‘Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One’ review: Still running
By Manohla Dargis
I don’t know if anyone has ever clocked whether Tom Cruise is faster than a speeding bullet. The guy has legs, and guts. His sprints into the near-void have defined and sustained his stardom, becoming his singular superpower. He racks up more miles in “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One,” the seventh entry in a 27-year-old-franchise that repeatedly affirms a movie truism. That is, there are few sights more cinematic than a human being outracing danger and even death onscreen — it’s the ultimate wish fulfillment!
Much remains the same in this latest adventure, including the series’ reliable entertainment quotient and Cruise’s stamina. Once again, he plays Ethan Hunt, the leader of a hush-hush American spy agency, the Impossible Mission Force. Alongside a rotating roster of beautiful kick-ass women (most recently Rebecca Ferguson and Vanessa Kirby) and loyal handymen (Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames), Ethan has been sprinting, flying, diving and speed-racing across the globe while battling enemy agents, rogue operatives, garden-variety terrorists and armies of minions. Along the way, he has regularly delivered a number of stomach-churning wows, like jumping out a window and climbing the world’s tallest building.
This time, the villain is the very au courant artificial intelligence, here called the Entity. The whole thing is complicated, as these stories tend to be, with stakes as catastrophic as recent news headlines have trumpeted. Or, as an open letter signed by 350 AI authorities put it last month: “Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks, such as pandemics and nuclear war.” In the face of such calamity, who you gonna call? Analog Man, that’s who, aka Ethan Hunt, who receives his usual mysterious directives that, this time, have been recorded on a cassette tape, an amusing touch for a movie about the threat poised to the material world by a godlike digital power.
That’s all fine and good, even if the most memorable villain proves to be a Harley Quinn-esque agent of chaos, Paris (Pom Klementieff), who races after Ethan in a Hummer and seems ready to spin off into her own franchise. She tries flattening him during a seamlessly choreographed chase sequence in Rome — the stunt coordinator, Wade Eastwood, is also a race car driver — that mixes excellent wheel skills with scares, laughs, thoughtful geometry and precision timing. At one point, Ethan ends up behind the wheel while handcuffed to a new love interest, Grace (Hayley Atwell, another welcome addition), driving and drifting, flirting and burning rubber in what is effectively the action-movie equivalent of a sex scene.
Despite the new faces, there are, unsurprisingly, no real surprises in “Dead Reckoning Part One,” which features a number of dependably showstopping stunts, hits every narrative beat hard and, shrewdly, has just enough winking humor to keep the whole thing from sagging into self-seriousness. This is the third movie in the series that Cruise and the director Christopher McQuarrie have made together, and they have settled into a mutually beneficial groove. On his end, McQuarrie has assembled a fully loaded blockbuster machine that briskly recaps the series’ foundational parameters, adds the requisite twists and, most importantly, showcases his star. For his part, Cruise has once again cranked the superspy dial up to 11.
Over the years, McQuarrie has loosened up the star, who generally seems to be having a pretty good time. Still, it must be exhausting to be Tom Cruise, who famously performs his own stunts. A smattering of creases now radiate around his smile, but time doesn’t seem to have slowed his relentless roll. The most arresting set piece here finds Ethan smoothly sailing off a cliff via a motorbike and a parachute. Improbable, yes? Impossible? Nah. Like the other large-scale, stunt-driven sequences, this showy leap at once underscores Cruise’s skills and reminds you that a real person in a real location on a real motorbike did this lunatic stunt.
Nothing if not a classicist, Ethan also goes one to one with a baddie (Esai Morales) atop a speeding train, perhaps in homage to his cliffhanger moves on another train in the first “Mission: Impossible” (1996). In his review, New York Times critic Stephen Holden observed that with this film Cruise had “found the perfect superhero character.” It’s worth noting that, in 1996, the top 10 movies released in the United States were largely high-concept thrillers and comedies; in 2022, half the top 10 releases were from Marvel or DC. Yet the film that connected most strongly with audiences was Cruise’s “Top Gun: Maverick.”
Although “Maverick” featured plenty of digital whiz-bangery, its most spectacular draw of course was Cruise, who has also remained the single greatest attraction in the “Mission” movies. To that point, while there’s little of substance that I remember about the first film other than it was directed by Brian De Palma, I can vividly picture — with the crystalline recall that only some movies instill — two distinct images of Cruise-Ethan from it. In one, he races away from a tsunami of water and shattered glass; in the second, he hovers inches above a gleaming white floor, his black-clad body stretched head to toe in a near-perfect horizontal line. The filmmakers imprinted those images on my memory; so did Cruise.
Early in the “Mission: Impossible” series, the outlandishness of the movies’ plots and Cruise’s equally fantastical stunts started to make him seem less than human. By the second movie, I wondered if he were disappearing altogether, turning himself into little more than a special effect. Since then, the plots and the stunts have remained impossibly absurd, sometimes enjoyably so, as here. Yet over the years, the series has unexpectedly made Cruise seem more poignantly human than he has sometimes seemed elsewhere. One reason is that the “Mission” movies were instrumental in shifting the locus of his star persona from his easygoing smile — the toothy gleam of “Risky Business” and “Jerry Maguire” — to his hardworking body.
The obvious effort that Cruise puts into his “Mission” stunts and the physical punishment he endures to execute them — signaled by his grimaces and popping muscles — have had a salutary impact on that persona, as has the naked ferocity with which he’s held onto stardom. It’s touching. It’s also difficult to imagine any actor today starting out in a superhero flick reaching a commensurate fame, not only because the movies, Hollywood’s at least, no longer retain the hold on the popular imagination that they once did, but also because the corporately branded superhero suit will always be more important than whoever wears it. Tom Cruise doesn’t need a suit; he was, after all, built for speed. He just needs to keep running.
‘Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One’
Rated PG-13 for thriller violence. Running time: 2 hours, 43 minutes. In theaters.