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Dead Reckoning doesn’t hit the same high marks as the last two installments, but it’s still a mission worth accepting.

The Ol’ Mask Trick

Grace and Ethan go for a joy ride in Rome
Grace and Ethan go for a joy ride in Rome

When Tom Cruise and writer-director Christopher McQuarrie — longtime collaborators on movies including Valkyrie and Edge of Tomorrow — paired as star and director for Rogue Nation, all the planets finally came into alignment for the Mission: Impossible series. Enough with the “stunt hiring” of directors like Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird. It was time to get serious with the series’ fifth installment.

Rogue Nation and Fallout were in and of themselves seemingly impossible missions. They took the Cruise-led movie series, already pushing into its third decade, and lifted it up a couple levels, finally giving the series an identity of its own. They did it in part by acknowledging the weaknesses of the series to that point and carving out a new path for Ethan Hunt and his devoted friends. They did it by poking fun at some of the series’ tropes, most notably the masks.

In Rogue Nation, masks were largely shunned. A humorous scene involving a proposed mask strategy shows Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) meeting an unceremonious demise because the longtime reliable trick wouldn’t pass muster with a particularly savvy security system. But, still, there was one well-placed mask. Pull it off and move on. Fine.

In Fallout, an early scene with Wolf Blitzer had fun with the masks and then the movie sped into a terrific adventure.

Unfortunately, it’s time for the masks to have their revenge in Dead Reckoning as the go-to narrative cheat dating back to the 1960s once again plays a crucial role in the story. Over and over again. Thankfully, after all those masks, Benji’s portable mask-making device goes on the blink; hopefully Part Two will return to more innovative narrative tricks.

Hunt (Ethan Hunt) for Red October

Amid the old-school masks and high-tech gadgetry, the story in Dead Reckoning is given a slightly heavy-handed treatment with characters on all sides being seduced by the power of a cruciform key. At times, the key takes on the aura of the Infinity Gauntlet from the Avengers series; it’s a key to enormous — seemingly indefinable — power and it leaves some transfixed with its potential to unlock world domination.

The key, as a safeguard, is a two-piece device with an uncertain provenance that needs to be assembled to unlock the mystery and its godlike power. Throw in master pickpockets, a fight on top of a speeding train (including the requisite tunnels, signal posts and a blown bridge), deciphering puzzles, a wildly adventurous spirit and a generous sense of humor, and the similarities to Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny are pretty startling.

But as the series marches toward what is intended to be its finale in Part Two, McQuarrie and his co-writer, Erik Jendresen (who’s new to the series), bring some new and not entirely attractive tics to the story. There are a lot of cocked heads and locked jaws; plenty of conversations revolving around trying to outguess a digital parasite dubbed The Entity, an artificial intelligence that’s quickly advancing its skills while on a collision course with humanity’s demise. It’s a movie move that attempts to harness the zeitgeist, but it doesn’t quite reach the level of gravitas everyone involved is going for. In a theory posited in Part One, The Entity can only be contained by finding and restoring its original source code. Or something like that; it’s likely a plot point to evolve in Part Two (scheduled for release in June 2024).

The clackity-clack of people typing away while working on code doesn’t make for terrific action, so the story sends Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) off to do his thing while the rest of Ethan Hunt’s Impossible Mission Force focuses on that key, the sordid world of spies, geopolitics and untrustworthy intelligence officials. Somehow, despite the stumbles, McQuarrie manages to pull it all off with a 163-minute movie that moves like gangbusters, all the while accompanied by a great, propulsive score from Lorne Balfe.

The Big Jump

Paris (Pom Klementieff)
Paris (Pom Klementieff)

To this point, the Cruise-McQuarrie modus operandi has involved crisp storytelling, smart ideas, novel stunts and engaging character relationships. And they push the limits of live, on-set stunt work and action filmmaking that puts them in the top tier of filmmakers who prefer the real to the digital, including Christopher Nolan and George Miller.

With that in mind, perhaps the biggest surprise (without veering into spoiler territory) with Dead Reckoning involves the “big jump.” It’s the much-publicized stunt in which megastar and daredevil Tom Cruise drives himself right off a cliff. What’s unexpected is that remarkably risky scene is all part of what can best be described as a really elaborate joke very much on par with Indy Jones. Ethan keeps saying, “I need to get away from this mountain!” To which Benji puts Ethan in his place by stating, “I need you to step back and pull yourself together. I’m under a lot of pressure right now!” The setup is an unexpected turn (literally and figuratively) and the execution ends with a wild, unexpected sight gag.

It works, for the most part.

But that big jump is followed by something better. It’s a truly classic sequence in which Ethan and a new spy in the mix, Grace (Hayley Atwell), escape the Orient Express as one train car after another rolls off a cliff, disengaging from the rest of the train and crashing into the river below. Ethan and Grace move from one car to the next as they narrowly escape death time and time again. It’s great stuff; it’s summertime, kitchen-sink adventure material (again, literally; one of the cars is the kitchen car) that will go down as one of the series’ hallmark set pieces.