By Alex McPherson

Featuring incredible stunts, timely themes, and an engaging, though imperfect balance between goofiness and sincerity, director Christopher McQuarrie’s “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1” is a reliably fun action-espionage blockbuster, if occasionally weighed down by inelegant plotting.

“Dead Reckoning,” the seventh installment in the “Mission” series, follows rebellious daredevil Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his loyal, idiosyncratic Impossible Mission Force comrades Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and love interest Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), as they embark on yet another death-defying mission to save humanity from itself.

They’re after two halves of a key that could allow them to destroy a rogue artificial-intelligence algorithm generically called “The Entity,” which has the power to upend civilization as we know it. Any and all global powers (including the CIA, led by Henry Czerny’s Eugene Kittridge, previously featured in the first “Mission” film) want to harness it for their own militaristic ends.

Despite its eye-rolling name, The Entity is an eerily prescient antagonist for Ethan and company to square off against — essentially the ultimate spy, able to infiltrate our always-online existence to control the nature of truth itself, plus, most likely, all the world’s weapons. Nowhere is safe from the Entity’s grasp.

The team’s plans are complicated with the unexpected arrival of courageous thief Grace (Hayley Atwell), walking a thin tightrope between friend and foe, who must eventually join sides with Ethan, along with the Entity’s human envoy, Gabriel (Esai Morales), a villainous ghost from Ethan’s past that contributed to him joining the Impossible Missions Force in the first place.

Also joining the fray is the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby, both seductive and goofy) from “Fallout,” and two frustrated U.S. agents always one step behind (Shea Whigham and Greg Tarzan Davis), who might or might not eventually shift their morals.

As the team embarks on a globe-trotting adventure in locales such as Rome and Norway, everyone is put to the test, and Ethan must reckon with saving those he loves over succeeding in his goals, all the while dealing with an unpredictable adversary that can seemingly predict his every move and turn his own gadgets against him. It can’t quite account for human ingenuity, or Ethan’s/Cruise’s unwavering commitment to putting themselves at risk for viewers’ entertainment.

Indeed, “Dead Reckoning” is, at times, a glorious spectacle — the practical stunt work on display puts the recent “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” to shame. With McQuarrie’s energetic direction and solid performances across the board, from Cruise especially, the latest “Mission” film delivers on the action front, though the twisty narrative lacks the visceral punch of the thunderously memorable set pieces.

And lordy, are those sequences invigorating to behold — filmed with a clarity by cinematographer Fraser Taggart that lets all the practical stunt work shine; largely eschewing CGI to forefront athleticism, which lends a (relatively speaking) grounded feel to the proceedings.

Lorne Balfe’s blaring score adds additional oomph. The much-publicized motorcycle-to-base-jump off the steep Norwegian mountainside is suitably spectacular, but a frantic chase through Rome — with Ethan and Grace handcuffed to each other driving a Fiat while being pursued by authorities and a sadistic killer named Paris (a scene-stealing Pom Klementieff) — is possibly the standout set-piece: full of bombastic slapstick comedy and split-second decision making that feels dangerous and thrilling. 

And the train showdown, holy moly, does not disappoint in the slightest, featuring edge-of-your-seat filmmaking that consistently ups the ante moment-to-moment as gravity begs to differ. Add to that a considerable helping of bone-crunching hand-to-hand combat (one brawl taking place in a narrow alley), and all the gratuitous running from Cruise we’ve come to expect, “Dead Reckoning” is worth watching for these scenes alone, bolstered by the cast’s commitment to this self-aware, somewhat messy tech-paranoia plot.

Hayley Atwell, Tom Cruise

Cruise continues to shine as Hunt, an ”agent of chaos” (as one character calls him) who’s willing to throw himself into danger for the greater good, but being forced to make impossible decisions to protect his friends and loved ones. Cruise’s portrayal lacks the emotional weight of his efforts in last year’s “Top Gun: Maverick,” but he still excels, nimbly navigating the film’s ludicrous plot developments and comedic relief with comforting self-awareness.

Pegg and Rhames provide equal parts comedic relief and pathos (grappling with the Entity’s manipulation of their advanced technology, such as the Entity impersonating their voices), while feeling underused and relegated to the background for most of the runtime. Ferguson is badass as always, as is Atwell, who lends spunk to her character of Grace and has palpable chemistry with Cruise. Grace takes on a pretty standard backstory/arc, yet is always fun to watch thanks to Atwell’s energy and inherent likability.

Morales is solid but unmemorable as the Entity’s henchman (even though McQuarrie tries his darndest to make us care from some rushed flashback revelations), and Klementieff deserves more screen time as a scarily ruthless assassin. The ensemble is always enjoyable — fully committed to the screenplay’s occasionally screwball rhythms — when all we’re really waiting for is the next harrowing spectacle to unfold. 

“Dead Reckoning” isn’t an all-out action film, however, and McQuarrie’s just as focused on the espionage narrative, which can’t live up in comparison, and lacks the creativity of the set pieces. The Entity is certainly a timely antagonist, but it remains difficult to care about much in the “Mission” universe because of the screenplay’s need to over-explain and “tell rather than show” regarding its capabilities, barring a couple memorable situations.

Although the film’s exposition-dumping approach is a staple of the genre, it lacks much emotional impact; the frequent flashbacks similarly try (and only half-heartedly succeed) to churn up investment, and the film’s constant forward momentum leaves little time for reflection, or opportunities to meaningfully dig into the psyches of its characters — even with a nearly three-hour runtime. 

To the screenplay’s credit, in a meta-textual sense, Cruise has also been a fierce defender of the cinematic experience, so Hunt’s battle against an evil algorithm could extend to Cruise’s own defense of practical stunts, the “theater experience,” and the increasingly bloated streaming ecosystem. Looking at “Dead Reckoning” from this angle makes the labyrinthine plot a touch more meaningful.

Despite these shortcomings, what really stands out about “Dead Reckoning” is the chutzpah of its creators. By the end of its runtime, it leaves an indelible impression as an achievement in action filmmaking. Regardless of storytelling stumbles, this is a must-watch on the biggest screen you can find — let’s just hope “Part 2” can deliver more on the character front.

This image released by Paramount Pictures shows Simon Pegg, from left, Ving Rhames, Tom Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson in “Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning – Part One.” (Christian Black/Paramount Pictures and Skydance via AP)

“Mission Impossible Dead Reckoning Part I” is a 2023 action-adventure directed by Christopher McQuarrie and starring Tom Cruise, Haley Atwell, Esai Morales, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Cary Elwes, Henry Czerny. It is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some language and suggestive material .and runs 2 hours and 43 minutes. It opens in theaters on July 12. Alex’s Grade: B+.

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