Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is Tom Cruise’s greatest stunt yet

Tom Cruise and Hayley Atwell in Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One
Tom Cruise and Hayley Atwell in Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One - Paramount

Hooray for Tom Cruise! At the very moment the movies could be turned into textureless gunk by artificial intelligence, the actor has gone off on a one-man crusade to destroy it. The main villain of the stupendously entertaining new Mission: Impossible film is neither a rogue agent nor a terrorist state, but an all-powerful AI construct known as the Entity, which spiders out from a Russian stealth submarine and strip-mines the secrets of every intelligence service on Earth.

This deific construct has its own earthly messenger: a suave and deadly assassin known pointedly as Gabriel (Esai Morales). But as an enemy itself, it’s invisible, invaluable and invulnerable – and during a prologue that spells out its powers in the deadliest terms, you can almost hear Cruise’s Ethan Hunt cracking his knuckles offscreen.

His mission, whether we choose to accept it’s within the remotest bounds of possibility for a mortal human or not, is to track down the master key to its mainframe, which comes in two interlocking parts, then turn off the flow of deadly ones and zeroes at the source. Finding the key requires running, punching, shooting, driving and parachute-jumping through Abu Dhabi, Rome, Venice and both the interior and roof of the Orient Express: a reassuringly old-fashioned solution to a newfangled threat.

You might describe the film like that too. Like last year’s Top Gun: Maverick, Dead Reckoning Part One feels like an attempt to save the blockbuster by blasting it back to first principles, at a time when the form is sunk in self-inflicted crisis. And while it lacks Maverick’s flawlessly sleek finish and unexpected warm touch, it matches it for action that’s both stunningly executed and strikingly classical in its approach.

A cat-and-mouse chase in an airport tips its hat to Brian De Palma, director of Carlito’s Way, Dressed to Kill – and the first Mission: Impossible film. A police pursuit through Rome has Cruise handcuffed to Hayley Atwell’s master thief, just as Robert Donat was to Madeleine Carroll in Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps – though they didn’t have to drive a turbo-charged vintage Fiat 500 round various landmarks. (“The producers wish to stress that in no way, shape or form were any vehicles driven down the Spanish Steps”, an end credits disclaimer helpfully clarifies.)

The rail-based finale – a constantly gawp-inducing whole-franchise high – riffs giddily on Buster Keaton (look out for the name of the steam engine), while even the Looney Tunes school of slapstick gets its due in a drily ridiculous scene in which Cruise and Atwell are almost pancaked by a falling grand piano. Disguises, time bombs, runaway trains: Cruise, his director Christopher McQuarrie and their collaborators are very consciously working in a century-old tradition here, perhaps to show the business and art of stunning audiences can – if we choose – be much the same now as it ever was.

If that was their point, they prove it relentlessly, and with a zeal that often bleeds into the enjoyably overblown dialogue. Remember Alec Baldwin sonorously describing Cruise three instalments ago as “the living manifestation of destiny”? That’s the tone of roughly every other line now, although enough snappy humour is woven through to ensure the film’s messianic glint (it’s essentially about Tom Cruise taking down God, after all) never becomes too manic for comfort.

Tom Cruise takes the train in Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part 1
Tom Cruise takes the train in Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part 1 - Christian Black

Aside from the slight short-changing of Rebecca Ferguson’s MI6 agent Ilsa Faust, each supporting player gets enough space to be an asset. Atwell is tremendous, even though the energy between her and Cruise is purely kinetic – the days of Hunt’s sweltering clinches with Emmanuelle Béart and Thandiwe Newton are long gone. New recruits like Shea Whigham and Pom Klementieff are deployed like paint on a palette – a daub of grizzled CIA point man here, a swish of relentless contract killer there – while there might be no better embodiment of this series’s secondary pleasures than the brief shot of Simon Pegg’s ever-improvising tech expert Benji Dunn trying to defuse a nuke with a pair of bathroom tweezers.

In other words, there’s lots going on. Or is there? Considering the running time is around 15 minutes shy of three hours, the plot is uproariously minimal: just “get key”, with ‘open door’ held back for next June’s Part Two. All that really matters is the showmanship, which keeps thundering along like that out-of-control engine, wheels and pistons screaming but somehow still clinging to their course.

12A cert, 163 min. In cinemas now