Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
The Mission: Impossible franchise may not be the only spy series with spectacular action sequences, surprising twists, complex plots or world-ending stakes, but there’s a lot more than just these surface elements which makes it special. Firstly, it’s the only remaining film series successfully working as a star vehicle for its star, Tom Cruise (who is also the only remaining movie star in the traditional sense). Secondly, not many action films are as committed to practical, in-camera stunts, and Mission Impossible continues to deliver them on a level exceeding anything rendered in a computer. Thirdly, the series still feels fresh, as every entry adopts a completely different directorial approach. Finally, the scripts have maintained a generally high baseline of intelligence, resulting in each film being bigger in scale without sacrificing the quality. All of this eventually resulted in Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018), which was not only the best of the series but also one of the best action films ever made. Given that, has the series finally set itself a bar it is unable to reach? This is the challenge facing Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One (2023).
The adventure begins when IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) discovers the existence of a military defence system known as the Entity, an artificial intelligence designed to infiltrate and sabotage any digital software before erasing all traces of itself. Due to its supreme unpredictability and intelligence, the Entity has become uncontrollable and escaped to the Internet, further expanding to the point of sentience. Rather terrifyingly, it has infiltrated every military system on the planet, but did not destroy any of it, instead just soaking up the information on every piece of confidential and classified data. Thus, the Entity’s knowledge and destructive capabilities are near limitless, making it a desirable asset to every warring country. Instead of acquiring it for the United States, Hunt has decided that it’s too dangerous for any government to control, meaning he and his teammates Benji (Simon Pegg), Luther (Ving Rhames) and Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) are on a mission to destroy the Entity. This places them high on many wanted lists, while also making them targets of a thief named Grace (Hayley Atwell), The White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), and a mysterious agent from Ethan’s past named Gabriel (Esai Morales), who may or may not be working for the Entity itself.
The most notable and widely discussed element is usually the action scenes, which Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One delivers in spades. Unlike its predecessor, Dead Reckoning Part One is centered around slow building tension, once again displaying a fresh and different feel than what was expected. Following the explosive start, Director Christopher McQuarrie kicks things off with a fairly standard set up, only to smartly add one small obstacle after another. This layering allows the film to maintain its momentum, keep the audience on their toes, and successfully saves the best and most tense set pieces for the climax. Most action filmmakers are afraid that they’ll lose the viewer if the most exciting sequence occurs too late, but McQuarrie baits us just enough throughout the 163 minute runtime to keep us engaged, only to let things explode in awe-inspiring fashion for the finale. In a way, the escalating tension used in the closing scene perfectly encapsulates the experience of watching the entire film.
The use of escalating tension is a fascinating stylistic choice, as Dead Reckoning Part One evokes much of the paranoiac tone of the original Mission: Impossible (1996). From the dutch angles, close ups, snap zooms, and neo-noir aesthetic, McQuarrie successfully channels Director Brian De Palma’s signature touches through a modern lens. Even the use of music and sound design is reminiscent of De Palma, with silence being just as important as bombast. Quietly spoken dialogue and absence of music at key points keeps all the spy craft wonderfully grounded, even when massively over the top scenarios light up the screen. More so than any previous Mission: Impossible adventure, Dead Reckoning Part One resurrects the stylings of classic Cold War thrillers, which makes its callbacks to the original film appropriate. If Dead Reckoning Part One (and the upcoming Part Two) are to be the final Mission: Impossible films, it’s quite fitting for the series to cleverly take us back to its roots.
Despite all the good old-fashioned filmmaking on display, Dead Reckoning Part One manages to be surprisingly relevant through its nerve-wracking depiction of artificial intelligence. The concept has been dealt with in film for as long as anyone can remember, but rarely has it felt this plausible. This is probably aided by the fact that AI is a very real part of our lives right now, but that shouldn’t disqualify the film from its achievement. McQuarrie accurately depicts very real fears around AI in an incredibly high stakes fashion, resulting in many moments that are thrilling from an entertainment perspective, yet also make you want to turn off all your smart devices forever. For such a well-worn and silly trope, Dead Reckoning Part One’s greatest success is how it makes the concept feel as grand as possible while also ditching the silliness. That being said, what really makes the concept click is how it’s made to mirror our heroes.
What does this mean exactly? Let’s cast our memories back to Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015), where Ethan Hunt is described as being ‘the living manifestation of destiny’, and there being ‘no secret he cannot extract, no security he cannot breach, or no person he cannot become’. With Dead Reckoning Part One, the rogue Entity are those very statements brought to life, meaning that our heroes are well and truly facing something which consistently beats them at their own game. This parallel not only links good and evil in a very subtle manner, but also plays into the film’s thematic discussions regarding the worth of human life. This has always been a key component of the Mission: Impossible films, but it’s given intimacy this time around, as it’s tied directly to the personal motivations of the IMF team. With that in mind, some answers are revealed regarding how they’ve even ended up in this world, and what that actually means to them. This wonderfully contextualises all of our heroes, as well as providing a great arc for newcomer Grace, played excellently by Hayley Atwell.
While Dead Reckoning Part One is definitely continuing the series’ unprecedented winning streak, there are a handful of minor elements holding it back from supplanting Mission: Impossible – Fallout as the best of the series. Most notably, the audience is pretty much aware of the mysterious MacGuffin’s function from minute one, but the characters are largely unaware and theorise about it for the entire runtime. It’s not a problem to have the viewer be completely across what’s going on, but it’s usually more effective if there’s a period of time where we only know as much as our heroes before finding out more. Additionally, the fact that this is only half of the story compounds that frustration, as the viewer maintains the lead of Hunt and his team. Fortunately, neither of these elements are enough to sink the film, as there’s plenty more twists, turns and reveals to satiate the audience, and there’s still a definite resolution to this film’s events (making this a very satisfying ‘Part One’).
Ultimately, what makes this film standout is the same reason the series as a whole stands out. In the ever-crowded landscape of blockbuster filmmaking, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is simply a more expertly crafted experience, representing the upper echelon of what’s currently out there. As long as these films continue to deliver the best stunts, smartest scripts and most nail-biting action, they will continue to age like fine wine.
Best way to watch it: In IMAX, marathoned with Part Two when that comes out… but definitely also still see this in IMAX now.