I was going to start off this review with a rant about movie franchises always breaking their final chapters into two parts, which squeezes you for more cash and makes my job harder. You know what, though? I’ll have to save it for another time, because Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One is actually good. It might be my favorite film in this entire series, which I’m admittedly not a fan of. This franchise that has remained proudly free of real-world ideas through the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Iraq war has suddenly acquired an idea. More surprising, it works. If you have dropped the series from your moviegoing, now’s a good time to jump back in.
The big brainwave is that the villain is an AI. A self-learning spy program developed by the Americans suddenly gains self-awareness and tricks a Russian nuclear submarine into shooting itself down in the prologue sequence. Instead of causing wars and eating everybody’s money in the banks and stock markets, the AI now known as “The Entity” specifically targets Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) because it senses that he’s a threat. What that means for the story is that neither Ethan and his team nor the myriad people chasing him can trust anything they see or hear over the Internet. The U.S. government agents run all over the Abu Dhabi airport chasing men they think are Ethan, and Ethan himself runs in circles through the streets of Venice because The Entity imitates Benji’s voice and gives him bad instructions, while the real Benji (Simon Pegg) helplessly tries to tell him that the voice isn’t his.
The extended chase sequence in Abu Dhabi scoops up Grace (Hayley Atwell), a high-class British pickpocket who unwittingly works her way into a chase for the key that can shut down The Entity. Atwell turns out to be a great pickup for the series. We’ve only seen her play staid roles in period pieces as well as Agent Carter, and she’s newly uncorked here as a devious woman living high off her ill-gotten gains and not used to having people shoot at her. She injects a new and welcome note of farce into the series, especially during a car chase through Rome when Grace and Ethan flee from the bad guys in an ancient yellow Fiat. A flat tire causes the miniature car to drive madly in circles while the villains’ massive armored truck sits there impotently because it’s too damaged to take advantage.
The action set pieces remain strong, as they’ve been throughout the series. Maybe the setup is too labored for the bit when Ethan rides a motorcycle off a cliff, but that’s compensated for when Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) fires a sniper rifle at oncoming bounty hunters in the Arabian desert — I’m impressed that she can shoot so straight in the middle of a sandstorm. The same goes for a chain-reaction disaster as Ethan and Grace try to find their way off a train that is slowly plunging car by car off a destroyed bridge in the Austrian Alps. The overstuffed cast of characters can’t do justice to Pom Klementieff’s French assassin, Esai Morales’ nihilistic warlord, or Shea Whigham’s weary U.S. government agent who’s hunting Ethan. It’s still worth it just to have Cary Elwes as a smarmy American security official who mistakes the IMF for the International Monetary Fund and then pisses all over the idea of an Impossible Missions Force.
Amid this, Ethan loses one of his longtime running partners, and the underwhelming death reminds us that the series has always been weakest when trying to make us care about its characters. Even so, M:IDRP1 gives us the same escapism of its predecessors laced with just enough of the outside world to make it newly bracing. That’s an even neater trick than surviving a BASE jump on a motorbike. I’m not sure where the series goes in its last installment, but it’ll have some cool stunts to show us before it gets there.
Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One
Starring Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, and Hayley Atwell. Directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Written by Erik Jendresen and Christopher McQuarrie, based on Bruce Geller’s TV series. Rated PG-13.