I'm immediately dismissive when I see “Part One” in a contemporary movie title. With their absence of third acts and conclusions, hastily produced muddy CGI special effects, and interchangeable actors, "franchise entertainments" have been turning cinema increasingly into its former rival, television. Of course, the phenomenon of ending a sequel on a cliffhanger and then asking the audience to wait a couple of years for the story to resume has been with us since The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and earlier. But the practice has been taken to ridiculous lengths in our current century. I’m at the point where I don’t want to bother seeing movies like Dune, Across the Spider-Verse, or Fast X, on their initial release. I’ll wait for the inevitable reissue the week before the Part Two comes out, if I care to catch up with these corporate franchises once they’ve told a complete story.
The latest Mission Impossible movie, Dead Reckoning, comes unnecessarily burdened with a Part One as part of its moniker. But, while the potentially world-dominating entity this movie centers on (literally referred to as “the entity” here) is still out there at the end of this picture, the ostensible tale feels as resolved by the conclusion of its 163-minute running time as any of the narratives in the recent M:I movies. The plots are just not all that important in these films.
That lack of narrative coherence has always been my issue with the long-running series. Mission: Impossible was started as a cinematic property (way back in 1996) to rival James Bond. Indeed, as the Bond movies became darker, longer, and more self-serious over the Daniel Craig years, the M:I movies felt like a nice change of pace. Helmed by different directors each time out and never taking themselves too earnestly, these disposable action adventures showcased fantastic stunts and stylish set pieces. But these pictures have never been as much fun as even the sub-par 007s because their storylines have been so meaningless.
The best M:I movies—Rogue Nation, McQuarrie’s first outing in the director’s chair, and the Brad-Bird-helmed Ghost Protocol—featured a dizzying amount of opulent fun in terms of exotic locations, amusing supporting characters, and literal death-defying stunts performed by the star himself. Tom Cruise turned his waffling career around when he and McQuarrie all but hijacked Ghost Protocol. Paramount had planned that fourth entry to be the last with the aging lead and was grooming co-star Jeremy Renner to take over. But Cruise the producer brought in McQuarrie, who’d been instrumental in making Valkyrie (2008), Edge of Tomorrow (2014), and the Jack Reacher films successful, to rewrite the script during production. And Cruise the star decided to double down on the whole idea of a leading man doing his own stunts, something digital wire removal was making much more manageable.
The film, which the studio gave a far smaller release than the prior entry, ended up a massive hit by giving viewers something they’d not seen before, in the sequence in which Ethan Hunt scales the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai. Cruise insisted on performing the stunt himself, and director Bird insisted the sequence be shot in IMAX rather than giving into the silly everything-in-3D trend of the time. The runaway success of the movie, especially that impressive stunt, ensured Cruise would not be departing the series any time soon and put the infamously strange Scientologist movie star back on the A-list, where he has remained.
As a result, Mission: Impossible has now become the Tom and Chris show, jettisoning the playful concept of handing the series over to a new director and screenwriting team with each new installment. I suppose that choice makes sense. Cruise needs to work with a partner who understands his unique, extreme dedication to showmanship, and McQuarrie fits that bill. Since winning the Original Screenplay Oscar early in his career for the bewilderingly overpraised The Usual Suspects (1995), McQuarrie has proven to be a terrific screenwriter, script doctor, and action director. His approach to the M:I series has been to connect the plots and characters from one film to the next like an ongoing series rather than a succession of fully stand-alone adventures. He first designs each film's major set pieces and then fills in the narrative as needed. Coming up with increasingly impressive ways for Cruise to perform death-defying feats of skill with as little assistance from CGI as possible has become the raison d'être for this franchise.
Dead Reckoning Part One was teased with behind-the-scenes footage of Cruise jumping a motorcycle off a lofty mountaintop and parachuting into a valley—all done for real. The stunt, an homage to the skiing off a mountain cliff opening of The Spy Who Loved Me, is thrilling, though it looks more impressive in that marketing footage than in the movie itself.
True to form, the plot of this film is of little consequence, though we really should care because the potential world-altering stakes raised are high. There's this Artificial Intelligence out there that has become sentient and requires two halves of a unique key to unlock its power and give the possessor of the key control over this uncontrollable force or some such nonsense. As Simon Pegg’s comical character winkingly says at one point, “These details tend to get in the way.” But boy, they really do. This lengthy movie devotes far too much screen time to laying out and explaining its silly, unimportant plot points. The ratio of overlong, poorly written, lazily photographed exposition scenes to exciting and well-executed stunts, action set pieces, and foot and vehicle chases is far too heavily weighted toward the former.
