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Original caricature by Jeff York of Hayley Atwell and Tom Cruise in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: DEAD RECKONING PART ONE (copyright 2023)

Finally, after disappointing tent poles, unnecessary sequels, and even a Pixar bust, the summer season comes truly alive with the release of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: DEAD RECKONING, PART ONE. The most reliable and consistent action franchise in the history of cinema delivers once again with a wham-bam actioner, a potent cocktail of breathless suspense, cheeky wit, and some of the most exquisite stunts ever captured on camera. (Yes, one of M: I’s greatest strengths is its in-camera stunt work and eschewing of CGI.) Hats off to writer/director Christopher McQuarrie who’s filmed at least five exceptional set-pieces this go-round, while finding time for plenty of involving world-building and character development too.

Tom Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt, the super spy charged with accepting impossible missions and it cannot be overstated how phenomenal the veteran superstar is in this role. He gives everything 100% from the stunts to the comedy to the angst. His world-weary spy is getting wearier and that gives the franchise plenty of humor and gravitas. Like the latest INDIANA JONES movie, this one plays a lot on the aging Hunt’s many decades in the game, and he gets called out right off the bat on whether he’ll pick the side of the USA or go rogue this go-round. It’s a big question because what the United States is after is game-changing tech that will allow whoever possesses it the ability to claim top-dog status and rewrite the rules of global power. You’ll remember that Hunt has always had an incredible sense of moral righteousness, dismissing his government directives, like last time when he saved the life of his colleague Luther (Ving Rhames), and let a bomb fall into the wrong hands to do so.

But here, CIA director Eugene Kittridge (a very welcome return of the ever-imperious Henry Czerny) informs Hunt that the device the agency wants him to steal for them is equal to a nuclear bomb, albeit in cyberspace form. It will make any country into a dictator, so why not ours?  It’s an ethical dilemma, especially since Hunt cannot wholly trust Kitridge, but will he bite?

Hunt assembles his veteran reliables, like Luther and Benji (Simon Pegg, milking the most out of every witty line), and previous frenemies like Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) and The White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) soon are swirled into the froth as well. They’re all after the weapon, especially to keep it out of the hands of terrorist Gabriel (Esai Morales, as slyly intimidating as he was in OZARK). The weapon is essentially just a McGuffin, the Hitchcock-termed object that drives spy thrillers and caper films, a wonderful excuse to put everyone on high wires of danger for an audience’s amusement. And amuse it odes.

There are intrinsically choreographed, jaw-dropping action scenes that play out in the very public arenas of a Dubai airport, an outdoor party in Venice, the traffic-heavy streets of Rome, the jagged hills of France, and a climax upon the legendary Orient Express train that must be seen to be believed. The ending goes on and on, brilliantly, topping the previous danger with each stunning minute. Whew!

Fraser Taggert’s crisp photography and Eddie Hamilton’s lean editing enable the viewer to follow every second of the action without fail, and Lorne Balfe’s driving score might even be more effective here than it was in MI: FALLOUT in 2018. All of the acting is fine, with special points going to Ferguson for her intensity in each waking moment and physicality in her numerous fight scenes.

Adding even more fun to the mix this time is the slyly sensual Haley Atwell. As Grace, a pickpocket and con artist who gets heavily involved in the plot, she becomes one of the best snappy-dialogue, sparring partners for Cruise in the history of the franchise. The scene where they’re handcuffed together on the run takes them on foot, upon a motorcycle, and slugged into not one, but two different prestige cars. The last one is a surprisingly dinky but lethal yellow Fiat and that scene becomes an instant classic.

The two actors deliver the derring-do throughout, with Cruise’s penchant for comedy excelling in particular in this sequel. Hunt becomes more and more incredulous at all he’s asked to escape from here, one ridiculous situation after another, just believable enough to keep things on an even keel. It makes this mission easily the funniest in the series, one full of more LOL moments than any previous outing or any comedy this year, for that matter.

It’s all the more amazing how effective this end product is, knowing that the production was plagued by COVID-19, numerous delays, and the ambitious shooting schedule of filming parts one and two back-to-back. No matter, what ended up on the screen is utterly sterling. Sure, it could’ve used some more of McQuarrie’s quippy banter here and there, and indeed, it’s never ideal for any film to end as a “To be continued” narrative, but this is A+ filmmaking from first second to last.

Cruise said he’s willing to play his Hunt role well into his 80s. That’s still quite a ways off for the only 61-year actor, but if he’s game, I am too. MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: DEAD RECKONING, PART ONE is a gas and, as incredible as it may seem, proof that Cruise and his spy franchise haven’t lost a step, leap, or freefall yet.

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