Ethan Hunt is tasked with tracking down a key that can be used to shut down a newly sentient AI super weapon.
I suppose every story about a world-ending mega weapon needs some quasi-religious guff to add a sheen of mysticism to your common-or-garden Armageddon scenario, and in the rather bonkers Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part 1, we have The Entity, an AI weapon that has “gone rogue” and could destroy us all, but which looks like one of those 1970s kaleidoscope toys where you turn the end and the pattern changes before your very eyes.
Everyone — even the scariest of terrorists — is utterly terrified of The Entity (call it Gavin! It’ll feel much less scary then), which also has its very own “dark messiah” walking the Earth, called (don’t laugh) Gabriel.
I suppose it also explains why Gavin can only be switched off not with a button but with a large brassy-looking key in two parts (a sort of pre-Internet two-factor authentication) that looks like the kind of godly relic Indiana Jones would seek while being chased down a tunnel by a giant ball.
Sadly the good and bad guys and gals of Dead Reckoning (if there even is such a thing — Gavin will, we learn, abolish Truth), all of whom are after the two bits of key, keep losing it. Like when I’m drunkenly trying to get in my own front door after a rare mums’ night out, the all-important key is never in the pocket it’s meant to be in and eventually turns up in bits in Venice or the Arabian desert or Austria.
Also going rogue (again) is Ethan and his crew, though they are hampered at every turn as the Entity has infiltrated pretty much all the world’s security, military and banking systems and is now waiting, aware that every international government knows He’s there and enjoying the distrust and self-interest it brings out in ostensible allies.
Ethan’s mission this time is to track down Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who has half the key, and turn it over to IMF (not EMF, though I was tempted to start warbling “You’re UNBELIEVABLE!” as Tom Cruise prepared to motorcycle off a mountain onto a moving Orient Express). Though when he discovers the world’s governments — all in pursuit of the key — are determined not to destroy the weapon but harness his power for their own ends, he realises he has to destroy it for good.
Ethan isn’t the only one horrified at what might happen if it fell into government hands: Ilsa, hiding out in a desert sandstorm, is there because MI6 operatives were so concerned about what would happen if the British Government got hold of it they handed her half the key and told her to flee. (Though we all known that British government ministers would be less likely to maximise Gavin’s evil capabilities than to download it to a personal mobile, change the password to MAGGIETHATCHER123 then leave the phone in a pub.)
Threatening to screw up Ethan’s attempts at key retrieval is A++ pickpocket Grace (a fabulously self-interested Hayley Attwell, the film’s shining star), who finds herself in too deep when she’s hired by White Widow Alanna Mitsopolis (Vanessa Kirby) to find half of The Key. She has loyalties to no one — even as they try to help her — which gives her an edge that Ethan doesn’t have.
Cruise himself is terrific. Watching his stunts get ever more daring and more absurd as his bones get creakier has been something of a joy over the last few years. Ethan’s eyes dart around as he stops to work out how to extricate himself and his team from extreme danger even as their opponents close in. The same nostalgia that soaked last year’s Top Gun: Maverick is apparent here too, and more oppressive than in the last Mission Impossible installment (though looking back at my review I see I marvelled even then at the juxtoposition of body-defying stunts and the aches and pains of middle age. 2018-era Sarah, it only gets worse!).
Meanwhile Gavin’s tentacles twirl around the digital universe; avoiding its all-seeing eyes means retreating into analogue technology and hacking into America’s last, decaying Cold War satellite. How will they communicate in Dead Reckoning Part 2? Carrier pigeons and two golden syrup tins linked by a piece of taut string probably.
Like many recent blockbusters it’s good fun, and it’s also funny, if not always intentionally. Still, even in an era of superhero IP, it’s the Tom Cruise blockbusters, which may officially cost $300 million but still seem to be constructed on sheer will, that remain the grandaddies of them all.
It’s a bit chaotic, with bits of key turning up everywhere; were there really only two halves? At times it felt like there were enough for everyone to have a spare set. And dear god it’s long: longer than the Stone Roses’ Fool’s Gold 12″ remix (ask your nan), my washing machine’s interminable eco cycle, and the month of January combined.
I guess I’m also a little jaded at action movies careering round the world’s main visitor attractions, bleeding into each other’s set pieces. While blockbusters (including this one) are often themselves paying homage to iconic scenes from a golden age of movie-making they also often seem to be aping recent big hitter franchises. The (admittedly glorious) escape through Rome in a banana yellow Fiat 500, the White Widow’s dark, booming party in Venice, the race along the top of a moving train: a dinosaur, John Wick or Paddington could have appeared and I wouldn’t have been surprised.
Still, despite Cruise’s stomach-churning cliff-to-train jump, a stylishly vicious nighttime knife fight on a Venetian bridge, and an extended train disaster that cranks the tension screw tighter than I thought possible, my favourite action sequence was indeed the Fiat. (And if you think driving a tiny souped-up car through tiny streets is a step down in the excitement stakes for Tom, I once parked up my own modern Fiat 500 at the petrol pumps next to a teeny original Fiat 500, and asked the owner if it was fun to drive. “No, it’s horrible!” he said cheerfully, before opening the bonnet to fill it up with a thimbleful of fuel and chugging off at what can only be described as a leisurely pace.)
I watched Dead Reckoning Part 1 with a friend and our two tweens. They enjoyed it, though I’m not sure my son understood the gravity of the weapon concerned. For that, Gavin would have had to infiltrate Roblox.
Watch the trailer: