In the 27 years since Brian De Palma launched the Mission: Impossible franchise, secret agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has booked thousands of air miles flying around the globe looking for trouble. He's touched down and done damage in places like Shanghai, Casablanca, Paris, Moscow, and Prague. And he's rained down displeasure on international annoyances ranging from rogue agents and stolen plutonium to sadistic Russians and explosive chewing gum.
Now, in Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One, Hunt is back in a big way (this is another $300-million movie, like Indiana Jones and the Disk of Destiny) and he's busier than ever.
The McGuffin this time out is extra silly (as if that mattered). It's a sinister artificial intelligence (A.I.) that's grown sentient, made contact with other digital machinery, and is now preparing to, you know, take over the world. Or destroy it, or something. Clearly a job for Ethan Hunt.
This is a pretty great action movie. Returning director Christopher McQuarrie is a genre virtuoso, and Cruise, who turned 61 this week, still seems entirely at ease sailing a motorcycle over the edge of a cliff or banging a car down Rome's Spanish Steps. And when the sun lights up his green eyes and bathes his flawless face, he might pass as an emissary from a species rather different from our own.
However, as relentless and beautifully edited as the action sequences in Dead Reckoning are, it's a movie that has very little interest in anything but action. In that regard, it loosely resembles the John Wick movies—although those films, directed by stunt master Chad Stahelski, have more atmosphere and are more concerned with building Wick's dark, rainy world. What would Ethan Hunt's world look like? (Does he have a puppy?) The Wick films also pay more meticulous attention to their action—every leap and leg sweep seems carefully worked out. In addition, all four Wick movies are rated "R." The Mission: Impossible films are PG-13.
In any case, it's good to see Ethan Hunt and his team back on the beat. Tech guys Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) are here, along with deadeye MI6 vet Ilsa Faust (the excellent Rebecca Ferguson). And there's one newcomer: an adventurer of ambiguous loyalties named Grace (Hayley Atwell—Peggy Carter in the Avengers movies). Atwell is a big plus in this picture, radiating strength and intelligence and keeping up with the Cruise charisma in every scene. (The sequence in which she and the star awkwardly clatter around Rome while handcuffed together in a tiny Fiat is wonderfully funny—as disaster impends on every side, they carp and bicker like an old married couple.)
But the story here is so perfunctory—a self-aware artificial intelligence, you say?—that the affably goofy lines employed to describe the evil A.I. (it's called The Entity) might have written themselves on a slow afternoon. "An enemy that's everywhere, and nowhere," says Ethan's handler, Denlinger (Cary Elwes). "Whoever controls The Entity," says Ethan, "controls the truth." (What?) I'm also partial to Denlinger's description of his old pal as "the incarnation of chaos." (Is there anyone more resolutely in control of himself than Tom Cruise?)
Arrayed against Ethan and his team are a silky terrorist named Gabriel (Esai Morales), who has a memorably well-shot knife fight on a little bridge in Venice, and a steely blonde assassin called Paris (Pom Klementieff), who retires some bad guys on the Orient Express (atop which there's yet another fistfight that's briefly interrupted when the train passes through a tunnel and the combatants have to duck). This sort of scene should be banished from movies for a good long while, along with all future instances of "Sympathy for the Devil" on soundtracks.