for a wandering introduction full of redacted spoilers and nebulous questions about "tone" that I don't even answer; if there's one true test of a McQuarrie M:I film, it seems it really is whether it prompts 1000 words about how much something about it fucking bugs me right before I give it a sterling review. (And that's if she's even really dead in the first place, not something anyone should uncritically accept in a freaking Mission: Impossible movie, especially one expressly labeled Part One.) Well, whatever. One of the things that's so cool about this one is how much of an anxious, nervy thriller it is, in addition to being another Tom Cruise Stuntshow—something McQuarrie has been quietly sneaking back into the franchise (and manages it here by just appending forty more minutes of runtime onto it than the Tom Cruise Stuntshow stricly requires)—yet this is all on the level of individual scene and setpiece, rather than the overarching plot, which is immaculately action-movie simple in its essentials. So: that submarine turns out to be carrying an artificial intelligence, which has, unbeknownst to its Russian masters, already escaped and copied itself across the width and breadth of the Internet. It contrives to destroy its own vessel and all aboard, for all that it fears now are the nuclear-style dual security keys that can still tame it—a single key that splits into two, each half authenticating the other half, and in combination capable of granting access to the lethal source code aboard the submarine, so that altogether this is the spy thriller that feels less like a chase for a prosaic maguffin than a full-on quest for a gaudy-looking magical artifact prop (it even looks like the key drive version of the False Cup of Christ from The Last Crusade).
But the key wasn't lost, and Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) is after it. Thus does the Impossible Missions Force deploy her old comrade Ethan to figure out her endgame and retrieve the key, so they can control the AI. Very quickly, Ethan and his team—Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg)—determine the AI must be destroyed, so nobody can control it. But they are opposed by the servants that the machine has found amongst men, particularly techno-nihilist zealot Gabriel (Esai Morales) and his colorful henchwoman Paris (Pom Klementieff)—as well as those the AI has suborned, like arms dealer Alanna Mitsopolis (Vanessa Kirby)—and the Americans themselves quickly figure out that Ethan's gone rogue, again, so they send their own goons. The only truly complicating factor is Grace (Hayley Atwell), just a thief who's blundered her way into a battle for the soul of humankind.
So, yes, it does appear that every Tom Cruise movie now is going to be commentary on the coldness of modern industrial filmmaking, and upon the decline of flesh-and-blood humanity in general; the M:I movies have been so, basically, ever since Cruise danced on the side of the Burj Khalifa in a successful bid to climb out of a reputational hole of his own making, when he reconceived his signature role as something like a permanent threat to kill himself if we ever stopped paying attention to him. Since then, he's reclaimed our respect; to some degree he's even earned the fascination of people who consider him a dangerous cultist and whose favorite Mission: Impossible would be ten minutes long but had to be released in theaters anyway because Cruise's will said so. Yet as Cruise-centered as his motives remain, he's managed to become more than just Tom Cruise, the Last Movie Star, but possibly one of the last humans to make movies the way he does.
He knows that; his movies now reflect it not only in their manufacture, but their narratives. Dead Reckoning handles it better by far than Top Gun: Maverick, which jumped up and down insisting upon its humanism while forgetting to actually include any human vitality and relying, more than you apparently realized, on a heap of CGI; here, that philosophy is simply embedded into every aspect of a film that of course still uses CGI, but more sparingly, and has practical stunts of rather more significance than "Tom Cruise is in, but not actually flying, a jet aeroplane"—for instance, because it's in the trailers, and they want you to buy your ticket with that image in your head, we have here "Tom Cruise jumps off a mountain." (Which isn't close to my favorite, and I like the final kick to this stunt scene, definitely more a creature of editing, and plausibly a creature of VFX assistance, a whole lot more than the stunt itself, and in one of the film's very rare filmmaking missteps, I earnestly think they didn't manage to get as much coverage of him on the way down as they'd wanted.)
I'm not as doctrinaire as some people can be about this theme, but I admire form following function the way this does: it is a movie committed to the idea that if everything is magic, then magic has no meaning. It's in love with real things because if you can make real things do the impossible, then they can still be amazing, and it demonstrates this in ways all up and down the spectrum of spectacle, from the ginormous, like throwing a (mock up of) a train off a (real) blown up bridge, to the incredibly small, like requiring Atwell—and Cruise would ask nothing of his actors, I suppose, that he would not do himself—to learn sleight of hand, that is, actual magic, which has a little bit of plot relevance and is so much more important as a statement of theme, more-or-less expressly, "if movie magic has no power anymore, then fuck movie magic and let's do it for real." My favorite single shot is somewhere in the middle of the scale, where Ferguson comes frighteningly close to losing her footing on a step—it would not have been enough of a fall to actually hurt Ferguson, I think, but that organic element, that mistake, which may well have been choreographed just as intently as everything else but in a franchise where Cruise broke his ankle on camera you'll never know, sums up the film and its franchise as well as anything, and you believe, viscerally, in the stakes inherent to that slip for Ilsa. And then—as everyone's already pointed out—the movie itself is Tom Cruise fighting a generative AI that wants to make the whole world fake.
