Amazing movie. Sure, it’s basically just “get the MacGuffin, save the world,” but it’s done so well! Tension, excitement, scenery! (Sand dunes, Rome, Venice, Norway pretending to be Austria!) I can’t believe the movie was 2 hours and 45 minutes. Felt a lot shorter.
It’s timely too, talking about AI, and I’m so glad there wasn’t a lot of fear-mongering anthropomorphic villainous moustache-twirling; and anyway, no one could equal Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith in The Matrix. Unlike the machines in The Matrix, the AI in Dead Reckoning is not, I would argue, actually central to the plot, nor is it a character. It’s just the setting, part of the premise. The story isn’t about AI any more than it is about a key. The story, to the extent that any story holds the action sequences together, is about people.
Why did they make this Part One? I have a theory about that.
Beware spoilers, there’s a whole plot summary below! It’s time to save the cat.
Mission Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One: Plot Summary
Here’s what I remember, enriched by double-checking some details online. Took me a lot longer to write than it did to watch the movie!
Prologue: The Submarine
A secret Russian stealth submarine housing an AI installation in a spherical tank sinks itself in the process of trying to torpedo an enemy submarine that didn’t actually exist. The instruments lied to the humans. (Inconceivable!) Apparently, the AI wanted the submarine to be destroyed, and tricked its operators into releasing a torpedo, which it aimed at itself. Everybody onboard dies, including two men each holding one half of a cruciform (cross-shaped, very symbolic) key to the AI. We are thankfully spared scenes of water entering the submarine. We just see the panicked submariners bracing for impact, and then later their bodies floating up to the ice layer at the surface of the sea.
Opening Image: Old Agent, New Mission
A newbie courier delivers a mission to Ethan, who waits in the shadows. Ethan is feeling kinda melancholy. He’s not as young as he once was, not as young as this courier by a long shot. He instructs the courier how he’s supposed to do the delivery properly, and welcomes him to the IMF, saying he “made the right choice”.
Setup/Theme Stated: The Entity and the Key
The mission is for Ethan to get one of the halves of a key from Ilsa, a friend of his, who is also being sought by bounty hunters who desperately also want the key. He doesn’t know what the key is for, but we do: It’s one of the halves of the key from the submarine. Ethan goes and finds Ilsa’s desert hideout, which gets struck by a sandstorm and an armed attack at the same time. He finds her stretched out on the ground, apparently dead. Bummer.
We learn about the AI, which is called “the Entity”, that has infected government systems the world over. For now, the Entity seems to be just lurking in plain sight. The US is busy making hard copies of its files, aware that the Entity could destroy or change anything it has access to. The goal of the US government, and every other government, is to get control of the Entity before anyone else does, and use it to control the world. The key to global domination is literally a key.
Ethan, who refused to report back after his mission to get the key from Ilsa, uses one of those famous masks to infiltrate a meeting about the Entity where Kittridge, Ethan’s former boss, is telling a top official about the IMF (not the International Monetary Fund, the Impossible Mission Foundation). Posing as Kittridge’s aide, Ethan gives Kittridge a gas mask and knocks everyone else out to listen to what Kittridge has to say about the Entity and the key he was sent to retrieve.
Kittridge states his philosophy, a version of “might makes right”. Ethan, of course, disagrees with that outlook. He wants to destroy the Entity. He escapes arrest by, of course, using a mask to pretend to be Kittridge.
Ilsa isn’t dead. She was faking to escape being shot. Then she and Ethan made it look like she really died in the desert. He told her to stay hidden/dead/safe.
Ethan goes to share what he knows about the situation with his buddies Benji and Luther. After discussing what the US knows about the Entity and the key, Team Ethan agrees that nobody should have control of the Entity, not even the US. That’s treason, “Or, as we like to call it, Monday.”
Team Ethan figures out where the other half of the key will soon be sold. Their plan is to steal it to see if it’s real, then give it back and follow the buyer, who presumably knows more about how to use it, or knows someone who knows.
Catalyst/Debate/Break Into Two: The Airport and the Thief
Big sequence at the airport in Abu Dhabi.
The US government sends out a team to catch the rogue agent Ethan. The commander tells his men not to underestimate him. Luther sends the government agents on a wild goose chase by hacking the airport’s facial recognition software: we get to see an agent walking up to a random man and attempting to pull his face off when it’s the guy’s real face!
Meanwhile in another terminal, Ethan is watching key-guy using high-tech glasses that are digitally tracking the key, plus a lighter that’s a video camera. He sees the key get pickpocketed by a beautiful woman. That wasn’t part of the plan! He goes and bumps into her and somehow has to convince her to put the key (and a thumb drive with a ton of cryptocurrency on it) back in the pocket of key-guy so Team Ethan can see where he takes it. She agrees, but while they’ve been talking, someone has killed key-guy, and the agents have split up to look for Ethan, so now they’re everywhere and hard to avoid.
