Review: Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One

Nobody is making action movies like Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise. Not The Fast and the Furious franchise, whose Fast X barreled a bomb through the streets of Rome, but still can’t make the impact of the breathless chase sequence set in the Eternal City in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. Not Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, whose early train scene feels like the efforts of The Fabelmans Spielberg’s stand-in when set against the one in McQuarrie’s latest entry in the Mission: Impossible series. And certainly not Netflix’s endlessly forgettable cavalcade of star-driven action movies, with even Extraction 2’s 21-minute oner shrinking in comparison to literally any set piece in Dead Reckoning Part One. This may be because those films’ stars and creators value their lives more than getting that perfect in-camera shot, but Cruise’s batshit bravado and desire to outdo himself makes for absolutely thrilling cinema. This sequel feels like an entirely different species than anything else on screen right now.   

Dead Reckoning Part One is a capital-M-Movie, an exhilarating experience meant to be seen on a giant screen with thundering sound shaking your seat, surrounded by people who can’t help but collectively gape at what you’re all watching. The devotion to in-camera filming means that everything feels more real than blockbusters filled with CGI-created effects, simply because it is. The sound shudders through your body; you don’t just hear it, but you feel it in your sternum. But that volume isn’t just there for its immersive effect; the benefit of Dead Reckoning Part One being so loud is that no one could hear the ridiculous sounds you make while watching it. Whether it was a yelp at a crushing blow or a whoop of delight at an improbably well-executed stunt, it’s hard not to have a vocal reaction to what you’re seeing. (At this time, I would like to apologize to the neighbors at my press screening.)

There are quiet moments, of course, with the franchise’s signature dialogue-heavy lulls helping to make the movie’s budget a little bit smaller than if it had simply been wall-to-wall chase scenes and fights. Plus, there’s the question of if the average moviegoer’s cardiovascular system could take 2 hours and 43 minutes in the maximum heart rate zone. So Dead Reckoning Part One continues the Mission: Impossible tradition of being plot heavy and filled with talky, expository bits, while never really requiring much real audience knowledge of the continuity between the films (or even what happened previously in this film). That’s not to say these movies aren’t memorable, but what we mostly remember are the restroom brawl of Fallout and the Burj Khalifa sequence in Ghost Protocol rather than the details of their plots.   

Dead Reckoning Part One’s version of the original’s NOC list (or Fallout’s plutonium, etc.) is two halves of a cruciform key that does … something to … something. Ethan Hunt (Cruise, duh) and his team — Luther (Ving Rhames), Benji (Simon Pegg), and Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) — aren’t entirely sure what it does either, but they’re as intent on getting this movie’s Macguffin as they are keeping it out of the hands of Gabriel (Esai Morales), who is apparently Ethan’s longtime nemesis. Yet what is mostly clear is that these keys are, umm, key to “the Entity,” an all-powerful A.I. with a particular bent for sowing misinformation. Whoever controls the Entity would dominate every country on Earth, making the possession of keys critical to the fate of the entire world (aka nothing new for Ethan and his crew). 

What’s astonishing is that this was filmed in 2020 and 2021, but it feels tailor made for 2023, where all anyone seems to want to talk about is artificial intelligence thanks to the rise of generative A.I. Of course, A.I. has been either the villain or the Macguffin in cinema for decades, but what’s most prescient is the how this movie focuses not just on the power of artificial intelligence, but on its specific ability to fool humans and sow chaos. As more people are directly engaging with A.I. than ever before thanks to technology like ChatGPT, its tendency to “hallucinate” can cause significant problems. In Dead Reckoning Part One, the Entity does this on purpose, which (maybe) isn’t happening in the real world, making it even more sinister (and cinematic). 

Yet despite the echoes of the real-world, it’s not the A.I. that interests us most. Even amongst all the giant set pieces, these characters stand out. Ethan’s relentlessness and moral compass drive the series, as does the abiding loyalty between his team members. Even though she’s the newest addition to the team, Ferguson’s Ilsa has forged a deep connection to Ethan, filled with palpable affection. Rhames’ Luther is a comfort amidst the storm for both Ethan and the audience, while Pegg’s Benji provides comic relief (and tech knowledge, I suppose). Seven films in, Henry Czerny reprises his role from the first Mission: Impossible movie, warning that this mission will require great personal sacrifice from Ethan, and it’s clear that Ethan’s close relationships with these people are giving him a lot to lose. 

In addition to Morales as the film’s primary (human) villain, there are other newcomers to the series, including Shea Whigham, Greg Tarzan Davis, and Pom Klementieff, who deserves a special shoutout for her character’s look of glee in the midst of a close-quarters fight. Yet amidst all this talent, Hayley Atwell is the true standout in a co-starring role. As master thief Grace, she is deliciously conniving and sly, a match for Hunt’s cunning and ingenuity. Her presence brings a screwball energy, adding even more comedic elements to a series that’s funnier than you probably recall it being. This entry displays a cheeky self-awareness of the franchise’s hallmarks and mythology, delivering both jokes and more of what Mission: Impossible fans love. 

Dead Reckoning Part One is a game-changing, gasp-inducing crowd-pleaser that ranks among the top films in the series. The title suggests — and the movie delivers — a cliffhanger ending, but what happens next to Ethan and his team isn’t what’s most intriguing about Dead Reckoning Part Two. It’s how in the hell McQuarrie and Cruise can possibly top what they’ve done here. 


“Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” is in theaters today.

Kimber Myers is a freelance film and TV critic for 'The Los Angeles Times' and other outlets. Her day job is at a tech company in their content studio, and she has also worked at several entertainment-focused startups, building media partnerships, developing content marketing strategies, and arguing for consistent use of the serial comma in push notification copy.

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