The amount of gobbledygook info-drops wouldn’t be so bad if McQuarrie didn’t seem to have lost interest in staging dialogue scenes. In Rogue Nation, the first M:I he directed, the exposition scenes were inventively shot and staged with a stylish flare that makes you lean in and almost care about what’s being discussed. Dead Reckonings scenes of characters meeting and discussing plot points are shot like contemporary TV interviews: with one camera on a close-up of each speaker and another camera on a slightly profiled alternative close-up of them so that their speeches can be tightened up without jump cuts (though unmotivated edits between one shot of a character to another shot of the same character in mid-sentence are still jump cuts, folks.)
I left Mission:Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One feeling empty, though not to the extent of the prior M:I entry, Fallout (2018). That movie seemed to indicate that the franchise might be heading down the brooding, near-humorless path of the Daniel Craig Bond years. But I guess they realized it would be ludicrous for a series in which characters frequently wear high-tech rubber masks and wigs (improbable disguises that make them look and sound identical to people they know well) to take itself too seriously.
Speaking of characters looking identical, these movies are increasingly crowded with interchangeable-looking characters. There is a conversation somewhere that explains why Cruise’s three leading ladies—Hayley Atwell, Rebecca Ferguson, and Vanessa Kirby—bear a resemblance to each other and to Ethan Hunt’s late ex-wife (played in the other films by Michelle Monaghan), but I don’t remember it. Since Dead Reckoning seems to have dispensed with the established characters played by Alec Baldwin and Angela Bassett, now the higher-ups in the CIA, IMF, and their rival shadow organizations are also hard to tell apart. This morass of over-similarity is complicated by the fact that some of them are playing both sides of the fence, and some of them are often other characters in high-tech rubber masks.
While it didn’t do it for me, I can’t deny that Dead Reckoning delivers most of what one goes to an M:I movie for. The action is staged creatively and shot on location in ways that feel like the filmmakers took the time to actually go there. In contrast, the last Marvel movie I saw, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022), the filmmakers couldn’t even bother to travel from Atlanta, Georgia, to Boston, Massachusetts, for a scene meant to take place on the Mass Ave Bridge near MIT. (And, no, you don’t have to be from Boston for everything in that scene to look fake.) For a more recent comparison, take Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, which came out just two weeks before Dead Reckoning. The marketing for the new Indiana Jones movie made a huge deal about it shooting in exotic locals, but you watch the film and wonder if they just lugged a big ol’ green screen around and set it up in different countries since the whole thing looks like it was shot on a sound stage.
In Dead Reckoning, when Tom Cruise drives up and gets out of a car parked in front of the Colosseum in Rome, you can tell he’s really at the Colosseum in Rome. And when he and Atwell are pursued through the city’s narrow streets while handcuffed to each other, we tangibly feel their car, and all the vehicles chasing them, wending along through the ancient city. I mentioned that the film’s major stunt looked more impressive in the teaser campaign than in the actual film. The upside is that Cruise’s leap off the mountain doesn’t signal the end of the sequence. It’s the first movement in an extended third-act climax set on a speeding train.
Dial of Destiny started with a similar extended train sequence in which the hero and villain fight atop the speeding train cars. The difference in how these two episodes of locomotive action are conceived, integrated into the narrative, designed, photographed, edited, and passed through whatever digital post-production they underwent is like the difference between night and day. The Indiana Jones train sequence, like that awful Wakanda Forever bridge scene, even takes place at “night” (though I doubt a single frame of it was shot outside of a studio), whereas the M:I sequence unfolds in daylight, enabling us to see the real world geography surrounding the characters. The contrast is beyond palpable; it is unmistakable in every possible way of taking in a movie. Is it too much to ask that the folks creating this rollicking entertainment put at least a little of the same effort into crafting a story we can get at least a little bit involved in?
Cruise and McQuarrie bring back some of the fun missing from the prior M:I installment, but this film's ratio of long, poorly written, lazily photographed exposition scenes to exciting and well-executed stunts and action set pieces is far too heavily weighted toward the former.