Reviewed by: Keith Rowe
Potential dangers of high-powered Artificial Intelligence (AI) computer systems
The ethics of AI
Threat of desperate nations fighting over dwindling resources like food and water
Bravery / courage / self-sacrifice
Tom Cruise … Ethan Hunt
Rebecca Ferguson … Ilsa Faust
Simon Pegg … Benji Dunn
Ving Rhames … Luther Stickell
Pom Klementieff … Paris
Vanessa Kirby … The White Widow
Hayley Atwell … Grace
Rob Delaney … JSOC
Cary Elwes … DNI Denlinger
Shea Whigham … Jasper Briggs
Indira Varma … DIA
Esai Morales … Gabriel
Henry Czerny … Eugene Kittridge
Charles Parnell … NRO
Mark Gatiss … NSA
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TC Productions (a Tom Cruise/Bad Robot production)
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|Distributor||Paramount Pictures Corporation, a subsidiary of ViacomCBS|
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to determine if this movie is worth its $290 million dollar price tag or the 10+ dollars (national average) you’ll have to shell out to see it.
The movie opens somewhere in the Bering Sea, where the Russian submarine, Sevastopol, is scuttled by its own active learning (artificial intelligence) system. Meanwhile, in the middle of the Arabian Desert, IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is engaged in a shootout with bounty hunters during a sandstorm. After dispatching his less-skilled attackers, Ethan is reunited with Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who has one half of a cruciform key. The other half must be found soon, because only the assembled key can prevent the planet from being annihilated by a rogue AI called The Entity. Cue the ticking time bomb story device.
Ethan encounters Grace (Hayley Atwell), an interested party in the key, at the Abu Dhabi International Airport. While hiding out from Jasper Briggs (Shea Whigham) and his team of paramilitary goons, Ethan catches a glimpse of his old nemesis Gabriel (Esai Morales), another seeker of the key. And, just because an action film requires lots of moving parts to conceal its tenuous story, the ironically named White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) is also in pursuit of the movie’s MacGuffin. As usual, Ethan is assisted by his loyal companions, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg).
“Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One” is the seventh film in the series and is the first part of a two-part story—a first for the franchise—which will culminate with Cruise’s final appearance as Ethan Hunt, a character he first portrayed 27 years ago. This film is also the longest “Mission Impossible” movie yet, clocking in at a bladder-taxing 2 hours and 43 minutes.
Also of note, this is the third “Mission Impossible” movie to pair Cruise with director Christopher McQuarrie, who also worked with the star as a writer or director on “Valkyrie” (2008), “Jack Reacher” (2012), “Edge of Tomorrow” (2014), “The Mummy” (2017) and a little film that came out last year called, “Top Gun: Maverick.” It’s clear from the quality of their past collaborations that the actor and director work well together.
Cruise, 61, is still on his A game—he still does his own stunts and still sprints for minutes at a time without breaking a sweat. Recently, the actor publicly expressed his admiration for Harrison Ford and said he’d also like to star in action movies when he’s 80. At this rate, Cruise will be doing his own stunts when he’s 100… and making it look easy.
But the movie’s stunts weren’t easy, especially since most of them were done practically. Though well conceived and executed, the film’s action set pieces fail to deliver a knockout punch—that one heart-stopping, death-defying stunt we’ve come to expect from these movies, like the exhilarating skydiving sequence in “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” (2018), which puts this movie’s parachute and speed-flying scenes to shame. Sad to say, but the action here doesn’t feel elevated. It does feel derivative, though.
Spoiler Alert: The opening submarine sequence feels like it was borrowed wholesale from “The Hunt for Red October” (1990), most notably the scene where the sub is struck by its own torpedo. (Sidebar: I counted two instances of “impossible” in the sub crew’s conversation… more on the movie’s dialog in a bit).
The pulse-pounding car chase in Rome starts off in a fresh vein, with Grace stealing a police car and Ethan driving a really dorky-looking police motorcycle. But then we drift into standard car chase territory when Ethan and Grace upgrade to a Bond-like, hi-tech yellow Fiat (funny how Ethan doesn’t balk at the car’s bright color when he knows every police car in the city is pursuing them). Though thrilling at times, the entire sequence comes off like one of the Mini Cooper chases in “The Italian Job” (2003) or similar high-octane chase scenes in one of the “Bourne” movies. What makes the sequence pop is its handcuff hijinks; Ethan and Grace are forced to take turns driving with one hand. It’s a fun scene, beautifully played by Cruise and Atwell.
As Ethan prepares to go Evel Knievel off the side of a mountain, Benji melts down, shouting at Ethan that he has no idea the kind of pressure he’s under. This comedic bit is a virtual remake of the scene in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” (2011) when Benji has an anxiety attack while Ethan ascends the Burj Khalifa skyscraper with fickle suction gloves. Someone should’ve told screenwriters McQuarrie and Erik Jendresen that it was funny the first time…
The series has come full circle with respect to its high-speed train sequences (and whose idea was it to name the train the Orient Express?). Though the knife fight involving Ethan and Gabriel is occasionally riveting, it isn’t nearly as daring or dazzling as the helicopter explosion that violently propels Ethan onto the back of the train in the first “Mission Impossible” (1996). Where’s the originality? Have these “Mission Impossible” movies run out of new ideas?
