Director – Christopher McQuarrie – 2022 – US – Cert. 12a – 163m
Tom Cruise’s seventh and director Christopher McQuarrie’s third Mission: Impossible outing delivers globetrotting action and one of the most incredible stunts ever committed to film – out in UK cinemas on Monday, July 10th
It seems almost fatuous to attempt to synopsise this latest Mission: Impossible effort because it basically boils down to various parties including Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his allies chasing after a key which most of them don’t know what it opens. I tell a lie, actually two halves of a key (this sounds a lot like the ancient artefact in this year’s Indiana Jones movie, which I’m sure is pure coincidence) each one of which can be used to verify that the other is the genuine article and not a fake. This MacGuffin, the thing all the characters want and which propels them through the story, in turn provides producer and star Tom Cruise, director Christopher McQuarrie and their collaborators with the excuse for a series of exhilarating, bravura set-pieces.
There’s also the visual pleasure of this franchise’s usual amount of people wearing photorealistic masks to disguise themselves as other people, and later ripping off (or having others rip off) their fake faces to reveal their real ones. One clever twist to this is a showstopping scene in a railway carriage compartment in which the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) is confronted with someone else wearing her face (again Vanessa Kirby) for a brief fight.
A further innovation to the franchise comes in the form of the character of Grace (Hayley Atwell), a gifted pickpocket who acquires the key and immediately finds herself out of her depth. Given that the MacGuffin here is a key you can hold between thumb and forefinger, the presence of a pickpocket is a very clever move on the part of the filmmakers to ensure that the object frequently changes hands to keep the plot moving along at a frenetic pace.
The first set piece, which arguably has more substance in terms of plot (as opposed to being impressive as a sequence or a stunt in its own right) than anything else here, features a Russian stealth submarine called the Sevastopol which is sailing under the ice of the Bering Sea when it detects an enemy ship firing a torpedo towards it and retaliates in self-defence, only for the readings of the enemy sub to vanish off the digital radar. As if it were never there. As is later explained, an AI possessing the ability to invade and corrupt any and all digital networks has gone rogue, a plot device at once so obvious and so brilliant that it’s extraordinary that no-one has used it before. Or perhaps they have and I missed it. The aforementioned key appears to have something to do with this submarine, but what exactly it does is unclear at this point in the first half of the story.
After that bravura opening, this moves from one amazing action sequence to the next, including Ethan’s attempt to save series regular Isla (Rebecca Ferguson), in possession of one half of the key, from being gunned down by bounty hunters as she hides out in the Abu Dhabi desert, various characters following and / or avoiding one another in an international airport, a car chase through Rome, another chase – this time on foot and involving a lot of running – through Venice, multiple motorcycle attempts to board a runaway train that fails to slow down as per usual schedule, intrigue and fight scenes aboard the same train as it heads towards a bridge on which explosives are about to be detonated.
The film’s signature stunt sequence is one of those motorcycle rider attempts to board the train. With tech wizard and series regular Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) watching in real time on his computer the positions of both the train and Ethan on his bike planning to board it, the latter must quite literally drive his motorbike off a cliff, free fall and finally paraglide down to the train. Cruise planned and rehearsed the stunt for a year, and can be seen on the screen driving his bike off the cliff and dropping about 4 000 feet before his parachute opens, all in one shot. (He shot eight takes!)
The problem is that because this is a megabudget Hollywood movie and in most such movies, such seemingly impossible stunts are mostly put together on the screen using CG, if as a viewer you don’t know something to have been performed before the cameras for real, you automatically assume that it wasn’t. And, indeed, parts of this particular stunt aren’t what you see on the screen in that the real Cruise is riding a real bike along a ramp – that has been replaced with a mountain ridge via CG trickery – into thin air for real and dropping 4 000 feet for real before opening his chute for real.
Once you know that the actual ride and free fall is real, it takes on a whole other impact. For myself, it means I want to go back and see the film again. (It also means that in the film as a whole, I want to know exactly what was shot before the cameras and what was augmented one way or another by CGI. There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with the latter, but it’s a completely different viewing pleasure. And if a stunt, or elements of it, were filmed for real, I’ll get far more out of it as a viewer for knowing which parts of what was shot were for real and which were not.)
It’s fascinating to compare the film with some of the classic Hong Kong action movies of the 1980s and 1990s, where generally there was no CGI work to potentially get in the way of the viewer seeing the stunts. When you see Jackie Chan dangling off a helicopter rope ladder towards the end of Police Story 3 Supercop (Stanley Tong, 1992), you know what you’re seeing is real.
However, with the Mission: Impossible films, where producer / star Cruise prides himself on doing his own stunts wherever possible, it’s not always so easy to see what is real and what involves a degree of CG trickery. Which is a shame, meaning as it does that the art of performing a death-defying stunt then capturing it with a moving picture camera and the art of creating a cinematic illusion potentially conflict with each other to undermine the remarkable achievement of the actor planning and performing their own stunts, as Cruise does.
It should be added that this seventh Tom Cruise / Mission: Impossible film is the third successive entry to be directed and written (or co-written), and the second to be co-produced, by Christopher McQuarrie, who appears the perfect director for the franchise being completely in sync with what it and Cruise are about (adventure, excitement and incredible – and where possible done for real – stunts).
In addition, the level of the acting performances is generally high: no review of the film would be complete without a mention of Esai Morales who is terrific as a villain, just as he impressed as an FBI witness protection minder in Master Gardener (Paul Schrader, 2023), Pom Klementieff (Mantis from the Guardians Of The Galaxy films) as a maniacal Russian killer, and the ever-watchable Ving Rhames (as Ethan Hunt’s colleague Luther Stickell), the only actor other than Tom Cruise to have appeared in all six previous Mission: Impossible films.
All this, plus Lalo Schifrin’s inimitable Mission: Impossible theme, skilfully woven into the score by Lorne Balfe.
Lastly, hats off to anyone who had any role in putting the words ‘Part One’ at the end of the title here, thereby ensuring audiences know where they are when the film ends par-way through the story, rather than it being an unexpected and unwanted surprise.
If Dead Reckoning Part One has any shortcoming, it’s that, like the other Mission: Impossible movies, they are ultimately little more than excuses for a string of action set-pieces and bravura stunts, and cinema is capable of so much more. That said, if what you’re after is thrills, action and incredible stunts, this is as good a place to find them as any.
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning – Part One is out in cinemas in the UK on Monday, July 10th.
Featurette – bike jump: