Thursday, July 20, 2023

Incarnation of Chaos: Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One (2023)

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Notable Cast: Tom Cruise, Hayley Atwell, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Vanessa Kirby, Esai Morales, Pom Klementieff, Henry Czerny, Shea Whigham, Greg Tarzan Davis, Cary Elwes


Just before the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) team heads off on a train to ride towards their destiny in the final act of the seventh (and not final) Mission: Impossible film, Hailey Atwell’s new character Grace asks Tom Cruise’s now iconic Ethan Hunt if he will be on the train. He looks at her, and thus to an entire packed IMAX audience in my theater, and says that he will. He will be there. You can count on it. 


It’s Tom Cruise’s modus operandi at this point. After a billion-dollar grossing Top Gun: Maverick and a marketing campaign for this latest Mission: Impossible film that saw him and director Christopher McQuarrie taking pictures with their tickets to see every new film in theaters, he’s going to be there. You can count on it. 


It’s seemingly the warcry of Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One, a film that so adamantly sticks to its franchise guns and formulas that it’s no wonder it was opened two days earlier than originally planned. It’s going to be there for the fans. You can count on it. 


This adherence to its staples and formulas makes watching Dead Reckoning Part One such a blessing and a curse. It’s a good fuckin’ movie because that’s what the McQuarrie era of Mission: Impossible does well - be well-crafted and highly entertaining films. But it’s also one that vehemently refuses to go to that next level outside of being the first half of a story. Not in the way that either Rogue Nation or Fallout were doing in either embracing the series’ espionage roots or wrapping in Ethan’s greatest character arc, respectively. Dead Reckoning is a Mission: Impossible greatest hits package, for better or worse, and depending on your inherent love for the franchise - that’s a choice that has its merits and limits. 


At its baseline, Dead Reckoning Part One is a very entertaining film and one that comes stamping in with the classic Mission: Impossible elements in full. At a whopping 163 minutes of pure blockbuster fun, it’s hard not to enjoy what Dead Reckoning Part One is serving up. Although its narrative is obviously split into two parts - as designated by its title – there is plenty of movie to fill this damn thing and it’s hitting all of the MacGuffin chases, spy betrayals, and action-packed spectacle that one could shake a stick at. 


For those who come to the series for the action, Dead Reckoning Part One does not disappoint. Yes, the marketing campaign was certainly centered around Tom Cruise whipping a motorcycle off of a Norwegian mountain, but that’s just the, pardon the joke, tip of the mountain. Assassin shootouts in sandstorms, a lofty car chase through the streets of Rome, a gorgeously shot sword fight on the bridge over the water channels in Venice, and a finale that features the previously mentioned train ride to destiny make sure that action fans will have a full meal of practically executed stunts and impressively shot and choreographed action. Say what you will, but McQuarrie knows how to craft incredible action and does so repeatedly.


Secretly though, the most fascinating part of Dead Recking Part One is its overall plotting and narrative. On one hand, it’s very formulaic - as noted - and the style of the film is far more in line with Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol than either of its direct predecessors, particularly in its bright visuals and borderline cartoonish settings (including a mid-film club dance in an Italian courtyard), but the film does pull off one of the most outlandish and timely maneuvers that this series has ever seen. 


Tom Cruise and company declare war on artificial intelligence. 


Considering the recent revelations around the SAG and WGA strikes in Hollywood that center around AI, algorithms, and digital streaming revenue, it’s almost prophetic that a film like Dead Reckoning Part One would be written, filmed, and finished to be released right when the unions of Hollywood declare war on AI. In this film, it’s represented by “The Entity” which has deemed Ethan Hunt the ultimate anti-AI variable and tries to get rid of him by any means necessary. It’s the ultimate bad guy and Hunt is even called an “incarnation of chaos” by another character in this film. We’ve seen Hunt outsmart, outpunch, and certainly outrun all of his antagonists, but when the Entity can predict his every move, it’s now Tom Cruise against the machine. Not unlike when Tom Cruise beat machines in Top Gun: Maverick. Or predictive futures in Minority Report. Or alien machines in Edge of Tomorrow. Or seeing beyond the machines that blind us in Vanilla Sky. You know, the usual. Artificial life is bad news bears to Mr. Cruise and Dead Reckoning Part One doubles down on it. 


Yet, The Entity and its human henchman, Gabriel, smolderingly played by Esai Morales, who has his own sidekick in the blissfully unhinged performance by Pom Klementieff, are not the only villains of the film. Returning government asshole Kittridge is back too and so Cruise and his team, filled out by returning M:I vets Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, and Rebecca Ferguson, have layers upon layers of characters to navigate and defeat. Sometimes with their fists and sometimes with their brains. Either way, the performances are charming throughout and Dead Reckoning Part One does deliver those memorable characters as expected. 


If anything, perhaps the biggest obstacle for this seventh entry to overcome, besides feeling a tad unfinished by the time the credits roll, is that it’s almost too familiar. It’s replicating so much that we’ve seen before even going as far as putting Kittridge on a train at the end just like in the first film. It truly is a greatest hits record of the series. 


Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One is still fun, entertaining, and well crafted - but there was always a nagging voice in the back of my head that was hoping in its epic ‘beginning of the end’ narrative that it would be a bit bolder at times. Yet, in the end, it’s hard to forget that Tom Cruise and this franchise has made a promise to the movie fans which is so blatantly stated in this film. 


No matter what and no matter what changes in the industry or how much AI is used or how audience opinion changes. 


They will still be there. You can count on it. 


Written By Matt Malpica Reifschneider

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