“MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – DEAD RECKONING PART ONE”
Starring Tom Cruise, Hayley Atwell, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Vanessa Kirby, Esai Morales, Pom Klementieff, Mariela Garriga, Henry Czerny, Shea Whigham, Greg Tarzan Davis, Charles Parnell, Frederick Schmidt, Cary Elwes, Mark Gatiss, Indira Varma, Rob Delaney
Written by Christopher McQuarrie and Erik Jendresen
Based on characters and the original television series “Mission: Impossible” created by Bruce Geller
Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
Produced by Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie
Executive producers: David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger, Tommy Gormley, Chris Brock, Susan E. Novick
Cinematography by Fraser Taggart
Edited by Eddie Hamilton
Music by Lorne Balfe
Original “Mission: Impossible” theme music by Lalo Schifrin

By Matt Neufeld
July 13, 2023

This seems to be as good a time as any to stop and reflect a bit on a bit of the history and background of “Mission: Impossible,” as 2023 marks fifty-seven years since the consistently brilliant and continually high-quality, high-class and successful television show of the same name debuted on CBS, and as 2023 also marks twenty-seven years since the film series of the same name debuted. Oh, and yes, by the way, 2023 also marks the release of the seventh–that’s seventh–and latest film in that series, the surprisingly good, solid, action-packed, intriguing and entertaining “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One.”

“Reckoning” is surprisingly good and entertaining because this movie, like several other movies released in the summer of 2023, succeeds in spite of itself. The story, plot, characters, locations, stunts, action scenes and even some of the dialogue in “Reckoning” are all familiar, at times overly-familiar, unoriginal, uninventive, trite and cliched–but thanks to a decidedly A-list crew and cast who are all working overtime to produce a genuinely exciting, suspenseful and entertaining movie, it all somehow succeeds. And, yes, it may be said: This film is indeed recommended, so go out and see it up in the big screen, in a real movie theater, where the film deserves to be seen, sit back and just have some good old-fashioned big-budget summer popcorn blockbuster tentpole good ol’ times at the movies.

But we’ll get back to the movie, right after this stroll down Mission: Impossible Memory Lane.

It was the early 1960s, and the real world and the entertainment world were awash–drowning, really–in everything spy-related. In reality-world, politicians, governments, intelligence agencies and agents, the military-industrial complex, the scientific community, shady rogue operatives, hired guns, assassins and even some money-hungry businessmen were playing ridiculous spy games, falling all over themselves, lying to everyone, wasting money, breaking laws, endangering innocent people and even getting many people killed all in the name of what was, in essence on a grander intellectual level, a moronic and wasteful series of cat-and-mouse games of intrigue conducted under the guise and disguises of what was dumbly dubbed “the cold war.”

Although diehard but delusional supporters of these idiocies defended these spy games as needed, essential maneuvers in the dark in the name of national security, the protection of democracy and the fight against communism, it didn’t take long for most people–even those in the field who were playing the games–to see through the thin veneer of most of these operations and missions, and see the real lies, the deceit, the illegal and unauthorized actions, the unauthorized and illegal payoffs and the illegal murders and assassinations, all of which came into the public spotlight very soon.
Pressure from politicians, governments and the public increased, and soon politicians started cracking down, and laws started getting passed to chip away at the cold war’s more devious, slimy and illegal operations.

Of course, a certain degree of spying, field work, asset and information collection, reconnaissance, surveillance and risky spycraft operations are always necessary, for any country, and spying continues around the globe. Of course it does. In 2023, the United States has eighteen–count ’em, eighteen–intelligence agencies that make up what is referred to as the federal government’s Intelligence Community, according to the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence. That’s eighteen intelligence agencies.

So, back in those crazy cold war spy-crazy days of the ’60s, as the real world became consumed with everything spy-related, the entertainment world dutifully–and entertainingly and enjoyably–followed along. Suddenly, spy stuff was literally everywhere in pop culture–movies, television shows, books, songs, games, toys, comics, magazines, memorabilia, fashion, and much more.

