It was the night of March 11, 2020, and I was sitting shotgun in a rental van through rural Louisiana, returning to New Orleans after visiting my future brother-in-law’s family outside of Raceland. We were in the area for his wedding to my younger sister. Our entire extended family was there to celebrate. We knew COVID-19 was a “thing” and, to some extent, we knew we were on borrowed time with each day that passed. We watched NOLA slowly morph into a ghost town, with CDC warnings everywhere. That was the day the World Health Organization declared a pandemic; the day Donald Trump attempted to assuage public fears by downplaying the severity of the situation; the day the stock market started to crater. It was also our eldest son’s first birthday.

So we spent his second year more or less distanced from most of the rest of the world, as did so many others. It didn’t seem to have any lasting impact on him, but it definitely did on me, especially as we approach the first birthday of our second child. I think about it every day. I think about it when I see my family raise their children, passing through that second year without constant COVID anxiety, experiencing things “outside” with those children in ways I did not with our first. Even as the memory of what we went through in 2020 fades amid the march of time, I can’t shake it. We’ve moved on, but it lingers.

To my surprise, Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning, Part One is, above all else, a stark reminder of everything we went through. Not by design. COVID is hardly the text of the piece, which is just another “rogue AI MacGuffin” spy movie plot like those we’ve seen for the past decade with elements remixed from previous Mission movies. Neither is it the subtext of the film, which is sorely lacking compared to Mission: Impossible – Fallout or Top Gun: Maverick, both of which ran hall-of-fame “older professional deals with the consequences of his choices as he enters the back half of his life” stories that make Dead Reckoning‘s iteration feel muddled and confused.

What gave me flashbacks, and filled me with no small amount of sorrow, was how Dead Reckoning feels like the product of pieces filmed under the most impossible circumstances imaginable, held together by the sheer determination of a creative team desperate to push back against forces that threatened their creative industry. It’s the end result of certainly admirable bravado — the refusal of producer / star Tom Cruise, director / co-writer Christopher McQuarrie and company to take the pandemic lying down, and to do their damndest to produce a film that feels up to the standards they set with the last handful of films. It gave me flashbacks to the darker parts of the last few years.

I felt for them behind the scenes, but I didn’t feel for the characters on the screen. Dead Reckoning is a story with seams barely sewn, loose in all the places it needed to be taut and flabby in a way uncharacteristic of its crew. As the fascinating result of the last few years in the film industry, it’s an achievement and an artifact. As an entry in the Mission saga, it’s certainly the least of them since Mission: Impossible III, an often perplexing remix of better movies and stunts with little to set it apart from the stories that came before.

This time around, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is thrown into a mission involving two halves of a key that will allow him to destroy an artificial intelligence known as the Entity before it falls into the wrong hands — which is to say anyone else’s hands but his own. McQuarrie and co-writer Erik Jendresen dispose of the notion that our hero could be anything but a rogue agent — again — quite quickly. It’s Hunt and his friends against the world for the literal key to the digital apocalypse, and his only lead is a prodigious thief named Grace (Hayley Atwell).

McQuarrie has made a name for himself in action circles for being upfront about the nature of building a film as big and complex as an installment of Mission: Impossible; I recommend hunting down McQuarrie’s appearances on epic-length Empire podcasts about Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation and Fallout. One of his greatest admissions is how these films essentially come together on the fly. Not the big stunts, mind you; those are planned within an inch of their life. Everything around those moments, however, is built day to day as he works with his casts and cuts together the picture while shooting it. Entire character motivations change based on the particulars of an actor’s choices. Backstories are fluid up until the final edit is due. In McQuarrie’s first two directorial efforts, this resulted in better stories and films that had a specific emotional weight underpinning Tom Cruise doing dangerous shit to entertain the world. That same methodology never comes together in Dead Reckoning.

In some instances, it’s clear McQuarrie was working around COVID-19 protocols that prevented performers from sharing a physical space; almost every interpersonal interaction is filmed in closeups, often edited between different angles (and perhaps different takes) on a face line by line. Shot-reverse shot, the bread and butter of onscreen character interaction, is thrown out the window. Maybe it’s overly forgiving to presume this was due to pandemic-era protocols, but it seems like the result of trying to make what was filmed post-pandemic fit with the material they were forced to film under duress.

Regardless of the why, it just doesn’t work. It feels edited by an AI itself, one instructed to find the most emotive expressions across hours of dailies and splice together each actor’s best readings of individual sentences, throwing continuity out the window. It’s off-putting in the extreme.

