Tom Cruise and Ethan Hunt often feel interchangeable, and the threats represented in the series feel like manifestations of his current psyche, so it makes sense that artificial intelligence like the Entity is the bad guy now. (The apocryphal story of Cruise pushing back against a CG version of himself doing stunts in “Ghost Protocol,” in which he purportedly said “there is no digital Tom,” seems awfully relevant now.) For Ethan, the Entity is as primal and existential a threat as possible, undoing all the potential good the IMF can do and reigning over all world governments.
The sight of Gabriel in Abu Dhabi makes Ethan abort the mission, which speaks to how terrifying the former must be to the latter. Ethan would rather risk losing Grace and regrouping in Rome. Once there, Ethan only gets Grace out of police custody to take her on the run in a novel, thrilling, and hilarious car chase in which –- thanks to some ill-placed handcuffs –- she has to drive with his guidance. (Cruise is assured as ever, but it’s when he gets to be funny, as when expressing a good deal of agita at her shaky driving skills, that he can be most enjoyable.) The challenge of the chase is that Gabriel’s henchwoman Paris (Pom Klementieff) is a true psychopath, gleefully laughing as she takes an Italian police truck and rams into any and all innocent cars in her way. The chase concludes much the way the first section did –- with Grace evading Ethan’s grasp once more, and Ethan forced to regroup, this time with Luther, Benji, and Ilsa taking him to Venice.
In Venice, Ethan is eventually presented with an impossible choice: either Grace or Ilsa has to die. He and his team meet the person who wants to sell the two-part key: Alana Mitsopolis (Vanessa Kirby), who realizes with everyone else that the nighttime rave they’re attending was set up by the Entity. The echoes from the first “Mission: Impossible” are at their loudest here. Yes, there is the return of Kittridge, and sly references to the hacker nicknames Luther sported when he was a younger man.
But the most emotionally intense sequence in the original comes when a young Ethan tries and fails to save his team from sabotage, especially the lovely Sarah (Kristin Scott Thomas), who’s stabbed to death by an offscreen attacker. The mirror image comes after Ethan tries to save both Grace and Ilsa. Yet he finally, after so many years of protecting those around him, loses someone: Ilsa. The sword fight between her and Gabriel teased in the trailer, coming at night on Venice’s deserted bridges, is pitched at an almost operatic level (Lorne Balfe’s score, throughout, is as solid as you can get). And it ends with tragedy, as Gabriel stabs her and leaves the scene before Ethan can get to her. Another immensely talented agent, who was as close to a lover as Ethan had ever had, and now gone.
The line that Cruise and McQuarrie walk here is precise and careful: the “Mission: Impossible” films do not work because they are brooding, grimdark affairs. They work because they are breathless, rollicking, suspenseful adventures. So even with the immense loss of Ilsa weighing on Ethan, Luther, and Benji, they frame her sacrifice as something that can enable their mission. When Grace takes the blame, noting that if it wasn’t for her, Ilsa wouldn’t be dead, Luther reverses it: Ilsa chose to ensure that Grace could survive. Because this film is all about choices, Grace is given the biggest one of all: to join the team, and not just because they need her for this one. We can talk about how the first “Mission: Impossible” is an origin story for Ethan Hunt, but we already meet him as an IMF agent. With “Dead Reckoning,” we have something of an origin story for how an IMF agent is made, as Grace accepts the mission.
Grace, of course, accepts, as she and Ethan break into the Orient Express as it zooms through the Alps. The intent is for her to don a mask as Alana, intercepting the two halves of the key and learning from the buyer what it opens. As ever, the plan has immediate complications. The first and most pressing is that Gabriel is on the train, too, and he knows Ethan wants to be there too. So Gabriel takes out the engine workers and disables the train’s brakes, meaning Ethan can’t hop onto the train via motorcycle.