Bond, Bourne, Hunt. Those are the prestige names in the modern spy blockbuster. Each offers their own brand of action: Bond offers culture and legacy; Bourne provides a modern political perspective in a medium dominated by Cold War archetypes; and Mission: Impossible is often a brilliant and spectacular showcase for Tom Cruise and the director of the week’s spectacular stunt filmmaking.
In that regard, Mission: Impossible – Fallout does not disappoint. McQuarrie is returning from Rogue Nation, but it’s appropriate given how Fallout is almost a direct sequel. Sean Harris reprises his role as the villainous Solomon Lane, and Rebecca Ferguson is back as Ilsa Faust, fulfilling arcs introduced in the previous film. Fallout is also the Mission: Impossible movie with the most attention towards the series continuity. Things that were paid lip service in other films are actually major plot points in this one. It’s refreshing to see the franchise grow beyond its standard and actually look back on itself for what seems like the first time.
Ethan Hunt is always Tom Cruise at his best. His charisma is on display here, and every second you see him you know why Hollywood pays that high price tag. Fallout, in particular, tries to push Cruise out of his acting comfort zone, yet remains in spheres he and the audience are comfortable with. Usually, this means providing that typical IMF crew banter, but not since M:I3 has this role been this emotionally intense for him. He performs well in dramatic scenes. His injury during the “window jump scene” is shown for the world to see. Ladies and gentlemen: it’s not often we see an actor push themselves so hard for a role. Even if it may not be an Academy worthy performance, the dedication is noticed and appreciated.
McQuarrie does a better job directing this than he did Rogue Nation. We’ll get to his writing in a bit, but the scenes around the dialogue and set pieces are gorgeous to look at. McQuarrie creates some sort of complexity in each shot — be it with color or space — that allows the edges of the screen to breathe while maintaining focus on the characters in the center. It’s impressive. The actual action is also so well-edited it creates a good sense of tension and adventure. That being said, certain sequences like the HALO jump or introductory handoff don’t showcase this editing in the same way as the uniquely fun combat or vehicle chases. Maybe it’s because sequences like those rely on space almost as much as the more intense stuff, but they’re not given enough time (their minor role considered) to create that space. Scenes like those are merely lesser moments of thrill in the grand design, and when the scene truly matters it blends much more nicely, like the sewer gunfight.
What’s thematically interesting about some of these set pieces is they’re creatively reused from other Mission: Impossible films. We’ve seen a lot of what’s here in previous M:I films, but McQuarrie adds elements to each moment that makes them feel fresh, and only the bare concept or image remains as an homage.
Fallout does, however, disappoint in everything else. I think this mostly comes down to the writing. It’s convoluted, hard to engage in, and fails in creating the right environments for the famous M:I fake outs and twists to really land. These aren’t problems exclusive to Fallout in the series, but what makes these problems nakedly visible are the pacing and structure. For instance, the film does not start with a standard set piece but instead chooses to offer all of its major exposition up front, hoping the audience can handle it. Usually, a Mission: Impossible film (and most spy movies, for that matter) start with an engaging set piece so the film feels like it has started and is moving forward, even if it might not go very far at all.
McQuarrie had the inverse of this problem in Rogue Nation, where he had the “Tom on the poster” stunt occur before the title card. Everything afterward worked, but the high had already been reached. Here, it takes a long time to get started. The title card drops and we still get more exposition, this time from Baldwin in the most cliché dialogue: “Ethan, you won’t sacrifice anyone to get the job done, and I think that makes you a hero.” And this is like fifteen minutes into the movie, tops. Jeez. Other characters don’t fare better when they’re given plot points to spout, but thankfully genuine character interactions replace these awkward chunks when the film finally picks up the speed it clearly wants.
To be positive, a lot of the creativity in the character work is easily felt, but nothing is sacrificed to get it. The “impossible mission” that presents itself in the middle act isn’t a conventional one like a secret vault that has fifty doors of firewall and requires the retina scan of a sixteenth-century Duke; it’s actually a job that forces Hunt to move himself into a morally grey territory for his country… until he walks it back and doesn’t actually go through with the plan. A cool motorcycle chase still happens and you’re not left feeling like you’re missing out. You see the seed of creativity, and you still get the heroic character you’re already familiar with. The ending has a huge emotional payoff, but that might also be the one moment where previous knowledge of the series is required.
The IMF crew always bring consistency, though Renner’s presence is missed. I think to bring back Lane as the villain was a big mistake, and the movie works hard to weave him into the narrative and even make him look smart for his part in it. It feels forced, but Harris delivers a performance that almost redeems it. I find myself going back and forth on whether Henry Cavill’s character, August Walker, is good or not. On the surface, he’s good casting (a rough CIA analog to Hunt), but they take many different directions with him (some that do not fit with that introductory image) that make Cavill less than perfect for the character in the final script. Again, I’m reminded of the HALO sequence more than anything in the latter half of the film. He still does an amazing job and walks away from the film more memorable than pretty much anyone other than Cruise.
If the introductory exposition wasn’t enough, the twists and turns send everything into free fall. That’s where streamlining this film might have come in handy. Instead, the reveals leave you with the worst kind of feeling: you saw it coming, but you’re still scratching your head wondering how they got there.
But when it gets to the final act, it doesn’t matter. The eye soaks in every frame of the last twenty minutes. Ethan Hunt is saving the world. I suppose that’s the nature of the beast. I never actually cared about Hunt or any of his friends; I want to feel like I’m on a rollercoaster. When the film is allowed to go full speed, you don’t want to get out of your chair. That’s what you bought the ticket for, and Fallout fulfills that and still finds the time to break new ground, even if it has some hiccups along the way. It needed to do that if the series was going to have legs for the future if it wanted to remain a prestige brand. If people think this is the best film in the franchise yet — I don’t — I can’t wait to see what’s next.