By this point we all know exactly what we’re in for when we sit down for the next Mission: Impossible installment: there will be a close-to-foolproof villainous plot for the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) team to try and stop, the IMF team will use deception and trickery to fool the villains (and the audience) during their mission that they undoubtedly choose to accept, the brass in charge will inevitably be an obstacle in the way, and there will be two to three showstopper action sequences – one of which involving the patented “Tom-Cruise-Run” – in which Tom Cruise will perform some death-defying stunts that will put everybody under 56 to shame. The only surprises lie in exactly how all of this will play out, and as incredible as it seems for a franchise that once had Tom Cruise run down the tallest skyscraper in the world from a hundred floors up, they have outdone themselves this time.
This sixth time around, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) rounds up his usual teammates Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg) to go after the mysterious John Lark, a member of an anarchist shadow conspiracy group called the Apostles who is looking to buy some stolen (and movie-prop friendly) plutonium for some less-than-altruistic purposes, with the simple purpose of capturing Lark and retrieving the stolen plutonium. Slightly complicating this mission is the addition of CIA hitman August Walker (Henry Cavill) who is assigned to the IMF team by new brass-in-charge Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) after Hunt botches the previous attempt to retrieve the plutonium in order to save his team. As with all the later Mission: Impossible sequels, the plot mostly serves as the vehicle to tie together some spectacular set-pieces, but in this case the plot is both elegantly simple to follow along and subtly clever so that in the midst of the chaos the larger point of why exactly Ethan Hunt is doing whatever death-defying act he is currently engaged in.
Much of that has to do with returning director Christopher McQuarrie (the first to do so in this series) who, being freed from the need to reimagine the series in his own image, produces a much more assured and confident picture. He also reveals his screenwriter background in crafting perhaps the twistiest Mission: Impossible since the original Brian De Palma picture. In making the main villain of this piece the returning Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) he also breaks with Mission: Impossible tradition by making this the first true sequel of the series and is all the better for it as it simply allows us to dive into the action without backstory or character development getting in the way.
But in describing the plot and direction I may be guility of burying the lede here. The success of any Mission: Impossible installment is in seeing Tom Cruise, and particularly in seeing Tom Cruise do some absolutely insane things. And Fallout is no different. In many ways the Mission: Impossible franchise is the most old-fashioned movie series still out there in that it explicitly relies on its A-lister star for most of its appeal. And Tom Cruise is similarly the last of his species: the A-list star who can get a ridiculous amount of us to show up just because his name is on the marquee. After playing Ethan Hunt for 20 years, the character has clearly become the idealized embodiment of who we think Cruise is, and probably how he views himself. Every Mission: Impossible movie comes with his personal endorsement and his explicit promise to the audience: “Come see me, and I promise you will be entertained.” And it is awe-inspiring to see exactly to what lengths Cruise will put his body on the line and pour his soul into his work to deliver on that promise.
The real reason this movie is easily one of the best in the series is the action set-pieces which are truly some of the most breathtaking I’ve seen since Mad Max: Fury Road. And like Fury Road, the reason why they are so spectacular is simple. When Ethan Hunt does a HALO skydive early on, it becomes immediately apparent that this is no green-screened scene but rather we are actually witnessing Tom Cruise plunge through the skies in a single-take while the cameraman has an IMAX camera strapped to him. While recent action blockbusters of the superhero variety have staged climactic CGI-laden battles, this installment of Mission: Impossible seems particularly hellbent on shooting as much practical effects as is humanly possible – and is all the more impressive for it. The skydive is followed by the most visceral fistfight of the year which is followed by a vehicle chase through Paris that is easily among the top 10 chases of all time, and so the movie goes. Though CGI has come a long, long way since the original Mission: Impossible movie in 1996, Fallout is a treastise-like showcase of how practical effects, performed by real people and staged in real life, are still superior.
Of course there is an argument to be made that a reason Fallout works so well is that it also is the one that makes us care about the Ethan Hunt the least. Having already established after five movies that the man is basically invulnerable, it is hard to get too concerned about his fate when he engages in his death-defying antics. Fortunately Fallout is filled to the brim with a host of secondary characters for us to get invested in. There is the aforementioned Benji and Luther who by this point in the franchise have established a perfectly callibrated rapport with one another and are decidedly more mortal than their partner. The returning Rebecca Ferguson as the mysterious MI6 agent Ilsa Faust is a welcome addition to the foray as the series finally seems to have nailed down a female character who is just as competent as Hunt while working for her own motives and adding some emotional stakes to the bargain. Even the addition of Walker adds a tense dynamic to the proceedings as his “shoot first ask questions later” philosophy disrupts the finely-tuned rhythm of the team. Thus while Hunt remains invincible, there are enough vulnerable teammates who are equally heavily involved this go-round that keeps the movie feeling tense throughout.
For all the high-flying risks this movie takes with its actors (and Cruise in particular) however, the one frustration I have is in how safe the movie plays with our expectations. For the past few installments, the filmmakers have toyed with the idea that Ethan Hunt might finally have his deep well of loyalty to the IMF dry up and this movie comes closest to having him finally betray and break bad. Yet just like his older British cousin James Bond, that remains a mere tease as the Hunt and gang more or less end up in the exact same place they began. The movie teeters back and forth between some truly game-changing scenarios but settles for a status quo.
Still this is but a minor complaint from one wanting to have it all. Because it is undeniable that Tom Cruise and company have done a remarkable thing: they have managed to produce arguably the best instalment of a movie franchise 22 years after the original and six movies in. It is everything you could ask for in a summer blockbuster, and a giddy reminder that pure entertainment and quality filmmaking need not be mutually exclusive fields.
Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
Written by Christopher McQuarrie
Starring Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Kiryby, Alec Baldwin
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