Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Makes a Big Mistake with Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust

There are plenty of thrilling twists in Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning, but one involving Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust is the movie’s biggest misstep.

Rebecca Ferguson in Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One
Photo: Paramount Pictures

This article contains a whole lot of Mission: Impossible 7 spoilers.

Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise’s third Mission: Impossible collaboration might just be the breeziest three hours you’ll ever spend in a cinema. It’s certainly the most exhilarating of this summer’s action spectacles, which are almost uniformly longer than 150 minutes, and nearly every one of them feels it. But Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is the exception, a film as nimble and lithe as its title is long and unwieldy. It gallops through giddy set pieces like Cruise sprinting across the rooftop of the Dubai airport; and when Pom Klementieff laughs as she drives an SUV down the actual Spanish Steps of Rome, you’ll be cackling too.

In a modern era where long-in-the-tooth franchises have begun to buckle under the weight of their own ever expanding mythologies, the Mission: Impossible series has never been more kinetic than in the three installments McQuarrie wrote and directed: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015), Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018), and now Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One (with part two due out in only 11 months!).

Yet of the three, I cannot help but feel like Dead Reckoning has taken the series’ first major misstep in years—decades even, as it’s been a long time since the rather anemic second and third entries in the 2000s. And what makes Dead Reckoning’s mistakes all the more baffling is that they come at the expense of a character McQuarrie created, and one whom Cruise personally recommended the casting of: Rebecca Ferguson as former MI6-agent-turned-enigma, Ilsa Faust.

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Introduced in Rogue Nation, Ilsa was named after Ingrid Bergman’s most famous role and written with an enigmatic air that overtly echoes Hitchcock heroines. And in case those classic influences might’ve gone unnoticed, McQuarrie underlined them in bright neon by having Ilsa lure Cruise’s Ethan Hunt to Casablanca, but only after she masterminded an assassination attempt in an opera set piece that is straight out of Hitch’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

Indeed, Fallout’s opera sequence was designed to loudly announce Ferguson as a new protagonist in the series who is every bit as charismatic as Cruise. When she flashed a piercing gaze across the opera house and toward her prey, teasing simultaneous conviction and ambiguity while methodically transforming a flute into a sniper rifle, the film earned every bit of the Puccini crescendo on the soundtrack.

Everyone involved seemed to be aware of this fact, too, since Ferguson became the first female lead to reprise her role in the Mission: Impossible series, appearing in every one of the McQuarrie-helmed installments to date, with each one increasingly positioning her as Ethan’s spiritual counterpoint.

Which makes her fate in Dead Reckoning Part One not only jarring, but also anticlimactic to the point of distraction. After taking a backseat for most of Dead Reckoning’s first act, Ilsa returns in the second act just long enough to be violently stabbed in the heart, and seemingly murdered by the franchise’s new heavy, the mysterious Gabriel (Esai Morales). The death is so disappointingly perfunctory, it taints everything else in what is an otherwise finely crafted espionage thriller.

To be clear, it is not simply the fact that Ilsa was killed off that undermines Dead Reckoning. The franchise obviously wanted to establish stakes after only growing the core Toretto Family Ethan Hunt Friends Group over the past three decades. Consider that, with the exception of Mission: Impossible II (2000), every installment has added a new colleague/ally who then stuck around for at least one more movie. Dead Reckoning even amusingly brings back Henry Czerny’s slimy but strangely likable Eugene Kittridge from the first film. And yet, not since that same first movie has any major member of Ethan’s IMF team been killed off.

Nonetheless, the way Ferguson was specifically written out of the series comes across as awkwardly rushed, if not outright careless. It also plays into the most dispiriting of clichés about female leads and so-called love interests being discarded, or “fridged,” so as to heighten the male hero’s brooding man-pain. You know the scene. A great love of the hero’s life is murdered by the villain, leaving him to weep over her body and swear vengeance.

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That tried trope is played out to a tee in Dead Reckoning, with Gabriel telling Ethan that his A.I. god has informed him Ilsa Faust or franchise newcomer “Grace” (Hayley Atwell) must die on this night. Ethan is then delayed in trying to rescue both women, arriving only in time to cradle Ilsa’s body, cry, and (only two short scenes later) join Ving Rhames’ Luther in recruiting Atwell’s reluctant Grace into the IMF.

