Is Tom Cruise the last movie star? That’s a topic that’s been debated over the last few years, but if the definition of a movie star includes delivering for audiences exactly what they want and need, then Cruise can arguably make the strongest case out of any filmmaker working today. And all the while, through his many cinematic triumphs (and a fair number of misfires) he’s been painting his masterpiece. The Mission: Impossible series is that great labor. The franchise may have started out as a relatively unassuming action/spy thriller based on a creaky 1960s TV show, but it has become one of the few movie franchises that’s actually gotten better and better over the course of its 27-year existence.
To be sure, the series took a while—arguably four movies—to truly find its footing, but starting with the fourth entry, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011), Tom Cruise discovered the perfect creative partner in Christopher McQuarrie, who did an uncredited rewrite on that film, and has written and directed every movie in the franchise since.
Now, with the seventh entry, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, the saga of Ethan Hunt and the Impossible Missions Force may have reached its zenith—or it may simply be that with so many other tentpoles flailing helplessly in creative and technological stagnation, watching something that actually looks like all $290 million of its (reported) budget is on the screen feels like a jolt of cold, pure cinematic oxygen.
Cruise, McQuarrie, and company have made a masterful, twisting, often breathtaking action thriller that never lets up for its entire two-hour-and-43-minute length, providing genuine character moments and emotional beats in between one pulverizing action sequence after another. The filmmakers’ visceral, practical approach to its set pieces, along with the star’s willingness to throw himself into more death-defying stunts every time out, adds to the movie’s top-notch entertainment value.
The story this time ventures ever so gently past the realm of the techno-thriller where the M:I series has lived for most of its existence and into the realm of pure science fiction, albeit eerily steeped in one of the biggest news stories happening right now. The movie opens on a submarine where we are immediately introduced to the villain: a highly sophisticated artificial intelligence known only as “the Entity.” It’s quickly established that the Entity has a mind of its own (has McQuarrie been watching cult classic Colossus: The Forbin Project?), and whoever can get control of it and its almost god-like power will be able to impersonate or penetrate any system or government in the world. You could rule the globe or destroy it without almost anyone noticing.
Naturally, every government wants to get its hands on the thing, but more frighteningly, a self-styled angel of death known as Gabriel (Esai Morales) has his own nefarious plans for it. Or is Gabriel actually working for the Entity? That’s never made exactly clear. In any case, the MacGuffin has its own MacGuffin: two keys that interlock and give the holder access to the Entity, which is where Ethan and the IMF come into the picture.
Joined by regulars Benji (Simon Pegg), Luther (Ving Rhames) and the always enigmatic yet bewitching Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), Ethan is ordered by returning IMF boss Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny, reprising his role from 1996) to find those keys before they fall into the hands of a mysterious buyer. But Ethan’s plan, involving a cat-and-mouse game in an Abu Dhabi airport, is thwarted by a rogue element, a professional thief named Grace (Hayley Atwell) who steals one of the keys and is unwittingly thrust into the middle of a very dangerous pursuit with apocalyptic implications. More disturbingly, the Entity seems to be ahead of everyone every step of the way.
As with all the M:I movies, going back to Brian de Palma’s original, underrated Mission: Impossible (1996), which upended the conventions of the TV show and set a modest template for what was to come, the plotting of the film can be almost needlessly convoluted, although we would argue that McQuarrie has gone for a slightly more direct approach this time than in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (2015) or Mission: Impossible — Fallout (2018). Where he does run into trouble is juggling all the characters that are now part of the storyline. While in-depth characterization has never been a strong suit of these movies, the addition of four major new characters to this film means that some of our legacy players get short shrift. The shortest straw is drawn by Ilsa, the MVP of the previous two films, who is sidelined here to everyone’s detriment.
She is more or less replaced by Atwell’s Grace, but the truth is that Grace may be the most complex female protagonist in the series yet. Cunning, wily, and blessed with a keen sense of self-interest, she is a match in mind games for Ethan, and Atwell generates not just intelligence and empathy, but more pure chemistry with Cruise than any other female lead we’ve seen him interact with in years.
The other breakout here is Pom Klementieff (like Atwell, an MCU veteran who we just saw give her best performance as Mantis in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3) as Paris, an assassin working for Gabriel who channels serious Bond femme fatale energy, sort of a cross between Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp and Barbara Carrera’s non-canon Fatima Blush (like those two, she seems to get off on causing sheer destruction).
Esai Morales provides a simmering, well-dressed charisma as Gabriel, which creates a deceptively good-looking alternative to the last two movies’ visibly psychotic Solomon Lane, although Gabriel’s motivations remain a bit murky throughout the story. And while it’s nice to see Vanessa Kirby’s alluringly impish grin as the White Widow, and Shea Whigham as a by-the-book government agent sent to capture Ethan (who, yes, goes rogue again), neither one has a whole lot to do.
But those are relatively small complaints against the movie’s entire reason for existence: one insanely (but always coherently) choreographed action sequence after another, from a berserk chase through the streets of Rome with Ethan and Grace driving a tiny yellow Fiat while handcuffed together, to Ethan’s heart-stopping jump from a cliff on a motorcycle (which Cruise actually performed, as can be seen in a featurette available online), to an explosive, white-knuckle climax aboard the Orient Express as it hurtles toward a collapsing bridge. If in fact there’s CG involved here, it’s used far more effectively than another train-set action sequence dialed up by a different franchise not long ago.
All of this is presented with humor (this may be the funniest entry yet, despite the gravity of the stakes), exuberance, and McQuarrie’s increasingly expansive eye, as he also makes use of real locations around the world in the grand style of the earliest Bond movies. He’s brilliantly aided by James Mather’s thunderous sound, Lorne Balfe’s massive, dramatic score (as always, making excellent use of the original theme by Lalo Schifrin), and the kinetic editing of Eddie Hamilton (who also did Top Gun: Maverick, and who Cruise should keep on the payroll until one of them retires).
As per the Hollywood blockbuster these days, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One ends before the story is over, although it pauses more for a natural break in the action than a cliffhanger. Where the narrative goes from here is anyone’s guess, and if Cruise and McQuarrie can deliver something as purely entertaining as this with Part Two, the franchise’s stature as the American answer to 007 and one of the best action series of all time will be secured.
Best of all? As soon as the movie is over and the credits roll, you can leave. Cruise cares enough for his audience to not make them wait around after nearly three hours for a post-credits scene. Now that’s a movie star.
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is out in theaters Wednesday, July 12. See it on the biggest screen you can find.