Meanwhile in luggage handling, Benji, who was tasked to find a suspicious bag destined for key-guy’s plane, has been, without Ethan’s knowledge, trying to defuse a nuclear bomb. It knows Benji’s name, and it makes him answer a series of questions to get the lock code. First it asks him if he is afraid of death (well no, but actually yes). It asks him what’s most important to him (sheepishly, his friends). And there are a couple of riddles. Luther helps, but when he gets stuck, he asks Ethan, who’s with the thief woman (“Grace”, more symbolism), and they have to help too. At the last second, Benji figures out the last letter of the code on his own (good luck). It turns out the bomb was a fake.
But in the airport, Ethan has seen a ghost: he thinks he spotted an old enemy, Gabriel, who killed a woman he loved, according to a flashback. (These two characters seem to have been freshly invented for this movie.) While Ethan is distracted, Grace gets away. With the key. She waves at Ethan from the other side of a glass wall before boarding a plane to Rome.
Ethan escapes the airport by running. On the roof. We see the commander scratching his head saying, he must be here somewhere. And he is, just overhead!
Team Ethan reviews security footage from the airport and discovers that the Entity erased Gabriel from the airport’s records. The only image of him that remains is a reflection in a shop window. Ethan wasn’t imagining things. This is scary because Gabriel is a sadist: he does whatever he knows will hurt people most because he likes to hurt people. That’s probably why the bomb asked Benji what mattered to him most: to be able to use whatever he said matters most against him later.
Airport key-guy’s key was a fake. I don’t remember when or how Team Ethan figured that out, but it doesn’t matter. The point is, Grace has Ilsa’s key.
Fun and Games/B Story: Thanks but No Thanks
Ethan makes sure that things don’t go smoothly for Grace in Rome. She gets apprehended and handcuffed by local law enforcement, who notice that all her various passports represent people wanted for various thefts in various countries. She feigns ignorance and asks to see one of the passports she was carrying. “Yes, it is a very good likeness,” she comments, stealing the paperclip from the edge of the page and using it to open her handcuffs. Ethan, posing as her lawyer, tries to get her on his side, emphasizing what they have in common and the bleak dead-end she faces if she continues on the path she’s on. But all she wants is money and freedom, not friends, and she thinks she can survive on her own because she always has. She gets away from him and suddenly we’re off on an utterly hilarious car chase through Rome.
Grace and Ethan team up after she crashes, and Ethan, noticing that she keeps getting away, handcuffs her to himself. This makes driving harder, but they manage. They have to, they’re being chased by the Americans trying to catch Ethan plus the Italian police plus maybe some mercenaries who want the key plus an absolutely maniacal woman (named Paris) in a giant vehicle. The American commander makes a conscious choice not to kill Ethan, who manages to get away long enough to swap over to an IMF safe car.
The safe car turns out to be an embarrassingly tiny yellow Fiat that Ethan doesn’t really know how to drive, and not the James Bondish sports car you were led to expect. Also, Ethan and Grace are still handcuffed, and possibly on the wrong sides of the car. Anyway, this little car gets chased down the Spanish Steps (or rather, a studio copy of them) by the crazy woman. Then it spins around in circles for an incredibly long time—during which time I was laughing irrepressibly. (I was reminded of the car chase in The Bourne Identity. Matt Damon plays an American spy in Europe who somehow gets away in a silly little car too: his was red.) Ethan and Grace get away by driving down some sort of train tunnel access shaft. But then Grace, who apparently held on to that paperclip, leaves Ethan handcuffed to the steering wheel. Of a car sitting on the tracks of an oncoming train. Yikes. Cut to Ethan walking down the sidewalk trying desperately to look inconspicuous despite carrying a steering wheel chained to his wrist. A van pulls up and it’s Benji and Luther. Phew!
Midpoint/Stakes Raised: Party in Venice
Okay, so we lost Grace and the key… again. But we know where she’s going: to Venice to sell it to a female arms dealer from a previous movie. Gosh that’s like a heck ton of powerful and capable women in this movie, right? Ilsa (also from a previous movie), Grace, Maniac, and Alanna the Arms Dealer. Two friends and two enemies.
Ilsa joins up with Team Ethan. It’s her first time in Venice, and the view from the roof of the team’s hideout is beautiful.
What’s the goal? To get the arms dealer’s half of the key. But again, the key is kinda useless unless you know where to go and what to unlock.
There’s a party at a palace, and Ethan and Ilsa will go, and Grace will be there.
Gabriel is there too, with the Maniac who works for him. He tells Grace she’s not the first woman Ethan has tried to team up with, tried to protect. He casts doubt on the promises that he assures her Ethan will make.
The Arms Dealer brings everyone into the same room for a chat. Grace reverse-pickpockets the key to somewhere else. Gabriel, who represents the Entity and presumably knows what the key is for, says it knows everything. He prophesizes that the next day, the Arms Dealer will be on the Orient Express selling the complete key, and either Ilsa or Grace will be dead, and Ethan will get to choose which one. Understandably, he says no thank you to that and a scramble ensues. The American commander and his team are running around there too, having tazed the guys checking invitations to the party.
Bad Guys Close In/All Is Lost: You Can’t Protect Her
Everybody’s separated. Ethan is running! Benji is giving him directions. But then the Entity takes over, mimicking Benji’s voice, and leads him to a very, very narrow alley where he gets beat up by the Maniac and some guy. He survives and chooses not to kill the Maniac, simply leaving her unconscious.
But while he was led astray, Gabriel has chased down Grace, who escapes dying only because Ilsa shows up and engages him in a sword/knife fight and lays down her life instead. Benji and Ethan show up in a boat and take Grace back to their hideout. She still has the key.
Dark Night of the Soul: Dangerous Line of Work
Ethan makes Grace the offer Gabriel promised: join our side and you’ll be protected. Actually I think what he says is something like, “I can’t keep you safe (obviously), but I promise that your life will always matter more to me than my own.” Still, Ilsa is dead. Ethan goes on the roof to look at the view and she’s not there to see it with him.
Break into Three: Teamwork Works
Grace, with some reservations, joins Team Ethan. Ethan tells her what to say to Kittridge if anything happens to him, and explains the plan. He and Grace will get on the train by impersonating the Arms Dealer and her brother. But then the mask machine breaks halfway through, so the new plan is, she will have to get on the train by herself. Ethan will also get on the train… somehow. Luther reminds Ethan not to kill Gabriel, because he’s the only one who seems to know what the key does.
Finale: The Orient Express
Annnnd we are on the train. Grace injects the Arms Dealer with some sleeping potion, I guess steals the other half of the key from her, and goes to meet Kittridge, who is the one buying the completed key. We finally see the two halves united! Although the plan is NOT to give the key to whoever the Arms Dealer’s buyer is, not even the US government, Grace considers it. She asks for an additional favor for a “friend”: she wants Kittridge to clear her name and make a digital payment that will make her comfortable for life. She could hand over the key, run away, and not worry about who gets control of the Entity. But then, she doesn’t accept the transfer, and steals the key back from Kittridge. Something about her has changed during recent events.
Meanwhile, Gabriel is making trouble for Ethan. Ethan’s plan was to ride a motorbike onto the roof of the train at a certain point along the track where the train would be going slower. But he missed the train, because Gabriel went and killed the engineer and made the train go faster, and made it unable to stop, and locked the engine room door. And hung a dead guy on the cord that pulls the whistle, so that the swaying of the train would keep making the whistle blow. So now the whistle is blowing in the background all the time.
The US government guy we saw earlier in the meeting with Kittridge meets with Gabriel on the train. He says he knows what the key unlocks, and that he’s made sure he’s the only one who does. The key unlocks the sunken thing that holds a version of the Entity’s code. That code can be used to control the Entity. Gabriel kills him. Gabriel also kills the Maniac, because he fears she will take Ethan’s side in any conflict between them.
One of the US government guys asks the commander: this Ethan guy, what if every time he disobeyed orders, he had a really good reason? The commander asks the man what he would do if he had the key to the Entity. Hand it over to my boss because it’s too much power for anyone to have, he says. But that’s naïve. Isn’t it too much power for the boss to have, too? There are no benevolent philosopher kings. That’s why Ethan doesn’t want to hand the Entity over to anybody, he wants to destroy it.
Benji is directing Ethan from the passenger seat of a totally-not-evil self-driving car. (No really, it wasn’t hacked by the Entity and it didn’t malfunction or anything, it was just high-tech and convenient, because self-driving cars are the future and the future is now. And because BMW helped fund the movie.) He tells Ethan to go up a mountain peak overlooking the train tracks and parachute down to the train. Ethan doesn’t like the idea, but doesn’t have much choice… he drives his motorcycle off the cliff and bursts through a train window just in time to save Grace from being shot. Ethan asks if Grace is okay. She’s incredulous. She asks if he’s okay. But he’s just proven that her life does matter more to him than his own.
In the confusion, Gabriel gets the key. Ethan tells Grace to go stop the train while he chases down Gabriel. She asks “how?!” and he says, “You’ll figure it out.” She goes to the engine room and finds the door locked. Drat that Gabriel. She takes a breath, removes her jacket and ties her hair back, and goes out the window.
(In that moment, I thought: She’s the next Ethan. She’s going to replace him. He recruited her, and he’s going to die, and she’s going to become the star of the Mission Impossible movies.)
Ethan and Gabriel have a fight on the top of the train, and Ethan wants to kill Gabriel, just like Luther said he would. I think he gets stopped by the American guys? Anyway, Gabriel casually gets off the train like he planned it all, which he did. And guess what else he’s got planned? Explosives on a bridge ahead of the train. He doesn’t realize, until it’s too late, that Ethan took the key back from him and gave him the fake lighter instead. That’s what Grace did to Ethan in the airport.
Ethan tells the American commander that a lot of people are going to die “unless you do exactly as I say.” Then, because it turns out Ethan does have a very good reason, the commander gets everyone to the back of the train: Ethan’s going to the front to unhook the runaway engine.
He and Grace succeed but just barely: there’s a lot of hanging off the edge of things after the bridge blows and some of the train cars start to slide off the edge. The details are genius: the kitchen car is full of things spilling, for example, and Grace has to trust Ethan and jump across a void before a bolted-down piano escapes its last bolt and falls on her. She does. But then they’re both just barely hanging on. They get saved by the Maniac, who wasn’t successfully killed by Gabriel after all. She conveys the secret location of the submarine before dying again. But she’s not really dead this time, either.
Ethan parachutes away with the key and meets up with Benji.
Final Image: A New Agent
Grace, with no mask, faces Kittridge again. She says Ethan told her she can trust Kittridge, and that she wants to join the IMF.
My Theories about Part One / Part Two
To me it looks like they are handing over the Mission Impossible franchise to a new star, and didn’t want to try to do that in one film. Instead, there’s one film that introduces the new character (Grace) and another film where Ethan (presumably) dies and she steps up.
After I saw the movie, I read a news article that said Dead Reckoning was originally intended as a “send-off” for Ethan Hunt but that Tom Cruise said he’d be open to doing more movies in the series. My interpretation is that the powers that be will wait to see how audiences feel about Hunt’s apprentice. I mean, they tried to hand Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones to frikkin’ Shia LaBeouf. How’d that go? They brought Ford back, didn’t they! If in contrast all goes well with Dead Reckoning, I imagine Cruise will have cameo appearances but Grace will take over.
What clues make me think Ethan will die and Grace will replace him?
- She is introduced as someone remarkably skillful.
- She has a major role in the plot.
- Her head is really big on the movie poster.
- The movie begins with a reference to joining the IMF, in a scene where Hunt is portrayed as an older mentor kind of dude, not a young hot-shot.
- Hunt tells Grace she’s similar to himself and is headed for a dead end, unless she finds a higher purpose like he did.
- Grace stops pursuing financial freedom per se and joins the IMF wholeheartedly, when she didn’t have to.
- Ethan tells her to stop the train, and although she doesn’t succeed, it’s clear that she buckles down and tries—rather than flapping her hands around like a damsel in distress saying this is totally not my problem I did not sign up for this (which is what Barbie did).
- Ethan promised he would consider his team’s lives more important than his own.
- Kittridge’s voiceover said something about a pattern. He seemed to be referring to women who get close to Ethan dying. Seems about time for Ethan to break the pattern and prove him wrong.
I also think Benji and Luther will die, especially Benji.
- The Entity seemed to be targeting Benji specifically with that bomb.
- Kittridge’s voiceover at the end, when Ethan was meeting up with Benji, said something about it being increasingly difficult for Ethan to protect the people he cares about.
- Luther said the mission is more important than any of their lives. Maybe that’s meant to be ominous in general, but it also expresses his personal willingness to die for the cause.
Anyway, it would make sense for Grace to have a new team, a team of her own.
We might see the courier guy again. We might see more of the black guy who said maybe Ethan always has a good reason. Or not, because maybe those are throwaway characters. Anyway, seems likely Grace’s team will be at least partly female. Maybe she’ll have a Hispanic woman hacker friend and an Asian woman helping her defuse bombs. (I expect the bad guys will be white men, lol.) Maybe Paris will join Grace’s team. Some parts of the internet think Ilsa’s not really dead, but I kinda think she is. If I’m wrong, then she can join too.
The biggest doubt I have is whether the actress who plays Grace (or any other actor or actress, for that matter) can carry a franchise built on Tom Cruise’s stunts. Not that she didn’t do stunts in this movie, but she didn’t motorcycle off a cliff. She’s younger than Cruise, but not as young as he was when he started doing Mission Impossible movies. But then, since obviously nobody can fill his shoes, nobody will expect her to. The nature of the franchise will change if the central character does. Change is normal, change is inevitable… change is good.