Leading the crowded pack were the James Bond movies and a James Bond television show. There was also: “The Prisoner.” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” “I Spy.” The “Flint” movies. The Matt Helm movies. “The Wild, Wild West.” “The Avengers.” “Honey West.” “Get Smart.” “The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.” “The Saint.” “Spy vs. Spy.” “Secret Agent Man.” “Cool McCool.” “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends.” And much more.many mmu

Amid all of this, in Hollywood at that time there was a talented, very smart, rising, ambitious and hard-working entertainment wunderkind named Bruce Geller. By the time that the mid-sixties rolled around, he had already written lyrics and/or books for two musicals and he had written scripts for several of the top television shows of the time. Inspired by several previous entertainment and literary sources and by the enveloping worldwide spy craze and craziness, the young Geller developed an idea for a riveting, classy, smart, intriguing, suspenseful, topical, political (in general terms, not so much ideological terms), fun, entertaining and, yes, spycraft-centered and spycraft-oriented television series. CBS executives at the times, being no fools, jumped, bit and hit the green light.

And, in 1966, “Mission: Impossible,” the original television series, debuted.

With Geller at the helm and supported by an exceptionally talented team of producers, directors, writers and actors and crew members–including state-of-the-art special effects, props and make-up artists–the series started at an exceptionally high level–and subsequently maintained that same high level through 171 episodes during seven years, finally ending in 1973. During those seven seasons that the show aired, it’s not a stretch or an exaggeration to say that “Mission: Impossible” was simply one of the best shows on television at that time.

The show cleverly riffed on and played off of and even commented on not only the spy craze, the cold war and their attendant political, cultural and social implications and ramifications, but the general state of a rapidly changing world. The show’s cast and crew were all smart enough to produce a show that was very much of its time–but they also produced a show that remained an evolving, engaged show that was also, in a way, ahead of its time. The show was popularly, culturally, socially and critically loved by millions of people straight through the final wrap for the final episode.

Although the production and technical and writing crews deserve credit for the show’s success, another reason for the success was the public face of the show: the exceptional, revolving, talented cast of actors who played the smart, stylish, classy, talented and debonair characters who made up the show’s fictional U.S. Impossible Mission Force, or IMF, a type of CIA-style spy agency. Among the A-list actors who appeared in lead roles on the show during it’s seven-year run were Peter Graves, Steven Hill, Martin Landau, Greg Morris, Peter Lupus, Barbara Bain, Leonard Nimoy, Lee Meriwether, Lesley Ann Warren, Lynda Day George, Barbara Anderson and Sam Elliott.

And, yes, the great Leonard Nimoy had the deserved distinction of acting in a lead role in two shows that are simply among the best ever in television history, “Mission: Impossible” and Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek.” And, yes, Geller also happened to have produced and guided another classy, stylish, smart and excellent show, “Mannix,” a detective show that ran for 194 episodes during eight seasons on CBS, from 1967 to 1975.

Jump start this story to 1996, when Tom Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner released “Mission: Impossible,” directed by none other than Brian De Palma and with three of Hollywood’s best screenwriters contributing to the story, David Koepp, Robert Towne and Steve Zaillian. The film was a huge hit. Five sequels would be released through the years, with a revolving array of producers, directors, writers and actors, but with Cruise remaining in the lead role as IMF spy Ethan Hunt and as the lead producer.

And now, in 2023, here we are, still surprisingly and quite amazingly, twenty-seven years later after that first film in the series and with that seventh film in the series, “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One,” released nationwide. It’s all still surprising, overall, because one particular nagging aspect of the “MI” film series still remains as true today as it did in 1996: The film series, through seven big-budget blockbuster movies, has simply never been as good as Bruce Geller’s seven-season television show.

And Cruise and company did something ridiculous and unforgivable in that first film: They made longtime IMF leader Jim Phelps a traitorous mole and, horrendously, killed him off. This was, and still is, inexcusable–and this made absolutely no narrative or filmic sense. Jim Phelps was, and is, for most fans, the center, core and foundation of the MI and IMF world. Additionally, even through seven films and the support of a range of talented supporting actors, the MI movies have never–even in the entertaining new “Reckoning” movie–been able to capture the same chemistry, style, class and eloquent allure, sexiness, attractiveness and presence of that original television show’s cast of actors. The point here needs repeating, just so it’s clear: Despite all of the success, endurance, profits, audience turnout and longevity of the MI film series, the movies just quite simply have never been as good as the television show.

