Skip to main content

Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One review: Accept this mission

Tom Cruise and Hayley Atwell turn around in a small car, looking concerned.
Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One review: Accept this mission
“This seventh, inconclusive entry has been made with a keen understanding of what makes the series such first-rate fun.”
  • The part with the motorcycle
  • The part with the tiny car
  • At least a dozen more deliciously absurd parts
  • Maybe too much of a good thing
  • Maybe too many characters
  • Remember when movies had endings?

With the exception of a uniquely slimy arms dealer played by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, the villains in the Mission: Impossible movies have always been rather serviceable, even forgettable. That is, if you’d even consider them the villains. Time, altitude, gravity, probability: These are the real threats facing Ethan Hunt, the Tom Cruise-shaped pinball launched through every exhilarating espionage machine in the series.

In Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, a sequel whose convoluted absurdity begins with the punctuation in its title, Hunt finally faces an enemy as intangible as the laws of nature he regularly defies. The Entity, as it’s called, is a sentient computer virus — a mass of malevolent code capable of hacking every database on the planet, and reshaping the world by redefining its notions of truth. It’s a timely foe for an age of invisible danger, disinformation, and AI anxiety. In its ability to predict and effectively control the future, it’s also a rather fitting adversary for Hunt. Has the living manifestation of destiny met his match in, well, the unliving master of it?

Picking up where he left off with the previous two installments, Fallout and Rogue Nation, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie has orchestrated another thriller that derives its thrills from the steepening slope of Hunt’s predicament. Take, for example, an early sequence in an airport. Hunt and his merriest sidekicks, played by Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames, are trying to eavesdrop on the sale of a pair of mysterious keys that click together to unlock… well, something mysterious. But new players keep entering the situation, and the keys keep changing hands. A bomb appears, and so does a dead body. Suddenly, there are two running clocks, one primed to explode, and three lines of pursuit. The scene quickly becomes an exercise in how many complications you can stack and parallel planes of dilemma you can cross without losing the audience. 

Dead Reckoning has enough exposition to crash Wikipedia, but it’s structured like farce. Everyone in the movie is chasing someone else, or the MacGuffins. The cast teems with new faces, like Hayley Atwell as a thief of uncertain allegiance whose pickpocketing skills become instrumental to a plot that’s at least 40% “who has the thing.” Amusingly in the rear is Shea Whigham, keystone cop on Hunt’s tail, always two steps behind the pileup of cars, bodies, and silicone masks. And grinning maniacally is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3‘s Pom Klementieff, who’s one of the villains, a French assassin, but also a mirror for the audience, reflecting our joy back at us.

Tom Cruise does a little jump on a motorcycle.
Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One Paramount Pictures

There’s a comedy, the kind that spills from disbelief, to the action scenes. As always, Cruise’s escalating feats of Evel Knievel daredevilry, which he’s now performing in his 60s, mark him as an analog hero in a world of digital superheroes. He’s like Johnny Knoxville or Jackie Chan: (Reckless en)danger(ment) is his middle name, and his shtick. Have you heard of what he does on a mountain with a motorcycle this time? How about the screwball bumper-car chase through Rome, scored to barely any music, where Hunt and Atwell’s thief, Grace, are handcuffed together in a tiny yellow Fiat?

In some ways, Mission: Impossible remains blessedly out of step with the blockbuster norm. In others, it bends towards trends, not all of them welcome. Once so self-contained you could watch them in any order, the M:I movies have embraced serialization under McQuarrie’s watch. Dead Reckoning drums up a backstory for Ethan, confusing a body in perpetual motion for a character we’ve ever cared about in the traditional sense. And like recent entries in the Fast & Furious and Spider-Verse sagas, it doesn’t so much end as just stop. Can any movie that offers a glorified “To be continued…” be called great?

Thankfully, McQuarrie also goes looking for inspiration in older entertainment, too. The opening scene catches sonar blips of The Hunt For Red October. The closing one astonishingly recalls, of all movies, The Lost World: Jurassic Park. And you can sense an attempt, in Dead Reckoning, to commune with Brian De Palma’s version of the material, the suspense contraption he built atop an old spy TV show. Its spirit is there in the talky skullduggery, the racing train, the unexpected return of an old handler, and the phantom appearances of a young Cruise — a boyish past life glimpsed in flashbacks that attempt to tie the distant yesterday of this series to its rollicking, still-vital today.

Rebecca Ferguson in an eyepatch lines up a shot with her sniper rifle.
Rebecca Ferguson in Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One Paramount Pictures.

By this point, Cruise has been playing Ethan Hunt for more than 25 years. He’s fused the character’s determination to his own, rendering the distinction between them obsolete. The Mission: Impossible movies are monuments to his vanity, reckless ambition, and star power, still potent in the wake of Top Gun: Maverick. It’s forever tempting to see them as stained-glass windows into Cruise’s life. The actor practically winces when the nominal villain, a lackey of The Entity, accuses Hunt of using women. (Rebecca Ferguson’s fellow agent Ilsa Faust, back in action here, could be seen as a mirror reflection of Hunt — the dream of a perfect partner, matching him every dangerous step of the way.) And come to think of it, isn’t there something familiar about IMF, a secret org that coerces people into joining, insists they cut off all ties, and has their brightest star recruit members?