The most cynical read of this sequence of events is that Ferguson was thanklessly replaced with Atwell mid-story. And it wouldn’t be far off from how it played out in a muddled second act where plot machinations seemed as pointlessly arbitrary as Gabriel insisting a woman “needed” to die during this reel of the film. Is his A.I. a chauvinistic Highlander fan? Because it seems to be insisting “there can only be one!”

It’s a puzzling choice given how much care Ferguson, McQuarrie, and Cruise put into developing the Ilsa and Ethan dynamic. As Ferguson recently said in an interview with Variety, “They’re two very similar characters constantly driven to do what is best. They are reliably unreliable, and just make the perfect incomplete couple. They are [the ideal] juxtaposition.”

The actress, it should be noted, is not referring strictly to a romantic connection. In fact, she finds the question of “are they going to snog” boring. However, the past two films carefully positioned Ilsa as something akin to Ethan’s professional and emotional equal, even intentionally contrasting her in Fallout with Ethan’s ex-wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan), who returned from the definitely boring Mission: Impossible III (2006). The implication of Fallout’s ending is Ethan found someone he can be his insane, life-gambling, adrenaline-junkie self with. The film even concludes with the pair sharing a laugh.

Dead Reckoning leans into this aspect in broad strokes as well, with Ethan going rogue for Ilsa yet again, only now it’s in the movie’s opening 10 minutes. The returning Kittridge even concedes from McQuarrie’s pen that this “is the pattern for you two, isn’t it?” However, a choice was clearly made to make it a pattern in Dead Reckoning before contriving a scenario where Ilsa dies in Ethan’s arms after appearing in only a handful of scenes.

In other words, her death was handled in about as obligatory (or boring) a manner as possible.

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As of press time, neither McQuarrie or any cast member has spoken publicly about this plot development, but one cannot help but wonder whether there were behind-the-scenes reasons which dictated Ilsa’s demise. Perhaps now that Dead Reckoning Part Two is looking less like the end of the Mission: Impossible saga and more as just the next step in a blockbuster marathon Cruise has recently revealed he plans to run until he’s 80 years old, Ferguson wanted off the merry-go-round? Or maybe due to the complications of filming Dead Reckoning Part One during the COVID pandemic, as well as around the same time production was gearing up on Dune Part Two, limited availability demanded Ilsa be a minor player in the film? Hence she was killed off.

However, no extracurricular knowledge really excuses what is left in the movie. Killing off a major character in a serialized story can be done in a meaningful way. George R.R. Martin turned it into a practical cottage industry in literature and then television, and even in the more formulaic realm of action movie franchises, it has been done effectively, from it turning out to be the emotional linchpin of Ethan Hunt’s rival spy, James Bond, who lost Judi Dench’s M in Skyfall (2012), to Han Solo taking the fall in Star Wars. Even putting the girlfriend in the proverbial refrigerator can be done in a way that takes a strong emotional toll on the characters and film, a la the death of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel launching The Dark Knight into its grand tragic finale, and again how the Bond franchise handled the demise of Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd.

But for Mission: Impossible to minimize one of its best characters before killing her off while simultaneously introducing another pseudo-love interest to replace her rings false. And make no mistake, Cruise and Atwell are asked to kindle some chemistry in Dead Reckoning Part One’s third act, which the two actors achieve with seeming ease. In fact, Atwell is terrific as the franchise’s latest recruit, bringing a new spark as a “civilian” to Cruise’s now familiar spy games.

Yet as the movie ended with a demand that we feel some emotional catharsis while the two hug it out on a ruined train—Grace is at last accepting her mission to join the IMF—I had to wonder how many films it might be before Atwell is similarly asked to turn in her spy gear during a ninth or 10th movie?

At the end of the day, the Mission: Impossible flicks are obviously not character-driven actors’ pieces. They’re dizzying spectacles that at their best blend espionage tricks with heist movie team dynamics, all while being held together by Cruise’s relentless Evel Knievel desire to court death on camera for our amusement. But what’s made the McQuarrie era of the franchise particularly crackle is a focus on sharp writing and acting, which has in turn complemented the miraculous stunts captured via pristine IMAX photography. All the elements together form a whole so immaculately crafted that it’s impossible not to notice when a chink in the armor does appear. And in the case of Dead Reckoning Part One, the creative choices made to deal with Ilsa’s fate turned out to be a faustian bargain.

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is in theaters now.

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