In cinema, the rule of diminishing returns maintains that sequels tend to decline in quality over time and suffer in comparison to the original film that spawned them.
Action franchise sequels usually serve as the poster children for this unfortunate pattern, with continuous sequels often resorting to nostalgia pandering — for instance, the “Fast & Furious” franchise’s obsession with bringing back ostensibly deceased characters — to hide waning quality.
There are, however, exceptions to this rule, even among action franchises. Not least among those outliers is “Dead Reckoning Part One,” the seventh installment of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise. A whopping 27 years after Brian De Palma’s “Mission: Impossible” hit theaters, the series remains alive and well thanks to a winning combination of exhilarating stunts, entertaining characters and well-conceived emotional stakes.
Released July 12, Christopher McQuarrie’s “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One” features the latest globetrotting quest entrusted to veteran Impossible Missions Force (IMF) agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team. With the help of seasoned IMF computer wizards Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), Ethan must locate two pieces of a mechanical key that enables its owner to control — and, perhaps, destroy — a sentient AI entity that has gone rogue.
With six previous films in its wake, “Dead Reckoning Part One” faced its own impossible mission: keeping a long-running series fresh without employing cheap, nostalgia-infused plot points or treading over the same ground as the franchise’s prior installments.
Somehow, against all odds, the film — though not without flaws — accomplished that undertaking.
Incredibly, even seven films into the franchise, the action sequences still generate genuine tension. One scene that involves frustrated assassins, a flighty thief and a frantic attempt to prevent a nuclear explosion in an airport brilliantly layers plotlines, leading to a shocking first act climax sure to leave viewers breathless.
One cannot praise the film’s riveting action without acknowledging the enduring commitment of Tom Cruise. Though nearly old enough to occupy a retirement community, Cruise continues to push the boundaries of action filmmaking, performing increasingly outrageous stunts, including driving a motorcycle off a 7,000-foot cliff and BASE jumping into the valley below, to ensure that his films exhibit a level of authenticity uncommon among action flicks.
By Cruise’s side is director and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, who refuses to rest on his laurels following the success of the two previous “Mission: Impossible” films and 2022’s Oscar-nominated blockbuster sequel “Top Gun: Maverick.” With his penchant for gorgeous cinematography — particularly golden sunsets cascading over expansive vistas — and breathlessly constructed car chases on full display in “Dead Reckoning Part One,” McQuarrie has solidified himself as one of Hollywood’s finest action filmmakers.
Another aspect of “Dead Reckoning Part One” that enables the film to stand out in its crowded genre is its cast of distinct, likable characters. Even with limited screen time, Dunn and Stickell remain favorites, with the former’s heartfelt confession in the first act giving the film a necessary emotional core.
Moreover, the film would not be nearly as entertaining without the contributions of its female characters.
Rebecca Ferguson infuses her latest turn as the battle-hardened operative Ilsa Faust with subtle weariness, juxtaposed by the equally welcome return of Vanessa Kirby’s confident, silky-voiced, alabaster-clothed femme fatale, the White Widow.
The introduction of new female characters also increases the cast’s appeal. Hayley Atwell’s flirty yet occasionally neurotic performance as Grace makes for excellent chemistry with Cruise’s Hunt. Meanwhile, Pom Klementieff (best known as Mantis from the “Guardians of the Galaxy” series) adds an extra dash of chaos to the action, barreling across the screen with Harley Quinn-like ferocity. Each female character finds her own niche in the story, bringing a uniquely entertaining persona to the movie.
However, even “Dead Reckoning Part One” does not fully escape the pitfalls of action sequels. The dialogue is not as strong as in previous installments, especially in one prolonged scene in which a group of government officials converse in an unrealistically choppy manner about the AI threat, goofily finishing each other’s sentences. And certain characters, especially Shea Whigham’s Jasper Briggs and Cary Elwes’s Denlinger, seem one-dimensional and caricature-like in the context of the otherwise serious, well-crafted action film.
Nonetheless, “Dead Reckoning Part One” represents a gold standard for action sequels to which Hollywood should aspire. This film stands out in a genre oversaturated with lazy potboilers devoid of tension and unique characters, reminding audiences of all that action films can and should be.
Run with the arm-pumping fervor of Tom Cruise to see it in theaters before it departs — it deserves your support.