Perhaps that feels like a nitpick, but the rest of Dead Reckoning feels equally designed by an intelligence that only understands remixing rather than creation. The major stunts are all replays of previous scenarios, now devoid of compelling connective tissue to make them sing. Actions just sort of happen, unmotivated by circumstance or character. Cruise’s marquee stunt is riding a motorbike off a cliff and parachuting down to a runaway train. There are great shots, but the setup of the stunt and its resolution lack weight. Nothing in this film is as simple as the moment in Fallout where Ethan sees his foe leaving on a helicopter and decides in a split second to climb the payload of a second helicopter to pursue his objective.

That lack of elegance deeply hurts Dead Reckoning, and the way it continuously calls back to McQuarrie and Cruise’s superior collaborations makes it difficult to assess on its own terms apart from them. The story never locks in on what it wants to be about beyond dirty reflections of Fallout. Forgive me the reference, but it’s like Nine Inch Nails releasing the seminal Broken and later Fixed, a mundane remix album relegated in time to a piece of trivia in its predecessor’s shadow. Every villain, every motivation, every thematic moment in the newest mission is at best a pale imitation and, in one case, a frustrating step backward in the franchise’s depiction of Hunt’s relationships with the women he cares for — an issue gracefully resolved five years ago in Fallout.

Equally inelegant are the action setpieces. In one of his interviews about Fallout, McQuarrie said working on that film disabused him of his traditionalist aversion to mixed-media cinematography. In layman’s terms, he realized he could use GoPros and other types of cameras to capture action sequences rather than steadfastly relying on traditional equipment and setups. I wish he’d stuck with his original instincts; in all but a few small moments, the chase sequences look deeply inferior to prior films and, in their worst shots, totally generic. Throwing Cruise on a motorcycle on dangerous streets is usually the precursor to a good time, but the illusion is lost when you’re clearly looking up at him from the perspective of a camera rig.

Much has been made about the Entity somehow representing Cruise’s quest to keep the cinematic experience analog by way of spectacular stuntwork, but that’s just nowhere in the film’s DNA. It’s a plot device, much like every other major franchise has used artificial intelligence over the last decade. Honestly, Furious 7 did this almost a decade ago and more coherently. Hunt and his team still rely on the support of digital technology — even after they know the Entity has invaded everything, even after the film establishes their CIA pursuers have gone fully analog in response, even after their own mission is messed up when the Entity intervenes. There’s an incredible version of this story where the setup requires tech experts Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) to guide Ethan through old-school technology and wits alone, but it just never develops. Laptops, earpieces and GPS technology are used to the dire end.

Despite its flaws, it’s difficult not to give Dead Reckoning a pass, given the knowledge of its behind-the scenes turmoil. To some extent, that stretch of time broke everybody alive in that moment, and that this film was even finished feels a little bit like a miracle. It’s not totally without merit, especially Atwell’s Grace, whose eventual relationship with Hunt is an intriguing new dynamic even as it takes too long to truly formulate. In a franchise that has had an unbroken run of six (mostly) stellar films, it was bound to happen that one chapter would feel like a letdown — and as a Part One, perhaps the next movie will actually dive deeper into numerous underdeveloped elements introduced here, particularly the backstory of the treacherous Gabriel (Esai Morales), who is never allowed to be anything but enigmatic and threatening.

For a franchise that has been so strong, though, I wish Dead Reckoning worked for me without needing to activate the empathy borne from my daily refrain of “Wow, we made it through that. We’ve really come so far since then.” I know I’m a minority voice on the film and am glad it seems to be working for so many others — but I just don’t see it, on pretty much any level. I’m sorry we all experienced those years together and I hope Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning, Part Two — whenever it may arrive — feels different enough to represent a detachment from the dire necessities that rendered this the least compelling Mission in nearly two decades.

Special Features

The 4K UHD Blu-ray release includes a commentary track with McQuarrie & editor Eddie Hamilton. As can be expected from McQuarrie, the commentary is bluntly honest about the challenges and triumphs behind making such a massive, expensive film. 

It also includes an isolated score track, presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. For fans of composer Lorne Balfe, this is an exquisite way to enjoy his work and the way it enhances the film.

Other special features included on both the 4K and Blu-ray editions include a slew of short featurettes about the making of the film. These include look at the Abu Dhabi, Rome, Venice, train, speed-flying and motorcycle-jump sequences. Each feature is presented in 1080p.