The Ending of Dead Reckoning Takes Mission: Impossible Back to the Start

Dead Reckoning glances backwards to the 1996 movie that started it all, which also happened to end with a blast of locomotive action. Photo: Christian Black/Paramount Pictures

Warning! This post spoils many plot details of Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One.

There are thrills aplenty scattered across the sprawling run time of Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, the latest spy-movie blockbuster from Tom Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie. But the plus-size sequel saves the best for last. Its final act is a crescendo of interlocking dilemmas, syncing the ominous tick of multiple clocks, assembling most of the key players on one racing train.

Grace (Hayley Atwell), the self-serving thief Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has identified as a possible new recruit for the Impossible Mission Force, spends most of this closing stretch in disguise: Fitted with one of the franchise’s signature hyperrealistic masks, she sits down for a tense transaction that’s really a moment of moral choice for the character. Will she help Hunt or just help herself? As this dramatic predicament plays out, Cruise’s superspy faces the daunting challenge of getting aboard the train, which is mysteriously picking up speed — an obstacle he eventually overcomes in typical Cruisian fashion, with an insanely dangerous stunt involving a mountain, a motorcycle, and a parachute. These two separate tracks eventually converge for an action-packed finale, building to a derailment that becomes a breath-stealing vertical climb through a compartment dangling over a ravine.

It’s what Mission: Impossible does best: entwining related problems and then escalating them to a fever pitch of queasy suspense. Yet for some viewers, the excitement of this final, multipart set piece will be tinged with something more, an unmistakable déjà vu. The attempted sale of a hotly sought MacGuffin. A slowly loading progress bar. A fight sequence on top of a train racing treacherously into dark tunnels. If all this doesn’t trigger memory banks, the appearance of an old company adversary, Kittridge (Henry Czerny), on the passenger manifest should do the trick. Seven entries in, Mission: Impossible has glanced backwards to the 1996 movie that started it all, which also happened to end with a blast of locomotive action.

This finale, an echo of the series’ first, is the most explicit example of how Dead Reckoning communes with Brian De Palma’s franchise-launching original. The agent is, once again, on the run from his own agency, the manhunt led by the very first thorn in his side, Kittridge, who apparently learned nothing in the 25-plus years since Hunt soaked him in aquarium water. Grace’s expertise at pickpocketing mirrors the sleight of hand Ethan performed in Mission: Impossible. And flashbacks, featuring the phantom of a young Cruise, serve as a reminder of how much time has passed since the actor first stepped into his signature role.

You could call this a version of the trendy legacy-sequel nostalgia trips offered on the regular these days — including, of course, by Cruise himself last summer, in Top Gun: Maverick. But McQuarrie, the star’s returning behind-the-camera handler, isn’t just interested in the easy dopamine hit of a cameo or callback. He’s also in dialogue with the values of that first movie — its Clinton-era upgrade of classic espionage tropes — and maybe wondering aloud how they connect to the franchise’s improbably robust present. The stunts may have gotten bigger over the years, along with the budgets (inflated, one presumes, by the insurance Paramount has to secure every time Cruise gets a new idea about how to risk life and limb for our amusement). But the foundation of this series is still subterfuge and skullduggery, a vision of sneaky spycraft that’s outlived the Cold War that spawned it.

The franchise really comes full circle, though, aboard that runaway train, twisting itself into a figure-eight of old-new exhilaration. It’s almost surprising it’s taken the series this long to set another elaborate action sequence on the rails. The train, after all, is such a perfect metaphor for Mission: Impossible. It hurtles forward in one direction, like the movies themselves do, and like their unstoppable main character Ethan, the “physical manifestation of destiny.” It has separate compartments — an expression of the way McQuarrie and his predecessors structure these first-rate entertainments around discrete set pieces, or how each movie works on its own, even as it connects to what comes before and after. And trains have a certain old-fashioned romance and cool, which is what Mission: Impossible usually strives for.

Just as Dead Reckoning pays tribute to an influential ancestor, so did De Palma’s original forge ties to the cinematic past. Shifting the action to a train evoked a whole library of older thrillers: The Manchurian Candidate, and From Russia With Love, and of course North by Northwest, Hitchcock’s ultimate toy, an adventure whose mechanics can be seen in just about every rollicking roller-coaster ride Hollywood has made since. When Cruise, in one of the first M:I’s (and by extension, the franchise’s) defining images, is blown forward across the train by a fireball, his face framed close with the wreckage behind him, it’s as if De Palma is racing the past and future together: We were seeing, in that iconic moment, a rich lineage of spy thrillers collide with the explosive demolition derby of the ’90s blockbuster machine.

Dead Reckoning extends that homage further. At this point, the first M:I is an ancient touchstone, too — just another station on this franchise’s winding path through genre-movie history. But there’s a special poignancy to seeing the series wave to its younger self in passing, and an extra chill of recognition to the familiar, now ageless sight of Tom Cruise hanging over the chasm of doom. Superimposed on his climactic climb through a wrecked train is his first tussle with gravity — the moment when he dangled over a computer in an Apple-white room, defeat calling from below. Cruise is still hanging all these years later. It’s a pleasure to stare into the abyss with him.

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Dead Reckoning Takes Mission: Impossible Back to the Start