Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One – a spoiler-filled breakdown and collection of thoughts

Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part I
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With huge spoilers, we dig into Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, and there’s much to talk about…

Huge spoilers lie ahead for Dead Reckoning Part One…


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On emerging from the cinema after seeing Mission Impossible – Fallout back in 2018, one thought kept crossing my mind: the bar has been raised. The sheer scope and spectacle of that sixth film in the franchise, even after previous entries with increasingly outlandish set-pieces, utterly blew me away. How could anyone top that?

How even could the one-two punch combo of Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie, now installed as the auteur and muse for Hollywood’s long running action series? Fallout didn’t just raise the game for James Bond and a legion of imitators but for Mission Impossible itself. How to replicate the brilliant intricacy of the Paris chase sequences? How to level up from the insane, high octane helicopter battle in the Himalayan skies? It just seemed well, pardon the pun, impossible.

Cue Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning – Part One. Not just one film but two, likely to trouble well over five hours worth of screen time when all is said and done, which initially were teed up as a potential conclusion to the franchise that began in 1996. Cruise has rowed back on that lately, cheerily declaring they’ll have to carry him out in a box before he stops throwing himself off the tallest thing imaginable (or words to that effect), but Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning – Part One establishes itself with all the trappings of a finale. I said in my earlier piece on it that Fallout could have worked as an endgame but the ambition of this puts that in the shade.

Really, in this day and age, the only threat to top copious amounts of nuclear weapons – as Fallout promised – is a malevolent artificial intelligence. What McQuarrie and his co-writer Eric Jendresen term ‘the Entity’ is a 21st century espionage HAL; a gaping digital maw eating up knowledge from across the globe while playing game theory with human governments desperate to try and put their own lid on Pandora’s box. It makes sense as a means of upping the ante. Everyone is a bit terrified of AI right now, of its apparent rapid development, of scare stories around the possibility it could become Skynet. It’s a potent 2020s threat.

McQuarrie also amusingly understands it as a logical antagonist up against Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, the most stalwart of stalwart action heroes, a man who straddles multiple generations of action cinema. Ethan began as part of a post-Cold War, post-modern deconstruction of the espionage drama, the survivor of a team. Subsequent films work to retrofit him as a man alone superhero, a husband caught between a life and his work, and eventually the “living manifestation of destiny” as Cruise leaned into his own stunts while his own franchise – much like the Entity – became self-aware. It knew Ethan and Cruise had basically become one.

In other words, to place Ethan – a man who as he says here “will always value your life, over mine” – up against the ultimate expression of futuristic, digital order, makes a lot of sense. Ethan has never been able to separate emotion from his missions. Every time, he goes rogue to save the one or the few as well as the many. Here, his own team call him on that. He can’t do that if he wants to kill the Entity, framed very much as a digital God. He has to be dispassionate, remove his own hero complex. It is the one thing Ethan just finds, here’s that word again – impossible – to do. That feels like the core of Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning – Part One for me. The idea that Ethan might have to prioritise the many over the few, at last.

Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part I

It does this by bringing his character not just full circle, but doling out backstory we never knew existed. It remains shrouded still in enigma, likely to be explored further in Part Two, but we get hints of Ethan losing a woman – Marie – in the early 90s before joining IMF. Our villain here, Gabriel (a very cool and urbane Esai Morales), is the instrument of that loss.

On Gabriel, briefly. I’m not entirely sure about him as a villain. He’s very Bond-esque, no doubt, but his almost preternatural ability, influenced by the Entity, to predict events pushes credulity. He’s framed as an avatar of AI, a human embodiment, and perhaps in blunter terms a perfect opposite to Ethan in many ways, but he’s perhaps too much of a ghost in this. He doesn’t work as well as Walker did in the previous picture, or Jim Phelps or Owen Davian did. Not yet. Maybe Part Two will correct that.

Around this backstory, Dead Reckoning – Part One is stuffed to the gills with call backs to the Brian De Palma original – principally Henry Czerny’s very welcome return as CIA boss Eugene Kittridge (he picks the character right back up even after almost 30 years), but also nods and winks abound. All of the magic allusions, Phineas Freak, more references to Max (after Fallout), a deliberate play on Kittridge’s classic “I understand you’re very upset”. Ethan even wears a black leather jacket!

Luckily, McQuarrie resists the urge to go too overboard, reining it in just enough to get by. But all franchises do this as they approach the end, find ways to revisit the beginning and pay homage to the source code, as it were. Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning – Part One perhaps understands how well regarded that original movie now is. Although the character of Grace (Hayley Atwell) really struck me as a nod to Thandiwe Newton’s Nyah from MI2, as the larcenous beauty who Ethan has to charm and dance around in order to reach his quarry. Grace is better written (and performed), with Atwell and Cruise sporting genuine chemistry, and she tethers closer to another curiosity that Dead Reckoning – Part One provides – an unusual, almost cult-like origin myth for the International Monetary Fund (sorry Impossible Missions Force – great joke there).