That said, twice, however: yes, it’s still worth noting that “Reckoning” works, and it’s one big entertaining spectacle of action, adventure, intrigue, stunts, fights, chases, exotic locales, drop-dead gorgeous sexy beautiful women and genuinely thrilling action/stunt sequences. As noted, even though we’ve literally seen all of these scenes and stunts before–even motorcycles riding off of cliffs or high spaces–it all still works on some pure popcorn spectacle level. Credit director Christopher McQuarrie and his above-average team of stunt, action, car, train, fight, sword and martial arts assistant directors and choreographers and their concurrent camera operators, technical assistants, stunt planners, location scouts, set designers, construction engineers, mechanics, grips and rigging crew workers. They all worked long hours to plan, construct, coordinate and execute the action stunt sequences that are the heart of this movie. They all deserve credit.

The large crews of special, computer and visual effects artists deserve credit, too. The stunts in the MI movies, like most stunts in most movies, are never what they truly appear to be on film. The stunts are enhanced by unseen safety harnesses, cables, wires, safety riggings, ramps, structures, specially-constructed sets and stages and many other technical machinations that are either digitally put in or taken out. That’s not spoiling anything or being cynical–its just true. Cruise hung on the outside of a plane in a prior MI movie–but his attendant safety harnesses and cables that were used were digitally erased. In “Reckoning,” Cruise drives a motorcycle off of a specially-constructed ramp—but in the movie that moviegoers see, the actual ramp is gone and a computer-enhanced cliff is digitally added.

Nevertheless, the stunts, whether they are computer-generated and assisted or not, are exciting. And, again, we’ve seen it all before: A motorcycle flying off a cliff; people fighting stop a moving train; a sword fight in a public space; an intense fistfight in a tight, enclosed space; a car chase with a small car, narrow streets and cars driving down steps; people driving while handcuffed together; people wearing elaborate masks; insanely accurate computer surveillance that can astoundingly find people all over the world within minutes; trains dangling off of exploding bridges; people parachuting off of high cliffs; and on and on.

All of this is in “Reckoning”– and there should have been some end credit thanking all of the prior stuntmen who previously performed these stunts in previous movies. Heck, there was just a scene with people fighting stop a moving train in “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” which just came out a few weeks ago. And there was even a similar scene at the beginning of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” all those years ago.

Robert “Evel” Knievel made a career out of jumping motorcycles off of high spaces. Michelle Yeoh quite famously rode a motorcycle off of a small cliff onto the top of a moving train–all without any computer enhancement–in “Supercop.” And Yeoh and Pierce Brosnan drove a motorcycle together, while handcuffed to each other, in “Tomorrow Never Dies.” And “The Spy Who Loved Me,” released in 1977, started with a spectacular ski chase that culminated in what remains one of the greatest stunts ever in any movie in film history, stuntman Rick Sylvester’s breathtaking ski jump off a cliff that culminated with him opening a parachute and skydiving to safety. And too many movies through the decades have had car chases with tiny cars–including “For Your Eyes Only” and the remake of “The Italian Job”–and car chases through narrow streets and trains dangling off of destroyed bridges.

Note to all moviemakers: No more fights stop moving trains, flying motorcycles, parachuting off of high places, car chases with small cars, car chases through narrow streets, fistfights in tight enclosed spaces and trains dangling off destroyed bridges for at least the next decade.

Perhaps the current writers and actors strikes will give filmmakers some needed time to think up some new, inventive, clever and original stunt and action sequences that moviegoers haven’t already seen hundreds or thousands of times before.

“Reckoning” finds Hunt and his loyal IMF crew of operatives, which is, essentially only Benji and Luther, played respectively by the always-reliable and charismatic Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames, travelling the world to track down two parts of the same mechanical, electrical and digital key that can destroy an out-of-control dangerous, elaborate, threatening computer program that could wipe out other computer systems worldwide. Guess what? That’s not new, either. Thousands of television shows and books and movies have had dangerous, threatening computer systems as the main plot point–going all the way back to at least the 1950s and 1960s. “Desk Set” in 1957 warned about dangerous, threatening computers. “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 1968 featured a dangerous, threatening computer. “WarGames” in 1983 featured a dangerous, threatening computer system. All of the “Terminator” movies were centered around dangerous, threatening computer systems that battled mankind. One of those movies was even subtitled “Rise of the Machines.” A rerun of “The X-Files” that just aired a few nights ago was about a dangerous, threatening computer system. One of the latter-day “X-Files” episodes was all about dangerous, threatening computers. A strong episode of the original “Star Trek” series that aired from 1966 to 1969 featured a dangerous, threatening computer system. Episodes of the original “The Twilight Zone” and the newer version of “The Outer Limits” featured stories about dangerous, threatening computer systems. And on and on.