I’ve probably spent too much time talking about action sequences, but, at the end of the day, that’s why people turn out to see these movies. Those who only care about the action probably won’t be dissuaded by my comments, but those looking for something else, like a plot, may find the movie wanting. The story is a style over substance spectacle that builds its structure around a series of action sequences. Worse still, when the origin of the key is revealed as something that’s been obvious from the start, we realize the entire story has been one giant red herring. Yawn!
Also disappointing is that there’s very little character development in the movie. At this point in the series, shouldn’t we see more growth in Ethan and the other recurring characters?
For instance, what does Ethan learn in the movie? That women who fall into his orbit tend to meet untimely demises? Old hat! That he still has a tendency to go rogue? It’s in his DNA. That he can’t trust or outsmart a computer? Can anyone? That confronting ghosts from the past can be dangerous? Granted. That even if you don’t smoke, carrying around a cigarette lighter can come in handy?
I realize these movies will never be mistaken as high art, but adding a little meat to these bare-bone characters might’ve gone a long way toward making the material a little less campy and more adult.
Now, as promised, here’s my diatribe on the film’s dialog. In short, it’s maddeningly inconsistent. I can’t remember a time when a movie’s dialog was so bad I started squirming in my seat, but such was the case here when influential leaders from around the globe discuss the existential threat posed by The Entity. Instead of communicating with each other, the characters spout scripted sound bites to fill in expository details the audience has already guessed.
It takes nearly five minutes for the characters to say what I can sum up in six words: find the key, save the world (with apologies to “Heroes”). This is easily one of the most agonizingly tedious data dumps ever committed to film. What makes the sequence even more tragic is that these are really good actors (Cary Elwes, Henry Czerny, Charles Parnell and Mark Gatiss, among others), whose talents are wasted on dialog any middle schooler could craft. The actors try their best to lend weight to their flimsy lines, but to no avail.
The ponderous conference mercifully ends when green gas knocks out everyone but a disguised Ethan (way too many mask gimmicks in this movie) and Eugene Kittridge (Czerny). Kittridge delivers a superb monologue that touches on some of the most salient issues in the movie, including the dangers of AI and the threat of desperate nations fighting over dwindling resources like food and water. He also predicts that the present mission will cost Ethan dearly.
Sadly, such meaningful dialog is one of the only bright spots in a film riddled with such pedestrian lines as, “There’s a bug in the system. A ghost in the machine.” Yeah, we get the point. And then there’s this revelatory statement, “Whoever controls The Entity controls the truth.” Or Ethan’s insightful newsflash, “People are chasing us!”
The movie is bookended with voice-over narrations by Kittridge, who sets the tone with an overly earnest soliloquy and wraps things up with a sermonizing summary of the stakes for the next film. These painfully prosaic stretches of dialog would’ve gone down easier with a comedic chaser, but the film only has a few funny lines. Even the reliably witty Pegg only lands a couple jokes in the movie.
So, aside from derivative action sequences and horrendous dialog, what is there to recommend the film? Well, the cinematography is quite good, and McQuarrie makes the most of his locations, particularly the golden hour cityscape in Rome, Italy, the shot of Ethan running along the ruffled roof of the Abu Dhabi airport, and the forested region in Norway where Ethan attempts his high-altitude motorcycle jump.
The movie’s acting is also an asset. Many audience members will enjoy the fervid friendship that forms between Ethan and Grace (Cruise and Atwell have tremendous onscreen chemistry). Though their witty banter is enjoyable, the romantic tension between the couple feels rushed, and inappropriate, since Ethan’s girlfriend just recently died. As a thief with a penchant for leaving Ethan in the lurch, Grace comes off as a spy movie version of Catwoman; with Ethan in the role of Batman, since he has a similar fighting style and does his fair share of flying in the movie.
A silly analogy? Probably. That means it’s time to examine some weightier topics.
As with most action flicks, this movie’s plot takes a backseat to sensational stunts and heart-pounding chases. Unfortunately, that doesn’t leave us with much to evaluate on the story front. Still, the movie has a few meaningful aspects, so let’s take a closer look at some of them.
Although the movie foregrounds the potential dangers of AI, it eschews a broader conversation on the ethics of AI. At the heart of the AI debate is the obvious fact that humans created the problem by playing God. Though the topic has been broached many times before—such as the compelling “fire sale” cyber attack storyline in “Live Free or Die Hard” (2007) or Skynet in the “Terminator” movies, the quintessential, post-singularity AI invasion cautionary tale—this movie could’ve shown some new threat to humanity, based on the latest AI research. Unfortunately, The Entity only focuses on Ethan and his team, so the movie stays surface level and fails to consider the global implications of an AI running amok—a major whiff by McQuarrie.
