The story opens with a Russian submarine, the Sevastopol, testing its stealth capabilities, before being tricked into essentially firing upon itself by an onboard AI known as the Entity. Through exposition, we learn that the Entity is a hyper intelligent piece of sabotage software that has gone rogue. As such, IMF agent, Ethan Hunt [Cruise] has been tasked with tracking down the elusive two-part key that’s somehow connected to the Entity. In the process, Ethan accidentally enlists the help of professional thief, Grace [Atwell], who was hired to steal one half of said key, and ends up crossing paths with the villainous figure from his younger years: Gabriel [Morales], the man whose actions led to Ethan joining the IMF in the first place.
Unlike other long-running action thriller franchises, the Mission: Impossible films are uniquely placed. They tell complex globe-trotting tales of subterfuge, while offering audiences the sort of spectacle and stunt work unseen anywhere else. Almost all of which comes down to the dedication and sheer insanity of series lead, Tom Cruise. Making Ethan Hunt the embodiment of that guy in a bar who says he can wrestle a bear and not only legitimately believes it, he then sets out to prove it. But spectacle without substance would fall flat and grow old over time, which is why it’s impressive that these films have repeatedly delivered truly captivating, clever and pulse racing adventures. However, while Dead Reckoning Part One operates at a level above most action cinema, one of those three pillars has been compromised. And what we’re left with isn’t nearly as impressive as it claims to be.
Aside from the usual returning cast members, we have a handful of new faces to deal with. First up, continuing Ethan’s long history with varying degrees of the same brunette, Hayley Atwell is a truly welcome addition. Not only is she a charming and grounded thief (rather than yet another master spy with an agenda), her presence adds a much needed element of unpredictability. Neither ally nor obstacle, she’s a victim of circumstance, wrapped up in something much larger. We also have Pom Klementieff as a fairly rote heavy, but she still manages to give an entertaining performance in spite of the limited trappings. The same cannot be said for Shea Whigham who is hunting Ethan down on behalf of multiple agencies but feels more like a Clouseau character, constantly being foiled and outwitted, despite always finding himself in the right place. And finally we have Gabriel, the enigmatic villain who is unfortunately too omnipotent and all knowing to make him truly compelling. And kept at too much of a distance from the audience, meaning what we actually know of him is very scant.
But what is at the heart of this film preventing it from being the high octane endeavour that it should be? Well, there are in fact three major issues. Starting with how McQuarrie constructed this movie. With a story that has multiple opening restarts and doesn’t hit the title card until the thirty minute mark, there are immense pacing issues at play. Not to mention some pretty questionable direction and framing, with lots of messy closeups and midshots during exposition dumps that do next to nothing with the space and fail to tell a story outside of the action. But what I can’t understand is where this is coming from because it hasn’t been as overt or noticeable in McQuarrie’s other releases. For a prime example, I’ve detailed a specific example in the highlighted section below. But, for now, let’s move on to the next point.
Dead Reckoning Part One is at once incredibly self serious as well as so aggressively goofy. I have zero problem with levity and humour to lighten the constant melodrama and world-ending stakes. And everyone enlisted in the cast clearly has the timing and capability to run with this. But there are too many instances of scenarios that descend into Roger Moore-era silliness. The most egregious being the car chase through Rome. For the most part, it’s thrilling and tense, and there’s even the occasional moment of whimsy that plays well. But too much of the sequence was reduced to cartoonish buffoonery and interplay that detracted from what was at stake.
But those pale when compared to the film’s central flaw. The writing is dumb. And I don’t mean it’s typical spy nonsense, the dialogue and premise are really stupid, and give away a fundamental misunderstanding of the real threat behind the central conceit. To explain, there’s a reason The Terminator worked – because the visual idea of an unstoppable robot is terrifying and easy to understand. Similarly, Ghost In The Shell plays with the consequences of a fully digitally connected world, wherein people cannot tell what is and isn’t real. Dead Reckoning Part One tries to tap into the concept of a mass-computational algorithm arms race, because every part of our lives are so reliant upon technology. The damage that could be done, with such a power in the wrong hands, could be devastating. The problem is, this plot and villain is the epitome of a foe presented by who don’t understand the technology behind it. And I don’t mean the exact science, but the real potential and a menacing way of presenting it. Without that, the dialogue comes off as stupid and the idea of an AI program that has to be defeated by a program accessed with a physical is a real throwback to laughable 80s/90s nonsense.
What’s most infuriating, however, is the wasted opportunity for an exciting premise showing a high tech threat that can only be countered by an old school solution, headed by an old school spy. And with thirty plus years in the field, Ethan is the old school spy. But instead, in an effort to make the Entity seem smarter than it is, the team are continuously dumbfounded by the Entity’s abilities and run in circles. Leaving the entire story akin to the plan in Glass Onion, with those who understand that sighing “It’s so dumb” and countering “So dumb it’s brilliant” with an emphatic, “No! It’s just dumb!”
And given everything that transpires over the nearly three hour runtime, you have to ask why this film was divided into two parts. Less a five hour story cut in two, instead a 3 hour film injected with copious amounts of filler and fluff, to the extent that by the final action set piece (the Uncharted 2 train climb) a distinct degree of consequence-free action fatigue sets in. In truth, so many spy films open with a mission in media res. People have been betrayed, brought on board, objectives have been achieved, but people have paid with their lives… and that’s where the story starts. The difference here is, rather than immediately getting underway, we are traipsed through the rigmarole of the preamble, only for it to end up a bit flimsy and hollow. I honestly get the impression that everything planned for Dead Reckoning Part Two would act just as well with a very simple 15 minute cold open that encapsulates all the major moves and players in this first part.
It’s a shame because so much effort and craft has gone into making this movie a genuine blockbuster. And not dissimilar to releases like Tenet or Spectre moments of suspense lack their impact because they seem obvious, formulaic.. algorithmically calculated. Far from a complete write-off but such a disappointing opening to this two part endeavour.
14 July 2023
The Scene To Look Out For:
Shortly after the submarine cold open.. and Ethan being charged with his mission.. and a gunfight in the Namibian desert.. there is a meeting between various heads of agencies and departments. These individuals are known as ‘the community’ and they then go over, in great detail, the three scenes we’ve just sat through. All the while, this heavy exposition cuts back and forth between each member of the group and a silent late arrival. Who could this man be? What significance does he play on the wider story? The camera keeps focusing on him, so he must be important. At which point the group discuss Ethan Hunt, the agent at the centre of it all, and how he has refused to come in. This triggers the ominous character to leap into action, because he is none other than Ethan Hunt in disguise! Because of course he is! It’s so hideously signposted that any sort of subversion would have been a blessing. Amateur, obvious, and frankly beneath McQuarrie and his team.
**more mild spoilers**
Less a character and just a simple campy moment that undercuts a lot of hard work. Without going into great detail, Gabriel is a mysterious, cold and ruthless individual. Until his plans are impeded, at which point, he quivers and cries to the heavens, “EEEEETHAAAAAN!” like a Saturday morning cartoon villain.
“The next war is not going to be a cold one, it’s going to be a ballistic war for the last of our ecological resources. The last drinkable water, the last breathable air.”
In A Few Words:
“Equal parts fantastic thriller and moronic oddity, Dead Reckoning Part One is a mixed bag that ultimately just keeps its head above water, thanks to the lengths it goes to entertain.”
Total Score: 3/5