After watching Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One for the second time, one thought struck me: Hayley Atwell is a superstar. Despite her solid work in Black Mirror and Marvel’s Captain America, this gem has somehow remained hidden in obscurity, stuck making pointless cameos in silly superhero adventures and voicing CGI animals.
Fortunately, game recognized game, and Tom Cruise recruited her for his latest impossible mission, where she effortlessly slides in as Ethan Hunt’s latest partner in espionage. In the sixth sequel to 1996’s Mission: Impossible, Atwell portrays Grace, a mysterious yet ultimately virtuous thief who finds herself in over her head when tasked with stealing a key that unlocks a powerful artificial intelligence program. Eventually, Grace sees the light, joins Ethan’s rogue squadron, and takes part in a variety of thrilling stunts and clever deceptions to prove her worth.
Hayley Atwell goes for broke with her performance, showcasing a range of emotions during her substantial screen time. What starts as a bewildering interaction with Ethan at Abu Dhabi’s airport quickly evolves into an amusing partnership. Grace loves the danger, grinning like a schoolgirl during Ethan’s constant pursuits, but doesn’t quite understand the implications of her actions. However, when the bullets start flying, Grace quickly succumbs to pressure and must learn to navigate this strange new world of violence, death, car chases, dastardly villains, endless double crosses, and lots of friggin’ running.
There’s a fantastic moment during the big train set piece in which Ethan and Grace stand atop a platform with a piano dangling precariously above. Ethan needs to leap to the other side, but a frightened Grace clings desperately to him. He urges her to let go so he can make the jump, assuring her that everything will be okay. “Do you trust me?” he asks, to which she shakes her head, tears in her eyes, a look of fear splashed over her face. “I need you to trust me,” he insists. Finally, she nods, and he makes his daring move, with her following at the last second.
It’s a refreshing display of vulnerability from a hero in a modern action film. Grace doesn’t back down from a fight or miss an easy mark, provided it serves her best interests, but she has her limits. She takes on the villain Gabriel, gets her butt kicked, tries to flee in a car, smashes everything in sight (unintentionally making it easier for Ethan to track her down), and freaks out (as anyone would) when facing a collapsing train. She’s also not impervious to mistakes and miscalculations, failing to realize Ethan’s trustworthiness before it’s too late. Such imperfections make her relatable and endearing, making it easy for audiences to root for her eventual success.
Furthermore, Hayley Atwell brings out the best in Cruise, creating the most potent dynamic duo in the franchise since, well, Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson in Rogue Nation. Hand-in-hand, Ethan and Grace leap from trains, speeding cars, and late-night club parties. Sexual tension abounds but is never acted upon, which is just as well considering what happens to Ilsa.
On that note, not everything about Grace works perfectly. Her presence, unfortunately, diminishes Rebecca Ferguson’s screen time and demotes Ilsa Faust to a secondary character. Whether due to scheduling conflicts or disinterest from all involved, Ferguson is oddly left in the dust, quite literally. One can’t help but wonder if Grace’s role was initially intended to be Ilsa, with the plot centering on her official recruitment to the IMF, or maybe Ferguson grew tired of playing second fiddle to Cruise. Either way, considering Ferguson’s pivotal role in revitalizing the series in Rogue Nation, it feels wrong to cast her aside so quickly in favor of a newer model.
(Also, am I the only one who thinks Ilsa is still alive? Typically, when a main character gets the axe, they receive a funeral or some sort of remembrance. Dead Reckoning skips the mourning and jumps straight into the third act. Perhaps we’ll see more fallout from the character’s death in Dead Reckoning Part Two, or maybe she will return as part of Ethan’s plan to destroy the Entity. Regardless, the character deserves so much more.)
Personally, I hope Atwell continues to be a part of the franchise in the long run. She more than proves her worth in Dead Reckoning and completely stole the show. For all the high-wire stunts, fight sequences, complex face-offs, and shootouts, this latest Mission: Impossible will best be remembered for introducing Hayley Atwell into the long-running series. I’d call that mission accomplished.