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Review: 'Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One'
The short, spoiler-free version of this review is that director/co-writer Christopher McQuarrie's Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One is not as good as the filmmaker's Mission: Impossible - Fallout or even Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, but it is still really damn good and a whole lotta fun and yes you should definitely pay to go see it on the biggest screen you can find with the most packed house imaginable. Watching star/producer Tom Cruise ride a motorcycle over the side of a cliff is worth the price of admission alone, and several other action sequences are almost like superior reiterations of one from past Missions (a fight atop a train, combat in the middle of a sandstorm, etc.).
If you don't wanna know anything else about the movie, stop reading now, 'cause I'm gonna spoil a ton of shit.
This movie was always facing an uphill battle. The bar was set very, very high - not just by Fallout and Rogue Nation, but also from producer/star Tom Cruise's Top Gun: Maverick (on which McQuarrie, not incidentally, was also a writer and producer). Which obviously is not a Mission: Impossible movie, except in the eyes of the public, it might as well be. ALL Tom Cruise movies are now ostensibly some version of Tom Cruise: The Movie - it's the reason he's one of the last, if not the last, real movie stars. That's just the reality of the context in which the film is being released, and there's not much the creative team could ever have done about it.
Having said that, they may have gotten a little overambitious here.
For one thing, the Mission: Impossible ensemble, not unlike the Fast and Furious ensemble, has been steadily growing for decades now, and there are now an overwhelming number of supporting characters . There's Ethan's recurring allies, Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), Luther (Ving Rhames), and Benji (Simon Pegg)... PLUS The White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) from Fallout... PLUS Ethan's original celebrity IMF boss' boss, Kittridge (Henry Czerny)... PLUS Kittridge's new celebrity IMF boss' boss, Cary Elwes... PLUS the latest addition to Ethan's team, Grace (Hayley Atwell)... PLUS the new heavy, Gabriel (Esai Morales), and his theatrical sidekick, Paris (Pom Klementieff)... PLUS a pair of government operative dudes who are after Ethan (Greg Tarzan Davis and American goddamn treasure Shea Whigham), because Ethan of course has to go rogue yet AGAIN (but at least they lampshade it this time). McQuarrie valiantly tries to service everyone, but some of the characters, naturally, get the short shrift.
Atwell and Klementieff are the ones best-served - they each get a little arc, at least. And Klementieff, as demonstrated by her role in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, is very talented at expressing her character through physicality and mood in the event she's not given anything more substantial (I suspect she would have been a terrific silent film performer).
Benji and Luther each get a superficial moment in the spotlight - Benji during a tense sequence where he's trying to diffuse a bomb, and Luther during a speech warning Ethan against killing Gabriel. But the characters are redundant (as demonstrated by their rivalry over who's going to do a thing fastest), and eventually Luther more or less literally turns to Ethan and says "They have nothing for me to do now so I'm gonna fuck off until Dead Reckoning Part 2."
The White Widow is a plot point, not a character, and my suspicion is she's mostly included here because Kirby has become much more famous since Fallout's release. Elwes, similarly, is here to receive some expository information, deliver some different expository information, and die. I guess Davis kind of has an arc, too, but it doesn't really amount to much. The more I think about it, the more I feel unsure of why he and Whigham's characters need to be in the movie. Perhaps Whigham and Czerny's roles could have been amalgamated?
I found Morales considerably more unsettling on Ozark. There's ways in which they might have beefed up his character that would have been time better spent than listening in on Whigham and Davis (more on that in a moment). Also, it's a small detail, but: Morales and Cruise are only a few months apart in age, but Morales looks like a dude in his late 50s/early 60s, where Cruise has clearly made some deal with Lucifer to remain youthful forever. So it makes Morales seem like a slightly less intimidating physical threat, as opposed to, say, Walker from Fallout, who was played by Henry Cavill, a dude six inches taller and twenty-one years younger than Cruise.
But Ferguson is the one who really gets done dirty.
I understand why Ilsa gets killed off. They're raising the personal stakes for Ethan heading into the big finale, and they're attempting to elevate Gabriel to ETHAN'S GREATEST ENEMY status, and having him murder a very capable Bad Motherfucker the audience loves makes him seem both particularly dangerous and particularly worthy of our hate. And there's definitely an argument to be made that, from an emotional standpoint, Ilsa's demise will affect Ethan more than, say, if Gabriel killed Benji or Luther. Sure, those guys have been around, and yeah, there really is no reason for there to be two dudes who both specialize in the same stuff, but Ilsa and Ethan have had a romantic relationship, and in dramatic terms, love interests take precedence over sidekicks. So auf wiedersehen, Ilsa.
Still, fridging the best female character you've ever had and not one of two nearly-identical characters is not the best look. And, hey, I dunno what went on behind-the-scenes - maybe Ferguson wanted out regardless! It just seems like there are other characters that were conceivably more worth offing. Hell, they could have brought back Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and murdered him.
(Also, this is a minor quibble, but Atwell and Ferguson are both British brunettes. Swapping in one for the other was a wonky decision.)
The other issue I have with the movie is the whole Ethan/Gabriel backstory (the screenplay is credited to McQuarrie and Erik Jendresen). We learn that Ethan was once a criminal who was given the choice between jail and joining the IMF, and he chose the IMF. Luther and Benji, we come to find out, also joined the IMF under similar circumstances, and Grace is given the same choice, so I guess all IMF agents are former criminals? Which certainly makes it less surprising how many of them turn out to be bad guys. More importantly, though, it means Ethan isn't a guy who's been risking his life to do the right thing all these years. He's not a hero just for the sake of being a hero - he's a hero motivated by past trauma. We have a LOT of those bouncing around in pop culture right now; people who are motivated by a strong set of ethics just because they're, y'know, ethics, are far rarer. I think I preferred seeing Ethan as a Captain America-type, and not a Batman-type. I get that giving him a checkered past in theory lends him pathos, except not really, because we don't even learn much about what crimes he committed prior to being told he could be a spy or spend the rest of his life in prison.
Which brings me to the second problem with this backstory: It's not filled out enough. We learn that Gabriel killed a young woman of some import to Ethan and that said murder was the inciting incident which lead to Ethan's current profession. But we never learn the woman's name or who she was to Ethan, and we never learn anything especially specific about Gabriel, like, say, his motivation beyond just being the meat puppet of a rogue A.I. program. I assume a lot of these questions will be answered in Dead Reckoning Part 2, but I think it was a mistake not to include those answers here. If you look at some other very successful adventure movies that were split into two parts, like Back to the Futures 2 and 3, or Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, yeah, they end on a cliffhanger, and there are questions to be answered... but those questions have nothing to do with basic dramatic tenets like motivation. We don't spend time in Back to the Future Part 3 learning why the McFly and Tannen families hate each other so much - we already have those details. By the time Endgame starts, we understand Thanos' motivation and his most important personal relationship (that being the one with Gamora, the daughter he adopted and ultimately has to murder). I think part of the reason Gabriel doesn't seem as scary as Walker is because we don't really learn much about him beyond the superficial. Maybe I'm wrong - maybe when Dead Reckoning 2 comes out, it will be completely clear why McQuarrie chose to do things this way - but for now, my gut feeling is that a more fleshed-out Gabriel would have been a way-cooler Gabriel.
I know it sounds like I'm coming down on the movie. But these are actually academic nitpicks. We hold McQuarrie and Cruise to such a high standard is because they've delivered in the past. If they've slightly under-delivered, well, they've earned that right, haven't they?