Tom Cruise returns in Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One, the seventh and purportedly final installment in the now 27-year-old action franchise, for another round of fast-moving motorcycle riding, shaky-handed running, and look-Ma-no-CGI stuntwork. This comes a year after saving the summer box office with the smash hit Top Gun: Maverick. Dead Reckoning exhibits the placid, if occasionally demented confidence of a series that has found its voice in the capable hands of Christopher McQuarrie, who has written or co-written the past four M:I films in addition to directing the previous three. It manages to flow with the straightforward briskness of a decent airport thriller despite being 163 minutes long.
There is some nonsense involved, to be clear: The main story device in Dead Reckoning is an espionage-related MacGuffin that is so highly developed technologically that it could pass for magic. Several of the franchise's well-known and well-remembered "mask reveals," in which a character unexpectedly tears off their own face to reveal another cast member below, have also been included. These popularizing hyperreal disguises have reportedly stayed on the cutting edge of technology in the M:I universe, despite the fact that these films are now almost three decades old.
Dead Reckoning's internal espionage plots can be followed without having seen every (or any) previous Mission: Impossible film, but it might help to be familiar with the series' universe to cope with this one's absurd logic. The Mission: Impossible series endures in my memory as a series of heart-pounding action sequences, such as the kinetic rush of Cruise clinging to a plane's wing during full takeoff in Rogue Nation or the stomach-churning Ghost Protocol scene where he climbs the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, without the benefit of any visible safety equipment.
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I'm not sure what it says about us as a species that so many of us enjoy seeing this now 61-year-old man regularly put himself in potentially fatal peril. But if you're a moviegoer who appreciates expertly staged action and mind-blowing real-world stunts, Cruise is one of the few celebrities who devotes his time and his frightfully prodigious energy to providing them. Although the M:I series has been directed by a number of individuals with distinctive approaches (in order, Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird, and McQuarrie), the tone of the movies hasn't changed as much as you might anticipate. That's because Cruise has always been the genuine auteur of the films; he treats his work as producer with the same level of semi-serious seriousness as his character, Ethan Hunt, treats his duty as an agent of the IMF, or Impossible Mission Force.
As we learn in Dead Reckoning, though, Hunt's deepest loyalties lie less with the shadowy agency where he's spent his career than with the colleagues who have become his close friends: fellow agents Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), who have remotely talked him through many a literal and figurative cliffhanger, and (since the fifth movie) Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust, an MI6 agent turned covert assassin turned IMF ally. This episode sees the addition of Grace (Hayley Atwell), a master pickpocket, to Hunt's limited group of close friends. She and Hunt are chained together as they flee their pursuers through the streets of Rome in a tiny Fiat in a scene that skillfully combines action and comedy. (Let's just pretend that a well-known world heritage landmark experiences significant tire damage.) There are also returning characters from prior M:I films who straddle the line between friend and foe: Henry Czerny plays Kittridge, Ethan's old IMF supervisor, and Vanessa Kirby plays the White Widow, an enticingly immoral armaments dealer.
The biggest fault in Dead Reckoning is how underdeveloped the film's highly conceptual antagonist is: an all-powerful A.I. system that goes by the name "the Entity" and is encoded in a set of interlocking keys that sinks to the ocean floor in the Russian submarine that opens the film. The Entity, a bodyless, faceless force that poses the threat of becoming sentient, but still too impersonal to have much of an impact. The relationship between the Entity and Gabriel, a cunning henchman who battles for the technology, played by Esai Morales, is even more ambiguous. Why did this particular man decide to jeopardize his life in the sake of an unseen blob that threatens humanity? Is Gabriel a sincere believer in what artificial intelligence promises for the future? If so, are there other people on earth who share his viewpoint, and if so, what does their ideal future entail? The extremely timely choice of A.I. as an antagonist seemed to promise a sharper commentary on current politics and culture than Dead Reckoning ever does. It's possible that I missed an exposition dump yelled by a character out the hold of a cargo plane that would have explained Gabriel's motives more clearly—or at least more clearly than the spy-movie equivalent of "he's just super goth, OK?"—but I doubt it.