Producers: Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie  Director: Christopher McQuarrie   Screenplay: Christopher McQuarrie and Erik Jendresen   Cast: Tom Cruise, Hayley Atwell, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Vanessa Kirby, Esai Morales, Pom Klementieff, Mariela Garriga, Henry Czerny, Shea Whigman, Greg Tarzan Davis, Charles Parnell, Frederick Schmidt, Cary Elwes, Mark Gatiss, Indira Varma and Rob Delaney   Distributor: Paramount

Grade: B

Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” franchise has followed an unusual trajectory.  The first three installments—Brian De Palma’s 1997 opener, John Woo’s 2000 follow-up and J.J. Abrams’ 2006 entry, were good, solid genre movies marked by twisty plots, and excellent action sequences, expertly choreographed and marked by the energetic part Cruise took in them.  But the series didn’t really take off until Christopher McQuarrie entered the picture, first as co-writer of Brad Bird’s 2011 “Ghost Protocol” and then as writer-director of “Rogue Nation” (2015) and “Fallout” (2018).  All three are examples of Hollywood popcorn fare at its tastiest, and Cruise continued to amaze with his dexterity in the wild action scenes they were crammed with.

So one might well have high hopes for McQuarrie and Cruise’s reported swan song to the series, the two-part “Dead Reckoning,” which starts off with this epic-length inaugural episode and will conclude next year with another that will presumably not leaving the audience hanging, as “Part One” necessarily does in more ways than one.

This initial half-a-tale is, in several important ways, the equal of its three exceptional predecessors.  McQuarrie and his team—production designer Gary Freeman, cinematographer Fraser Taggart, the stunt coordinators, the visual and special effects teams, and editor Eddie Hamilton—have done an superb job in crafting the many action sequences, and Cruise once again invests himself totally in pulling them off, even as he enters his sixth decade; CGI is obviously employed, but unlike in so many films nowadays, it’s not allowed to overwhelm tactile human involvement (especially the star’s), whether it be during a chase in an airport or a leap from a towering cliff into a gaping chasm. 

And yet, perhaps inevitably given the number of big action movies nowadays, there’s more than a hint of déjà vu here, and not merely to earlier entries in the “Mission” canon.   That old standby, heroes and villains jousting atop a speeding train, reappears, and though it’s done with less obvious computer-generated assistance and greater flamboyance than it was recently in “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” the two sequences are basically similar.  And a protracted chase through the streets of Rome would have been more jaw-dropping if “Fast X” hadn’t included one too.  Even the humorous element of Cruise’s Ethan Hunt being forced to drive a sub-sub-compact is reminiscent of Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones navigating the streets on Tangier in a motorized rickshaw in “Dial of Destiny.”  Of course, the fact that they’re all done better here than elsewhere compensates in large measure for the familiarity.

In any event that’s nit-picking compared to the humdrum nature of the menace McQuarrie and co-writer Erik Jendresen have elected to feature as Hunt’s antagonist—another of those rogue Artificial Intelligence contraptions that have become a staple in movies and TV shows nowadays, a device that can take over all information systems and thus rule the modern digital world.  It’s a concept that has the benefit of topicality, given current preoccupations about the danger AI poses, but it’s already become so hackneyed that it really needs to be handled in a really imaginative way to seem like something other than a convenient crutch.

Here it’s not.  Compared to the granddaddy of them all—HAL 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey”—the AI villain “Reckoning” offers, depicted as a battery of glowing lights, is an awfully dull thing, so anonymous that it doesn’t even have a catchy name, being referred to simply as “The Entity,” the sort of moniker that would befit some slimy creature in a bad sci-fi potboiler.  And the word is intoned so often by the human characters that you have to predict that it will eventually become the linchpin of an at-home frat party drinking game (you know, chug a beer every time somebody says “The Entity”).  HAL had personality; his descendant has none. 

Anyway, The Entity is introduced in the film’s prologue, having been installed in a Russian nuclear submarine as a wartime game-changer but quickly going rogue after being turned on with what becomes the script’s MacGuffin—a cruciform “key” of two interlocking parts.  The key goes down with the ship, as it were, but for plot purposes, it—or parts of it, or imitations of parts of it—have somehow come to the surface from the deep (precisely how is never really explained), and are sought and passed from hand to hand as the scenario’s narrative engine. 

That brings a passel of human beings into play as rivals for the prize.  There’s Ethan, of course, who accepts the task of acquiring the key from the disembodied IMF director and enlists his old comrades, tech wizard and mask-maker extraordinaire Benji (Simon Pegg) and computer mastermind Luther (Ving Rhames) in the mission.  (Eventually to evade The Entity’s observation, they must go analog—horror of horrors.)  And there’s sharpshooter Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), the erstwhile MI6 agent returning from previous installments who provides Hunt with part of the key.  Of course The Entity, being both everywhere and nowhere, needs actual humans to do its bidding in the “real” world (or aim to control it for their own nefarious purposes), so Hunt’s up against smoothly sinister Gabriel (Esai Morales), with whom Ethan has a past, and his colorful assistant assassin Paris (Pom Klementieff).

Then there are the powerful people after the key, among them CIA Director Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny), with whom Hunt also has a history, and notorious arms merchant Alanna Mitsopolis (Vanessa Kirby), aka The White Widow—the daughter of the woman engaged in the same trade in the first “Mission” movie.  And what of National Intelligence Director Denlinger who, being played by Cary Elwes, is necessarily untrustworthy? 

And that’s not all.  Once it’s decided that Hunt has again gone rogue, as is his custom, he’s pursued by other American intelligence agents, Jasper Briggs (Shea Whigham) and Degas (Greg Tarzan Davis), who always almost catch up to him, only to see him evade them.  Even more troublesome is Grace (Haley Atwell), an expert pickpocket who purloins part of the key and serves at various points as either Ethan’s rival or his comrade.  But who’s she working for?

One must take it pretty much on faith that all the character connections, plot twists, multiple changes of alliance, close shaves and coincidences fit together as they unfold, since it will take even the most astute person multiple viewings to parse out how the puzzle pieces click into place; and even then it’s likely that only Part Two will make everything totally clear.  McQuarrie, after all, is the fellow responsible for that most elegantly intricate of cinematic confections, “The Usual Suspects,” and when Luther warns Hunt that he’s “playing four-dimensional chess with an algorithm,” you might feel yourself in much the same boat.

But it’s worth the effort to try to keep up, because the film is so fleet and propulsive, hastened along not only by the visuals but Lorne Balfe’s score, which incorporates Lalo Schifrin’s TV theme for more than nostalgic reasons.  And with Cruise bringing a weathered, world-weary vibe to Hunt that in no way lessens his physical commitment to the mission—or the character’s consistent habit of placing the safety of his colleagues over his own—you’re more than willing to cheer him on and grieve his losses when they happen.  The rest of the cast inhabit their roles, even those that are more like cameos, with aplomb.  Morales and Klementieff are particular standouts, and it’s enjoyable to watch Whigham’s escalating frustration, but among the newcomers it’s Atwell who makes the biggest impression, suggesting she’ll be a major player in Part Two, and likely beyond if the series continues.

Even the best of the CGI-heavy summer blockbusters today feel like popcorn flavored with butter substitute; the “Mission Impossible” films, with their reliance on real human stunt work, are like encountering true melted butter on the corn again.  While “Dead Reckoning” may not equal its immediate predecessors, it’s still great fun.