Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part One: 3 1/2 stars out of 4

It’s hard to think of a modern franchise as reliable as the Mission: Impossible films, at least in terms of quality. (I can think of a few that can be counted on to be crap, but that’s beside the point.) Ever since JJ Abrams’ “Mission: Impossible 3” course-corrected for John Woo’s over-stylized sequel back in 2006, the series has been a reliable showpiece for the best of what the action genre—and Tom Cruise—has to offer.

The seventh movie in the franchise probably won’t go down as the best of the lot, and to be fair, as a 163-minute part one of two, “Dead Reckoning” does give in to some unfortunate contemporary film trends. But make no mistake: this is the best action movie of the season, and not just because its competition has been so awful.

“Dead Reckoning” opens in the frigid waters of the Arctic ocean, as a Russian submarine gets duped into firing on itself. We eventually learn that the culprit is a sentient AI program, and before long our hero Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his loyal team (including mainstays played by Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames) are sent after the literal key that will disable it.

Part of the key is making its way around the black market, so Hunt and co. are dispatched to Dubai to intercept the purchase. Here Hunt crosses paths with a savvy thief named Grace (Hailey Atwell), who gets swept up into a game of international intrigue well over her head. We also reconnect with the franchise’s existing British brunette, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), and everyone has to deal with a pair of human agents (including a specter from Hunt’s past and an assassin played by Pom Klementieff, of “Guardians of the Galaxy” fame) working on behalf of the AI.

It’s a lot to keep track of, especially once you work in the returning arms broker White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) and the shady Kittridge (Henry Czerny), making his first appearance in the franchise since Brian de Palma’s original 1996 film. It doesn’t help that Atwell and Ferguson’s characters feel strangely redundant, and the film’s solution to that problem is one of its most disappointing elements.

But if you’re here for the set pieces and the action sequences, you won’t be disappointed, as Cruise and co. make use of cars, trains, motorcycles, and most anything else available. And without betraying too much of the ending, “Dead Reckoning” closes its “part one” in a more satisfying way than recent films like “Fast X” and “Across the Spider-Verse,” so you won’t feel like you’ve invested two and a half hours of your time only to be left hanging.

“Dead Reckoning” would be an action-packed winner even in a strong year, but it feels especially thrilling as both superhero and non-superhero franchises feel both relentless and burned out. Part of this is the use of practical effects and genuine stunts instead of heavy CGI, and part of it is a story that can nod to contemporary issues—even issues relevant to an English teacher!—without feeling like it’s being preachy about them. But most of the credit should probably go to Cruise, who consistently leaves you feeling like his mission in life is to do everything humanly possible to keep you entertained at the very highest level. He’s been pulling off that impossible mission for decades now.

“Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part One” is rated PG-13 for wall-to-wall action violence and mayhem.

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