Rather than being a menacing presence in the film, like Ultron in Marvel’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015), The Entity barely factors into the action—only the agents doing its bidding remind us of the looming threat it poses. This is a major problem from a story standpoint, since a hero can’t shine unless he’s pitted against a really strong villain. Here, the villain (The Entity) is only seen or heard in a few scenes.
Gabriel (Esai Morales) isn’t onscreen enough to qualify as the movie’s main villain either. He’s characterized as a dark messiah—The Entity’s chosen one. He even speaks as if he’s a divine being, “As it is written.” Aside from these delusions of grandeur, Gabriel violates the 1st Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3) because he believes he is a god.
In Gabriel’s demented philosophy, death is a gift. Ethan says Gabriel doesn’t enjoy the killing, but the suffering. This reveals Gabriel’s bent toward sadomasochism.
The movie presents an interesting twist on the 6th Commandment, “You shall not murder,” (Exodus 20:13). Since The Entity anticipates that Ethan will kill Gabriel, Ethan’s teammates emphatically say, “Do not kill Gabriel.” This is a refreshing alternative to the standard action movie climax, where the hero often vanquishes the villain by resorting to violence.
One of the movie’s recurring themes is the nature of truth. Ilsa says, “The world is changing. The truth is vanishing.” This assumes that lies will eventually force the truth into extinction. But the one objective truth, which originates with our Creator, will always expose lies and triumph over them. “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
Kittridge has a different take on the truth, “This is our chance to control the truth. The concepts of right and wrong for everyone for centuries to come.” Despite Kittridge’s egomaniacal wish, the truth is immutable and cannot be altered by the whims of humans (or AIs).
The last part of his statement is the most troubling, since we can see an erosion of decency and decorum in every strata of our society today. In a world of moral relativism, where there’s no right or wrong, anything goes. The prophet Isaiah saw this trend coming centuries ago,
Those who seek to redefine good and evil will be met with frustration and failure. From the start, God instilled an awareness of the oppositional forces at work in the world in the human heart—there’s a reason why one of the trees at the center of the Garden of Eden was called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:9).
The most disturbing dialog in the movie comes from Denlinger (Elwes), who calls out another character for his outdated ideas of patriotism. He refers to it as “old think.” Denlinger is in support of a super-state that will rule the entire world (Xi Jinping, Putin and a long list of other tyrants are licking their chops at such a proposition—as long as they’re the one in charge).
Let’s unpack Denlinger’s remarks.
Does true patriotism (not vigilantism, terrorism, or anarchism) ever go out of style?
What’s the opposite of “old think?” “New think?” “Woke think?” No thanks.
And how would a super-state operate? It certainly wouldn’t be democratic. Probably something like the One World government that’s described in the book of Revelation.
If there’s one area of the movie that’s relevant, that’s clear-eyed about our impending slide into dystopia, it’s these frightening statements made by a career politician swept up in the false promises of global equity.
Offensive Language/Vulgarities: Surprisingly, this “Mission” only has a few curse words, including: h*ll (1) and d*mn/d*mm*t (2). It’s a shame that the bulk of the movie’s swearing is irreverent in nature: g*d-d*m/g*d-d*mm*t (4). One character mouths a f-word, but we can’t hear it above the din of a party.
Alcohol/Drugs: Drinks are shown at a night club, but there’s very little imbibing in the scene.
Nudity and Sexual Content: When a man pats down a woman for weapons, he squeezes the undersides of her breasts. Then he slaps her on the butt.
At a nightclub, female dancers appear naked in silhouette, but are actually wearing tight bodysuits. In one scene, male dancers are glimpsed in nothing but their underwear.
Violence and Graphic Content: A couple scenes show dead bodies trapped under the ice. Though the tableau is unsettling, it isn’t gory.
There are too many gun battles and knife fights to list here, but the body count is exceedingly high in the film. The gunfights are filmed quickly and are largely bloodless.
The knife fights are more offensive, since we see a man stab a woman in the chest with a switchblade. Later, the same man slices another man’s throat with a knife, and we see a pool of blood forming underneath his body. One man is stabbed through the back of his hand. Another woman is stabbed near the end of the film. There’s a drawn-out knife fight atop a speeding train, but both men escape with their lives.
A man uses a Taser gun to knock out two other men. The movie has a few fistfights and high-speed car chases, which might be too intense for some viewers.
In the end, “Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One” is overstuffed with decent (but certainly not amazing) action sequences, and is severely hamstrung by a derivative story filled with unsophisticated dialog. Still, other than standard action violence and a handful of expletives, the movie is pretty clean.
Most two-part movies start off with a slower first film which sets up an explosive climax in the second film. If that pattern holds true, I’m hopeful that the franchise will end on a bigger bang than what we get in this film.
Still, with the recent slate of glum, humdrum movies, “Dead Reckoning Part One” seems poised to be the top grossing film of the summer.
Anything’s possible, I reckon.
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.