Stories like the main story in “Reckoning” that focus on dangerous, threatening computer systems simply are not new or original. However, again, somehow, McQuarrie, who co-wrote “Reckoning” with Erik Jendresen, somehow makes it all work–surely psychologically playing off all of the worries and stresses about modern-day very real threats to overall societal mental health and sanity created by overly-present, overly-intrusive, overly-addictive and overly-annoying computers, computer systems and programs, cellphones, tablets, texting, stupid websites, blogs, podcasts, video games and similar irritating and increasingly dumbed-down technological doodads, gizmos, gadgets and thingamagigs.

Note to filmmakers: No more stories about dangerous, threatening computers or computer systems for at least the next decade. Enough, already.

“Do you want to play a game?” the dangerous, threatening computer system asked in “WarGames,” and, increasingly in real life, the answer is a loud and firm “no.”

The real impressive, fresh, new and original standout aspect of “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” has nothing to do with computer-generated stunts or dangerous, threatening computers, and is actually, thank gawd, a real, breathing, actual human being, and her name is Hayley Atwell. Atwell, 41, of England, completely, wholly steals “Reckoning” from every other actor and from every other stunt in the film. She is simply the center and the heart of the film. Atwell is breathtakingly beautiful and sexy, yes, but she’s also playing a strong, independent, funny, relatable and very human person. Atwell plays Grace, a shady hustler and thief who is pursued by the IMF as part of the team’s desperate worldwide search for the pieces of that key. Eventually, and it’s no spoiler, Grace ends up working with, for and against the IMF, and it’s hilarious to watch her trip up, baffle and confound and confuse the IMF team and various other spies, agents, operatives, black market dealers, killers, terrorists, field assets, assassins, double-dealers and other assorted spycraft characters. Atwell just shines and glows and jumps off of the screen with beauty, sexiness, allure, style and flat-out chutzpah.

Note to Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson: Hayley Atwell is your next Bond movie leading lady.

And Atwell is ably assisted by three more striking, beautiful and sexy women in “Reckoning:” Vanessa Kirby as black market dealer Alanna Mitsopolis; Rebecca Ferguson as agent Ilsa Faust; and a dangerous, threatening Pom Klementieff as Paris, an assassin as nasty, scary, tough and violent as any hired-gun killer in any recent spy movie. All four of these talented, smart women steal “Reckoning” straight out from everyone and everything else. When these women are on screen, “Reckoning” crackles, burns and sizzles with life.

It should be noted that “Reckoning” and the recent “Indiana Jones” movie are ridiculously, crazily similar–in story, plot, scenes, stunts, action sequences, shots, characters and dialogue. Both films even shot their train sequences on the same train tracks, according to one news report. And both movies carry too-high production budgets–“Destiny” is estimated to have cost $295 million, and “Reckoning” is estimated to have cost $290 million, according to Variety.

Nevertheless, there’s always something positive to be said about talented filmmakers working hard to make an entertaining summer blockbuster spectacle–and succeeding, despite themselves. So the least we can all do is get up off of our backsides, turn off those dangerous, threatening computers, escape the horrible heat and the humidity, and escape to pure summertime movie escapism in a cool, dark, safe and enjoyable neighborhood movie theater.

And, in case you’re wondering, “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part Two” is scheduled to be released in theaters in June, 2024.

At least in the case of the current “Mission: Impossible” movie that’s out now, your mission is to see this movie in the theaters. This is a mission you should decide to accept. As always, if you or anyone in your moviegoing team is injured or killed in the course of your moviegoing mission, our secretary will disavow any knowledge of this review.

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Matt Neufeld

Matt Neufeld

Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 films projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years.