It has backed off on Guinness Book-style feats to some degree, and while you will not be left wanting if that's what you're here for—it ends with a pretty fucking great one, that does more with that train crash than seems possible—it's not really to its detriment that it's banked more on a quantity of setpieces; it still feels, well, fleshy-and-bloody, and in all but the most "if they used real steam they'd fall off the train choking and die" respects, quite tangibly real, from the real locations to an otherwise very real train, and one of the other problems (maybe just "problems") of Fallout, a sensation of waiting-for-the-thing whilst McQuarrie deployed the most pensive filmmaking he could manage, isn't a problem or "a problem" here. If I wished to quibble, it would only be about cinematographer Fraser Taggert's unsound decision, apparently due to the necessary resort to large amounts of drone footage, to make every daylight exterior look kind of like drone footage—it is a clean and clear and sunny movie, not to be taken for granted these days, but it is still a little bit at war with its own mission.
I've said Dead Reckoning course-corrects for fun, and even the actors are having fun, or at least most of them—Morales is too tied up in "affectless prophet of a humanity-free future" to be fun-fun, so it's a good thing Klementieff is here to deliver a constant gleeful expression of predatory hunger on behalf of Gabriel's wacky evil drum majorette henchwoman. Likewise, I appreciate that while there are two crazy-eyed female villains in this film, somehow Klementieff and Kirby manage to make each one crazy-eyed in completely distinct ways, and Kirby gets to show off her technical chops when, in fine M:I tradition, she's tasked with effectively playing another actor. Atwell, meanwhile, does the most imaginable with the character she's been handed by being as abrasive as that character allows; she's very good, and beyond giving Grace's arc real sincerity when it finally lands, she's an excellent collection of jagged edges poking against the straight line of Cruise's Ethan. There's no real need to praise Rhames or Pegg, series fixtures; Ferguson, for her part, has just become another member of that family. These movies have been terribly overreliant on Ferguson's Other Last Movie Star charisma to make Ilsa mean something, and in the film's one compromise to Cruise's fall from grace in the 00s, I still don't know if Ilsa and Ethan fuck and Dead Reckoning can only strongly imply they do; but the sheer fact of three films in a row have made Ferguson important, even if not elegantly. (This is the core of the distinction from Maverick: this movie has numerous characters that aren't Tom Cruise, rather than none.)
But I haven't even mentioned the tiny car chase, or so many other things. I will only note that, if I'm not mistaken, the final action beat of the whole film involves the threat of Cruise being flattened by a literal piano getting dropped on his head, which is another pretty good summing up of this film and its franchise. McQuarrie has apparently conceived Dead Reckoning in no small part as a reckoning, as it were, with that franchise—Part Two is widely believed to be the last, and even Cruise is not forever—though like with the theme of battling dehumanization this is mostly invisible unless you're really looking for the parallels, except in its film-long engagement with Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible, and really more like just the one scene from Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible, where the bottom drops out from under Ethan for the first time and Cruise almost got himself killed by an aquarium, arguably a key scene in the actor's actual life, inasmuch as it led to his lifelong obsession with courting doom.
What this means in practice is twofold: a surprising reliance on legitimate old-school thriller tactics that don't involve Cruise jumping off tall objects—one of the movie's best sequences is a quiet (hell, mostly walking-speed) chase through an airport that's been intercut with a bomb plot at the same airport and keeps playing with both classical and ultra-modern notions of mistaken identity, and feels like McQuarrie asserting that there is no number of moving parts he can't handle—and a lot of thriller exposition delivered by way of dutch angles such as God himself has never seen alongside absolutely lunatic editing that demands your attention by breaking every rule of conversational cutting you've ever heard of and some that haven't been formulated yet. But I would aver it is, nevertheless, a splendidly edited movie: it's a long movie, and it's not even a long movie where I wouldn't know what I'd cut—every one of those deranged-looking exposition scenes gets its narrative and aesthetic point across a good sixty seconds before it ends, and if I were truly ruthless I might begin to question if Shea Wigham and Greg Davis's bumbling CIA agents remained necessary—but the movie is 163 minutes, and I didn't notice once, to the point that I wasn't even aware that the climax was the climax. Some of that is, yes, that it's only half of movie, and not trying to hide that; but to never feel it is a popcorn movie miracle.