Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) of the IMF – Impossible Missions Force can never catch a break on the job. And if he can in the span of his 30-year run, it never lasts. He keeps chasing assignments as fast as he can to run away from what was a tense criminal backstory. Though even the most experienced espionage enthusiasts will learn, the running must end. One problem, though: The why, how, or when remains uncertain. And that is the sharpest card in co-writer/director Christopher McQuarrie’s deck, for his fourth time dabbling with the inner workings of the sensitive spy business, in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. That he knows how to deliver a standalone venture, and in making the first half of a compelling story, leaving an open door to persistently ask about a hero’s past, how the dots are expected to connect down the road. It’s simply impossible not to have those question marks swirling by the end of what is already a lengthy epic, uncertain of how to pace itself more finitely, ready to have fun losing track of the time.
Longer doesn’t necessarily mean better in any of these films, as McQuarrie and co-writer Erik Jendreson (Ithaca) deliver at around 160 or so minutes of tawdry government quarrels and personal reflection. Ethan has found himself at a deliberate crossroads, trying to protect his squad – field agent Benji (Simon Pegg), computer guru Luther (Ving Rhames), and reflexive ally Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), whom he tries most to keep out of danger. A shootout in the desert forces Ilsa into hiding, a sitting target if found, leaving Ethan in repose.
Stateside, both the IMF and CIA are reeling from a new international threat, a mysterious weapon digitally generated, though bearing a serious physical presence, between a two-layer metal key shaped like a cruciform, and the individuals who would stop at nothing to buy their way into it. An effective, elusive McGuffin not short of appeal. Ethan must reach it first, despite the concern from director Kittredge (Henry Czerny) of serious overreach in his boundaries as an IMF agent, and a slanted idea of priorities, thinking more for those closest to him over the wider world. Here, the mission matters more since the world is very much at threat. And to a specific range, the value of truth and intelligence.
The deeper existential symbolism and technological detriment is what’ll best carry over to the second half of this story. In Part 1, all that takes its sweet time to gel together against a rogue’s gallery of villains and capitalists all claiming their reasons for the key. Gabriel (Esai Morales) is the closest toward unlocking its power, making it personal toward Ethan, whom he once knew as a civilian. On his other shoulder, we find Grace (Hayley Atwell), a shadowy thief with a humanist weak spot questioning her loyalties. Running behind them is Jasper Briggs (Shea Whigham), an independent enforcer looking to drop justice onto Ethan; Paris (Pom Klementieff), a French assassin assigned to kill him; and Alanna aka “White Widow” (Vanessa Kirby), an arms dealer back to settle a score from Fallout.
Quite a few mean-spirited professionals have their claim for the key’s dark power, proceeding simply because it’s a business deal. There were simply one or two too many persons in the villain hierarchy, highlighting what might be a corrupt system, eager to dismantle the IMF, and Ethan’s standing within. If it couldn’t be absorbed by the CIA, or its members disavowed en masse, it would be better to have its credentials questioned to no end. Anything not involving Ethan and friends amounts to an espionage soap opera, tawdry and suspicious, if not also drawn out. We didn’t need Klementieff’s presence as a random contract killer, though her scenes showed great physicality.
Nor was Whigham’s handler part all that consequential, even if he once more proves masterful in displaying intense, weighted sagacity. At worst, they cause the brake pedal to gently tap on itself, cooling off the pace when least appropriate. Their performances still bank a confident ensemble, where Czerny sees his return to the franchise succeed with excellence and room for advancement. And where both Ferguson and Kirby stand out with coordinated wit and vivacity. It’s Atwell who will often sweep the rug with her idyllic charm. This against even Morales, at minimum showing acute, calmed fury as the next potential legend in this franchise’s enemy pool.
McQuarrie’s sharpness never dulls with his heavily packed yarn, his cast adding that extra boost of adrenaline. And when it hits, it’s most opportune, as this lengthy sit does little favors to all but the experienced fan. Even to a casual M: I enthusiast, entertainment value remains exponentially high, only building over the hours, with minds taxed and jaws dropped. The only uncertain point in his range of pacing is while transitioning between the second and third acts. Like Ethan’s motorbike across the Alps, a little extra warmup is necessary. Or in his case, deep character probing before hitting first gear to the finish. And even then, the question then hits in the final half hour where the cutoff will be. Such is the standard expectation by now of a screen two-parter. And, in turn, that underlying anxiety of how to balance the open-ended and the closed book.
None of these fazes Cruise one single bit, as the face of the franchise, its lead producer, and its biggest fan. His love for a captive cinematic spectacle is still first on his mind. And at 61, he’s still nothing less than a big kid, always reading the room, while also relishing his toys, his stunt apparatuses. The range he shows, between feigning introspective vulnerability and displaying further athletic facility, is as resolute as ever. And McQuarrie hasn’t lost his knack of how to manage and stage sequences to benefit his ally’s strengths, even build them up. Sure, neither of them is getting any younger, but their partnership is still sparking a bright visual fire.
Such a duo has known for years how to keep an audience in possessive suspense, palpable and unrelenting until the lights go up. Here, they make it look very effortless; although the labor involved is still greatly appreciated, if it leads to some of the most tightly cut and developed single scenes of any film this year. The chase through Rome in a tiny Fiat, the full circle train ceiling ballet, and the high-speed leap off a Norwegian cliff, among other key eye-catches that we’ll take for granted. Props to editor Eddie Hamilton, DP Fraser Taggart, and composer Lorne Balfe for all building up the tension when not always in their job description. And yet, they did it anyway, for the sheer thrill.
A carefree mindset best explains why Ethan Hunt hasn’t put his foot down and said he’s done. He’s proven himself a reckless nonconformist, but his tact never fails to get results. There’s still an equal thrill and strain to these films, and Cruise captures that emotion in full parity, only cementing his action icon status. And despite an antagonistic angle too big for its britches – it grows admittedly tiresome – the spy heroics and graceful stunt activity continually work wonders for the character’s leverage. On the cusp of this near 30-year ride approaching its inevitable conclusion, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One shows there’s still plenty of life to live, more jobs to pull, and a venerable consistency that won’t stop carrying over. That is, until McQuarrie hits the pause button, just long enough to leave us all wondering “where to from here?”
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One starts showtimes at 2PM July 11, preceded by early access presentations at 7PM July 10; rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some language, and suggestive material; 163 minutes.