“Your life will always matter more to me than my own.” So utters a weary Ethan Hunt in the back half of his most recent mission. It hits with appropriate poignancy in context, but serves as a battle cry for what Tom Cruise’s latest big-screen endeavors have become. He’s free solo’d cliff faces and skyscrapers, clung onto airplanes (or fallen out of them), all culminating in a suicide motorcycle jump off the Paramount logo itself. Win, lose, or draw, the man is fully committed to a perverse obsession: defying death to save the future of The Movies™.
Such is the nature of Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, an entry that pits Ethan Hunt et al against a seemingly inescapable adversary: a superpowered form of Artificial Intelligence known as The Entity. Confronted with this faceless, inhuman destroyer that can manipulate all aspects of our increasingly digital landscape, the IMF scrambles to stay one step ahead of the algorithm’s ever-evolving machinations. From the UAE to Italy to Norway, they’re hindered at each turn by The Entity’s biggest fan and human caretaker, Gabriel (Esai Morales)––a steely harbinger committed to seeing a digitally controlled, predestined future come to fruition. Racing down two cruciform keys in hopes of disabling The Entity, Hunt struggles to square his value of human life against a future that may not need humans at all. It’s a harrowing concept that would feel goofy and outlandish if it didn’t bear such a striking resemblance to our current moment.
As table-setting goes, it’s all just as sweaty as the film’s lengthy title, even for the relative lunacy of this franchise. Despite that, Dead Reckoning Part One acquits itself incredibly well––not only in the fact that it’s doling out exposition for two films, but also how it rewards the hulking setup with a breezy, exhilarating payout at each of its globetrotting locales. This series has always championed and thrived on the variety of its aesthetics, wearing as many masks as its superspy hero. Much like he did between Rogue Nation and Fallout, returning director Christopher McQuarrie does well to continue that tradition here with perhaps the most unlikely muses: Studio Ghibli. Despite some heavy, world-ending stakes, there’s a cartoonish playfulness to this Mission not seen since Ghost Protocol. Where Brad Bird evoked Wile E. Coyote, McQuarrie calls upon Castle of Cagliostro’s yellow Fiat and the early 19th-century wardrobe of Howl’s Moving Castle before building up to a coal-fired locomotive that echoes Castle in the Sky. It’s all wrapped in brightly lit framing with splashes of color that sell the far-out MacGuffin even more, and it delivers on a tender, oddball energy that could’ve been the work of Hayao Miyazaki, the Wachowskis, even Hideo Kojima.
Fuel for the kinetic whimsy doesn’t just come via the tactile derring-do of Mission fame. A car chase through Rome, a sword fight in Venice, or the marketing’s much-touted motorcycle death drop are certainly worthy of getting you in (or on the edge of your seat), but what keeps you there is the undeniable charisma of this ensemble. McQuarrie continues his streak of ensuring there are neither small parts––whether it’s Hayley Atwell’s spunky pickpocket Grace or Pom Klementieff’s ferocious heavy Paris––nor a minute of wasted screentime. Klementieff barrels through with a barn-burning physicality, while Atwell does what Jeremy Renner couldn’t: suggest a Cruise-less future worth watching.
Cruise, for his end, only seems to get better at playing Ethan Hunt, aging him into a character that, despite his reputation as a roguish gambler, carries everything with an immense kindness, earning trust that he’ll sooner perish than let you down. McQuarrie infuses this emotional desperation into the whole of Dead Reckoning, folding the past onto the present in the face of a written future. Henry Czerny’s return as IMF head Eugene Kittridge (still a scene-stealer, in case you were wondering), a dash of biblical imagery, and a train set piece involving a shady broker––in this case Vanessa Kirby, the daughter of M:I-1’s “Max”––underscore callbacks in more obvious ways. Fortunately it all plays as welcome attention to detail instead of nostalgia bait, serving to drive home the threat of a future that is machine-determined, but only because it’s informed by past choices. That careful threading of the needle shines through in every manner of production (wardrobe, art design, music), and comes to a head in the Venice centerpiece wherein a tieless Cruise bolts from a party through foggy European architecture, all for the safety of his team. He’s been here before has returned because the algorithm makes it so. Calling upon his manic sprint through Prague almost thirty years ago, this sequence is an emotional peak for Dead Reckoning and the franchise as a whole.
If not the pure adrenaline rush that much of Fallout was, this latest Mission continuously finds new ways to surprise, subvert, entertain. As humanity at the heart of cinema, and perhaps art as a whole, seems to fall further into jeopardy, there’s a great irony that a keen reflection on this current climate should come from the seventh entry in a blockbuster franchise. Dead Reckoning Part One is an earnest observation that could otherwise ring false were it not the fruits of labor from one of the last keepers of a certain kind of moviemaking. Until the cliffhanger on the fate of the movie industry resolves, the knowledge that the likes of Tom Cruise and Chris McQuarrie will still go to great lengths to deliver the goods is nothing short of a comfort.
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One opens on July 12.