(Mostly spoiler free version)
Compared to the other recent summer “blockbusters” this summer: another transforming robots film, another super-hero story, and a sequel to a legacy action series with an octogenarian that nobody asked for (ask me how I really feel about Dial of Destiny), Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning largely succeeds. There’s plenty of action, and while most actors his age would have moved on from big action blockbusters, Tom Cruise shows why he’s one of the few bankable movie stars left.
The story opens with a secret Russian submarine prowling the Bering Sea testing a new technology that helps render the vessel undetectable. The tech involves an AI, which goes “rogue” while testing, and, since it controls all of the ship’s electronics, tricks the crew into firing a torpedo at a phantom American sub. Before they realize what’s happened, the AI redirects the torpedo at the Russian sub and sinks it. Why? That’s not entirely clear.
On the sub, there are two keys that combine into a cruciform key that can theoretically unlock the AI core, and whoever controls the core can control the AI. Through a number of conveniences, the keys have somehow miraculously been recovered without revealing the location of the sunken sub.
We know how things go at this point. Cue the Mission Impossible theme: Dun dun duh dun…
Enter Ethan Hunt, who is apparently in hiding for reasons, receives a new mission. The CIA wants the key, and as it so happens, his old “friend” Ilsa happens to have “acquired” one half of the key. The CIA decides to put a bounty on her head, forcing her into hiding, but the agency knows where she is, and they want Ethan to retrieve the key. What he does with Ilsa is “up to him.”
Hunt retrieves one half of the key, but he’s not happy with the agency’s tactics. So, he infiltrates the CIA to have a word with his boss Kittridge about what the hell is going on. There’s a long exposition scene that explains that the real threat is an AI developed by the U.S. The AI has become sentient, and for reasons, they embedded part of its code on that Russian submarine. The AI has gone rogue, which the CIA now calls The Entity, and it’s infiltrating all major intelligence, defense and financial systems around the world.
Naturally, the CIA, along with every major government in the world, would like to regain control of the AI, because whoever controls the AI also has access to all of those systems. Theoretically, the only way to gain control of it is via the key, and they’d like Ethan to get both halves and return them to the CIA.
Hunt, of course, has seen every science fiction movie involving sentient AI’s and decides the best course of action is to destroy it, which makes his bosses none too happy.
So, that kicks off the newest Mission Impossible adventure as Ethan and his team pursue both halves of the key and try to learn what / where the key can be used while evading capture from the CIA and (in theory) every other major intelligence agency.
To make things even more challenging, the Entity has its own real world agents stirring things up as well as the Entity itself which can manipulate things in the real world from the virtual one.
Making AI the story’s main antagonist is a great choice, considering there are a lot of conversations happening now about what impact AI may have on our society in the near future. They had to provide physical agents as well, so Ethan has somebody to punch.
Dead Reckoning delivers on everything you’d expect a major blockbuster action film to do. There are some big, tightly choreographed chase sequences, there’s a car chase every bit as real as anything from the Bourne series; and of course, there’s that “big stunt” — the newest, craziest thing that Tom Cruise wanted to shoot for real and integrate into the film.
The usual gang is here: Benji, Luther and Ilsa, although in abbreviated roles. There are some new characters as well. Hayley Atwell stars as Grace, who is a charming and brilliant thief recruited to try steal half of the key. She’s in it for a big payday, but she has no idea what she’s gotten herself into.
There’s Gabriel, played by Esai Morales, who we learn is working for the Entity and also has a connection to Ethan’s past. It’s great to see Pom Klementieff outside of the MCU, playing Paris, another one of the Entity’s followers. Vanessa Kirby also returns as the White Widow.
There are a pair of CIA? intelligence agents who are fun to watch as they manage to stay a couple of steps behind Hunt and the others. It’s not clear who they’re working for, just that they’re out to stop Hunt.
But, Dead Reckoning is far from perfect.
With a 2:43 runtime, it’s easily about 30 minutes too long, and it shows as at least two of the big action set pieces drag on for way longer than they should. I found myself checking my watch during both scenes. There are some tightly choreographed fight scenes, but at the same time, there are at least two, particularly involving Gabriel, that feel kind of half-assed.
And, of course. we see Tom Cruise running. A lot.
But there’s just something a bit off about the overall story. Early on, it’s suggested that every major agency has learned about this AI and is going to be looking for the key. But, outside of Ilsa’s involvement (which we learn she was recruited by MI:6), we really only see the guys from the CIA, the bad guys, and Ethan’s team pursuing the keys. You don’t get that sense of Ethan and his team against the world like we’ve seen in the John Wick films.
That would have been fine if the film hadn’t told us at the beginning to expect it. But, it did. Where’s MI:6? Where’s Mossad? Interpol?
Maybe a lot of that had to do with the fact that a chunk of this film was shot during COVID, and the cast and crew were locked down and could only shoot with a smaller team. At that point, though, I think they should have re-worked the story so it would have made more sense with a smaller group of characters involved.
There’s a very specific couple of dramatic scenes I can’t get into without spoiling the film, but again, the writing makes both of those scenes fall flat. It’s mainly because this film seems more focused on moving to the next big action sequence that it’s forgetting about fleshing out the story. There’s no time to stop and breathe and let these characters develop their relationships, and it really kills the dramatic punch they were aiming for.
I think another part of if it is just: we’ve seen it all before. The rogue AI, while a fresh aspect for the MI films, isn’t exactly new. Ethan Hunt going rogue is so common at this point even the CIA jokes about it in a meeting at the beginning. Sure, they need the IMF to do a thing, and while they may get results, they also know its agents, and Hunt specifically, don’t exactly follow orders.
Even the action sequences we’ve seen elsewhere, including in other Mission Impossible films. The car chase is great, but we’ve seen these before. The White Widow hosts a party (again) that’s lit very much like something out of a John Wick film. The finale has echos of things we’ve also seen elsewhere. For what was originally a spy thriller, there’s very little spycraft going on in the film anymore.
One of my friends was annoyed with Grace because the film seems to be setting things up where she could potentially replace Hunt as the star of the Mission Impossible series. The idea of simply gender swapping a series lead has been the thing to do in Hollywood (I’m looking at you Marvel/Lucasfilm). I’ve seen a couple of reviews that have compared Dead Reckoning to the Dial of Destiny where an aging star is working together with a younger female counterpart who is also intended to replace the original star.
I don’t know if that’s true. I mean, at 60, you’d think Tom Cruise would start thinking he might finally be getting too old for this shit. But, you can also see him stubbornly going on for at least another decade.
That said, the women in the Mission Impossible series, including Grace, are very well written characters with both skills and flaws. They’re not Mary Sues. They work together with their male counterparts equally rather than overshadowing them. Of any modern franchise, if Tom Cruise did finally decide to retire Ethan Hunt, I think he and the other MI folks would find a way to create a compelling film for a female lead, be it Atwell or someone else.
Obviously, this is only the first half of a total story, so it’s hard to say how the second part will conclude. Even though Dead Reckoning has its flaws, and isn’t the best film of the series, the overall track record of the series has been stellar. It’ll be worth catching part two when it comes out.
Even with its flaws, and especially given its competition this summer, Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning hits the mark for big summer blockbuster action and is definitely worth seeing. At least for now, but I think, like many of these franchises, moviegoers are starting to get fatigued by the sequels and would love nothing more than to see something original.