Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One (2023) Review

Bravura stunt work fails to mitigate the shortcomings in plot and dialogue that cause MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – DEAD RECKONING PART ONE to self-destruct.

With Daniel Craig’s Bond having abdicated the long-held action crown in a Quixotic quest for prestige picture legitimacy, Tom Cruise has deftly manoeuvred and manipulated his one enduring franchise onto the vacant throne, skilfully reframing an ensemble-led IP into a one-man show and fending off an unexpectedly strong and strongly unexpected challenge from erstwhile street-racing franchise THE FAST & THE FURIOUS by meeting outrageous and extravagant CGI set-pieces with authentic stunt work.

The clearest sign of this ascendancy to the action throne was there as I looked around the cinema as I waited for MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – DEAD RECKONING PART ONE to begin. In a busy auditorium – busy for an early evening showing at any time and positively bustling in the current lacklustre box office period – the prized cross-generational appeal of these movies was apparent. From kids to young adults to seniors and everyone in between, they’d all showed up for the latest instalment of Tom Cruise’s increasingly plaintive mid-life crisis movies (because make no mistake: it’s him they’re here to see, not Ethan Hunt).

But with great box office power comes great box office responsibility and, having hyped the audience up to almost unprecedented levels, can Cruise and his captive co-creator Chris McQuarrie deliver? The answer, it turns out, is no, not really.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – DEAD RECKONING PART ONE opens with a HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER redux but, thrilling as the submarine drama is, it’s merely a scene setter for the convoluted cavalcade which follows. Despite the number of returning characters, there’s a real sense of disconnection from where FALLOUT ended and this film begins, almost like there’s a missing movie between them. There’s also an egregious attempt to retcon the deep lore of the franchise, turning Ethan Hunt and his cohorts into a group of pardoned criminals and refashioning the IMF as some kind of ersatz SUICIDE SQUAD, all to introduce that most reliable of action movie tropes: someone from the hero’s past coming back to haunt the present.

There’s something profoundly indecisive about MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – DEAD RECKONING and there are times when it feels like it was assembled stunts and set-pieces first and then the rest of the movie filled in around and between them using the exact kind of generative AI that the movie – looking to rip its McGuffin straight from today’s hyperbolic headlines – sets up as both antagonist and McGuffin without offering anything insightful about the subject whatsoever.

The stunts and set pieces are as polished as you’d expect them to be – they are what the movie is really about after all – but a quirk of release schedules has robbed them of much of their glamour. A desert-set chase scene and neon-drenched nightclub brawl echo JOHN WICK 4, while a chase through the streets of Rome somehow manages to evoke both FAST X and FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, the latter being a film that’s having quite a moment this year between its nod in INDIANA JONES AND THE DIAL OF DESTINY and now this; even Simon Pegg’s hair seems to be homaging Roger Moore’s mid-eighties coiffure in this outing.

Promoted beyond mere comic relief, Benji is now something of a square Pegg in a round comedy hole, kept around because his character is still alive even if his established background (as a deskbound analyst reluctantly dragged into the field) explicitly contradicts the new orthodoxy that all IMF agents were offered a choice at their lowest point. The scene where this is discussed is one of the examples of where this film could have significantly trimmed its bloated runtime if McQuarrie could have resisted so much tautological dialogue. There’s so little confidence in the narrative, and the audience’s ability to follow the story, that scene after scene, character after character finds themselves repeating the same conversations over and over again, subtly reinforcing the sense that what you’re watching is a creation of generative machine learning tasked with creating the optimum action movie output for today’s discerning cinemagoer.

Action sequences likewise go on to long and fall into replicative repetition, even when ticking off the hallmarks of the franchise. There’s running, of course, but this time there’s running on rooftops, running through alleyway, running through and on top of trains. There is, thankfully, a genuine plot-driven reason for riding a motorcycle off a cliff but it’s deeply, deeply contrived and ultimately still comes across as an empty exercise in vanity and machismo.

Despite the sincere effort by all concerned, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – DEAD RECKONING PART ONE feels a world away from the tight, tension-driven tour-de-force of FALLOUT and despite the fact the character body count is higher (one legacy character is brazenly replaced before the corpse has even had time to cool) and the threat is extinction-level in its implication, the stakes don’t ever really feel urgent and vital. The enemy is too diffuse, the progress from one pot point to the other is too clunky and the overall impression is of a classic band reluctantly getting back together to run through their greatest hits once more. PART TWO sure has a lot of work to do to salvage this mission.