At 163 minutes, Dead Reckoning is the longest Mission: Impossible, but not the best. It’s a little too long, a little too stuffed with supporting players, and maybe at times a little too silly, to reach the Burj Khalifa heights of the franchise’s past pinnacles. Certainly, it could have used a better look — less overlit, more drenched in the shadows from which Hunt emerges. 

Yet this seventh, inconclusive entry has still been made with a keen understanding of what makes the series such first-rate fun — the sublime pleasure of watching Cruise’s secret agent try to think, climb, drive, sprint, deceive, or bluff his way through some very unforgiving odds. And in his rage against the malevolent machine of Dead Reckoning, you can see the shadow of battles against the Netflixing of Hollywood, the green-screening of action, and the growing obsolescence of movie stars. Cruise, like Hunt, would never go down without a fight. “Impossible” isn’t in his vocabulary.

Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One opens in theaters everywhere July 12. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.

Editors' Recommendations

A.A. Dowd
A.A. Dowd, or Alex to his friends, is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He has held staff positions at The A.V. Club and…
The best action scenes in the Mission: Impossible movies, ranked
mission impossible movies best action heist scenes ranked fallout halo sequence

Since it first arrived on the big screen in 1996, the Mission: Impossible film franchise has thrilled audiences with increasingly ambitious practical stunts. Star and producer Tom Cruise won’t be satisfied until he’s shown gravity who’s boss once and for all, diving off of increasingly high platforms at increasingly deadly speeds. The daredevil feats have become such essential parts of the Mission: Impossible films and their marketing that one could almost forget the stories that these stunts are meant to service.
In most M: I movies, at least one of those miraculous action set pieces is attached to some sort of heist or caper. Ethan Hunt is a spy, after all, and his quests typically require that he infiltrate a highly secure location and intercept an important item, person, or piece of information. With respect to the remarkable craft put into each of the daredevil actions, how often is the payoff equal to the setup? Is there a correlation between the magnitude of the danger to Tom Cruise and the stakes to Ethan Hunt? On the occasion of Dead Reckoning Part One’s theatrical release, we’re ranking the action scenes in the Mission: Impossible series and our preferences might surprise you.

7. Stealing the Rabbit’s Foot (Mission: Impossible III)
Mission: Impossible III: Daring Leap (HD CLIP)
Mission: Impossible III gets a bit of a bad rap for its efforts to ground the series in something approaching reality, and it can definitely be argued that director J.J. Abrams’ more TV-style aesthetic was an overcorrection from John Woo’s unrestrained bombast. We’ll stand behind M:I-3’s more human and emotional characterization of Ethan Hunt, the romance subplot, and of course, the outstanding performance of Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the villain, but we do have to admit that the choice to essentially skip this movie’s main heist sequence is pretty disappointing.
In the second act of M:I-3, Ethan’s wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) has been kidnapped by terrorist Owen Davian (Hoffman), who promises to kill her unless Hunt retrieves the mysterious “Rabbit’s Foot” weapon from a secure facility in Shanghai. Hunt goes rogue and, with the help of his team, plans a daring swing between two skyscrapers, using a third, taller building as a fulcrum.
However, while we see Ethan’s leap and his tricky landing on the roof of the facility, we don’t follow him inside for the rest of the heist. Instead, we remain with his teammates Zhen (Maggie Q) and Gorley (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) as they wait to hear whether or not he’s acquired the Rabbits Foot. We only catch up with Ethan once the mission has gone sideways, and Zhen, Gorley, and trusty tech wizard Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) participate in a wild, shaky-cam car chase away from the building’s facility. It’s a cute subversion of the franchise’s usual structure and it allows the plot to continue at an even clip, but for the purposes of this list, we can’t put it anywhere but dead last.

Read more
Is Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1 streaming?
Tom Cruise looks and stares in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One.

It's been five years since the release of Mission: Impossible - Fallout, but the latest film in the series has finally arrived. Tom Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie have reunited for the new sequel, Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part 1, and this is a story that has finally given Ethan Hunt (Cruise) a foe that he can't easily dispatch. The Entity is something that Ethan has never had to contend with before, and it will push him and his team to their limits.

Mission: Impossible regulars Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, and Rebecca Ferguson are all back as Luther Stickell, Benji Dunn, and Ilsa Faust, respectively. Vanessa Kirby also reprises her role from Fallout as the White Widow, Alanna Mitsopolis. And for the first time since the original Mission: Impossible film in 1996, Henry Czerny has returned as IMF director Eugene Kittridge.

Read more
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1’s ending, explained
Tom Cruise and Hayley Atwell turn around in a small car, looking concerned.

Nearly three years ago, director Christopher McQuarrie started filming Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part 1, and it's been a long journey to get this sequel on the big screen. Franchise star Tom Cruise has been headlining the Mission: Impossible films since 1996 with increasingly risky stunts and over-the-top action that has kept audiences coming back for more. But Dead Reckoning Part 1 takes things to another level with a story that is too big for a single movie.

By most accounts, Dead Reckoning's two-movie adventure will mark the end of Cruise's Ethan Hunt and his time in the Impossible Mission Force. When the ending comes around for Part 1, Ethan's team has been forever changed, and even bigger challenges lie ahead in Part 2. If you need help making sense of it all, then you've come to the right place because we're about to dive in. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to keep reading, preferably after you've already seen Dead Reckoning Part 1.

Read more