Previously: Revisiting Brian De Palma’s Mission Impossible
Previously: Revisiting John Woo’s Mission Impossible II
Previously: Revisiting J.J. Abrams’ Mission Impossible III
Previously: Revisiting Brad Bird’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Previously: Revisiting Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Previously: Revisiting Mission Impossible – Fallout

Quick sidebar – was anyone else really distracted in that initial intelligence briefing scene by the weight of famous faces drafted in to deliver exposition? Mark Gattis, Indira Varma, Cary Elwes, even Rob Delaney (as a four star general!). They’re all great, obviously, but one wonders if Cruise is pals with them all and drafted them in for a bit of fun. Also, note Angela Bassett on the wall as apparently the President – could we be seeing Fallout’s Erika Sloane back for Part Two? She was meant to appear here, likely in the Elwes role, but couldn’t due to COVID-19 restrictions, so odds on we will see her next time.

Back to the IMF, and here McQuarrie dials up what he suggested in Fallout with the “fate whispers to the warrior” dialogue – that the IMF is more of a code than an agency, a secret handshake, a choice offered to those who have shady pasts, hence why they get a choice to ‘accept’ their missions. It’s a cool idea, interrogating a question we probably haven’t asked but maybe should – why do they get a choice? Tom Cruise as the shadowy ‘head’, if you like, of a cult spy agency makes perfect sense given his intensity, but it gives Mission Impossible a deeper sense of myth which fits the direction of travel the series has headed in recent films. As Ethan is constructed to be a force of nature, so too we find the IMF to be a calling. Grace becomes our way into that.

My only problem with this is Benji (Simon Pegg), as I’m not sure he fits. We first met him in MI3, where the IMF was very much devised as a super secret CIA organisation with slick offices and such, and he was basically just an analyst. Maybe we have to accept that the depictions of IMF very much depend on the creative force behind it. That’s okay, I can roll with that, but the impressive Pegg has always been the hardest pill to swallow with this series, in a way. Had Ricky Gervais played the role, as intended, there is no way Benji would be as prominent a team member as he is under Pegg. He provides solid comic relief, but I can’t quite square him with this depiction of the IMF. Luther (Ving Rhames)? Sure. Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson)? Definitely. But it’s a minor point.

Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part I

Speaking of Ilsa, one wonders if Ferguson’s demise – albeit one which makes sense in the context of Ethan’s journey – is a wise move.

She added such gravitas and power to the last couple of films that Mission Impossible won’t be the same without her, and frankly Dead Reckoning – Part One doesn’t really know what to do with her, sidelining her for the less interesting Grace. It allows McQuarrie to play comic beats – no way could that whole Rome sequence, which becomes a tricksy knock off of the Citroen chase in For Your Eyes Only in part, have worked with Ferguson in the Atwell role – but Ilsa is a little missed here, it has to be said. In attempting to service a wide cast, not everyone necessarily gets their due, though the film has a good stab – pardon the pun again – at it.

Interesting, don’t you think, that nothing came of the Ethan/Isla romance that Fallout heavily implied was on the cards after he had resolved his demons with Julia? A lot has been written about how oddly sexless Tom Cruise’s films are, or have been since he stopped working with auteurs such as Stanley Kubrick or Paul Thomas Anderson. Every female interaction he has is quite chaste, and Dead Reckoning – Part One is no exception. He never even shares a screen kiss with Ferguson (we get a cuddle and that’s about it). The script implies he might have given in to the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) and her John Lark kink to get Ilsa out of trouble, but again – no suggestion Cruise has actually bumped uglies with anyone. It’s so strange. It’s another reason James Bond comparisons don’t work with Mission Impossible, because 007 would be all over these women. There’s something about Cruise that just bleeds in to the storytelling in this regard.

One aspect of Dead Reckoning – Part One I appreciated was McQuarrie’s willingness to analyse the very concept from within. Shea Whigham and Greg Tarzan Davis are great value as a pair of Keystone Cop CIA agents chasing Hunt’s tail, not just because they’re essentially two fundamentally decent, normal guys ported into this strange, hyper-real glamorous world of supervillains, but for the fact they actively interrogate Ethan’s extreme motives. Davis’ Degas even wonders if maybe they should trust Ethan openly. It speaks to how well McQuarrie is willing to stare the madness of this franchise in the face, in a manner something equivalent such as Fast & Furious is incapable of, having bought its own hype. Ethan actively suggests Benji is mad for suggesting he attempt the stunt he ends up pulling off. That’s great. They’re all in on the joke. It helps take us with them as it all goes loopy.

Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part I

I have to say though, nothing in Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning – Part One blew me off my seat in terms of action as Fallout did. The climactic train sequence – as Ethan and Grace defy physics – comes close. But nothing here matches the base jump over Paris, or the helicopter battle, or even the bike chase. Nothing is quite as kinetic. Very entertaining and well executed, but even the much promised mountain bike jump didn’t wow me. Maybe the trailers gave too much away this time? It felt as though every action beat of substance, almost, had been telegraphed ahead of time. We went in knowing too much if we saw any footage.

Nevertheless, Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning – Part One does have an immense amount to enjoy, and no doubt pore over in the space between this and a follow up which has been teed up nicely come the end. Though the plotting threatens at points to become a bit Westworld-style knotty (the Entity felt very Rehoboam from the third season of that show), it remains streamlined enough to make sense and provide a clear through line to what might be the end, or might not. Who knows what death defying stunt Cruise has planned for Part Two? In terms of scale, he’s still got a hell of a bar to clear.

Much as I very much enjoyed Dead Reckoning – Part One, that bar for me remains Fallout. Your mission, Christopher McQuarrie, as I’m sure you’ll choose to accept, is to finally top it for Part Two. Good luck.

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