'Mission: Impossible' delivers the pure escapism we need right now
"Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning, Part One" (everyone take a breath) is as busy and overstuffed as its title. After introducing the TV-based franchise in 1996, star and producer Tom Cruise has steadily upped the ante on spectacle and action; his stunts, which he famously insists on doing himself, have become part of worldwide marketing campaigns that wisely dispense with fiddly details like plot and dialogue and rely solely on the visual language of Cruise's body in space, doing amazing things.
That formula is executed with the chops and finesse we've come to expect from Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie in "Dead Reckoning," which delivers bombastic set pieces, bonkers plot elements and some (maybe unintentional?) hilarious dialogue in reliably metronomic style. It wouldn't be accurate to say there are any big surprises in "Dead Reckoning" - it's too faithful to the series's fundamentals to be accused of novelty - but therein lies its chief virtue. Like "Top Gun: Maverick" last year, "Dead Reckoning" might be just what we need right now: a two-hour-plus session of cinematic self-care, wherein the chases, fights, mayhem, exegetical speeches and jaw-dropping derring-do knit together to form a comforting weighted blanket of pure escapism and reassurance.
The man doing the knitting, of course, is Cruise, who as Ethan Hunt brings a subdued sense of world-weariness to the coolest agent of the Impossible Mission Force. In "Dead Reckoning," Ethan is doing battle with an invisible, Oz-like blob called the Entity, an artificial intelligence program that is on the verge of going sentient and ending the world as we know it. Fans familiar with Cruise's fierce loyalty to the big-screen experience will recognize the not-so-subtle digs that permeate "Dead Reckoning," which turns out to be a celebration of All Things Analog, including gravity-defying physical stunts that were performed with as little computerized gimmickry as possible. As Ethan fights the unseen force that might upend the world order, Cruise is fighting right along with him, against the algorithm that threatens to annihilate the very medium that made him a star.
Cruise and his alter ego do all this with their on-brand blend of insouciance and intensity; one of the best things about the "Mission: Impossible" movies is how Cruise and McQuarrie (who wrote the script with Erik Jendresen) know just when to pull back from the self-seriousness to deliver a conspiratorial wink at the audience. During the film's 30-minute cold open, we travel from a Russian submarine in the Bering Sea to a situation room in Washington, where intelligence officials deliver snippets of expository dialogue so dramatically that it has to be a joke. (The presence of Rob Delaney in the mix adds an amusing twist.) The humor in "Dead Reckoning" continues apace - not by way of snark or self-amused irony, but through stagecraft, as in a fabulous scene of multiple mistaken identities set in the Abu Dhabi airport, or when Ethan pops up speaking flawless Italian in a Rome police station.
Those are just two stylish, far-flung locations in a globe-trotting movie that takes Ethan from the Arabian Desert, where he reunites with Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa Faust, to parts east, west and in between. As always, Cruise surrounds himself with a superbly accomplished supporting cast - not just the sleekly sophisticated Ferguson, but Vanessa Kirby, Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg all reprise characters from past installments. Esai Morales makes an impressively handsome debut as a new-old foil. And Hayley Atwell delivers a game, bracingly alert portrayal of a silkily gifted pickpocket who becomes Ethan's accomplice in saving the world from becoming an apocalyptic slough of deepfakes, misinformation and Orwellian surveillance.
But first - a car chase while handcuffed together driving a microscopic yellow Fiat, careering through the streets of Rome like a demented billiard ball. Or Ethan driving his motorcycle off a cliff in order to parachute down to save the day. Or those wonderful latex masks, peeled off to deliver those classic reveals. That mysterious green haze that knocks everyone out at opportune moments. And all that running and driving and jumping and executing the plan. (If you forget the plan, "Dead Reckoning" features plenty of human footnotes to provide helpful reminders.) It's fast, it's furious and it's a lot of fun.
In fact, there are moments in "Dead Reckoning" when viewers could be forgiven for thinking they'd stepped into a Fast & Furious movie, or even "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny" - there are that many overlapping bits: guy on a horse, check; crazy stunt on the Spanish Steps, check; visual joke with a tiny car, check; trains, motorcycles, exotic locales, check, check, check. It can all get silly, and kind of speechy. But in "Dead Reckoning," the funhouse distractions are deployed, not as a barrage of concussive, over-edited CGI fakery, but as graceful and exhilarating nods to a tradition that goes as far back as Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.
Nowhere is that lineage more evident - and honored - than in "Dead Reckoning's" wowzer of a finale, a "Perils of Pauline" callback that makes that little trick on the motorcycle look like a kid popping a wheelie on his Sting-Ray. It's a deliciously old-school nod to the elements of cinematic style: runaway trains, ticking time bombs, improbably long-winded villains and damsels in distress (but, in this case, not before they've proved their pugilistic bona fides). And Cruise is at the center of it all, with his singular focus and all-in commitment. The good news isn't just that "Dead Reckoning" lives up to its star's notoriously high standards; it's that it isn't even over yet.
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Three stars. Rated PG-13. At theaters. Contains intense sequences of violence and action, some coarse language, and suggestive material. 160 minutes.
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