I like to think of the first three Mission: Impossible movies as a Goldilocks trial.
Brian De Palma jumped on the first movie and crafted a stone classic, if only for that oft-imitated vault sequence. De Palma’s film was a swervy, paranoid popcorn thriller that got lambasted long after release for having a plot that was, well, impossible to keep up with. In other words, too hard.
So enter John Woo and the second movie, a pure action vehicle for Cruise with a plot that borrows heavily from Hitchcock’s Notorious. It was Woo indulging in some of his worst excesses as a filmmaker and while it’s no small amount of fun (especially if you’re a fan of Woo’s), it was rightfully derided as one of the dumbest blockbusters of its time. Too soft.
Then J.J. Abrams cracked the code with the third movie. He brought it back to what made the TV show work—team-based shenanigans, steering slightly away from being a pure Tom Cruise vehicle in favor of an ensemble model—and rooted it as deep in character as he could. M:I–3 kept the nature of its big threat vague but confined the real menace to our heroes in middle managers with personal grudges, people who shouldn’t normally be a problem, people that spy films tend to cast aside. Frankly, it was better for it. I’ve spoken to people who have big, understandable problems with the third movie, but for the most part, it was Just Right. Abrams moved on from the director’s chair, but Bad Robot stayed involved and Cruise built off that film.
Frankly, there’s a whole series to be written about the evolution of the Mission: Impossible film franchise. Suffice to say for the purposes of this review, after the third movie, the films kept going in a positive, character-based direction. Slightly echoing 3, Ghost Protocol had a bad guy and an evil plot to foil, but the real villain was technology, screwing over Ethan Hunt’s team at every chance, forcing them to lean on each other. When Christopher McQuarrie took over with Rogue Nation, he built on that with a narrative that was borderline distrustful of any authority that treated agents as disposable. It’s almost like the last three films have been trying to tell us something in defiance of nearly every serious spy narrative and even some of the less serious ones (*cough cough* Bond): That the people in the field matter just as much as the mission.
With Mission: Impossible – Fallout, McQuarrie comes back for a franchise-first encore as writer/director to bring that subtext to the forefront of the narrative and flash it right in the viewer’s face. The narrative directly addresses Ethan Hunt’s nigh-pathological inability to sacrifice innocent lives for the greater good, and the resulting film is a success beyond even my wildest expectations.
Whereas Rogue Nation felt like a heist film at times, with Ethan Hunt having a solid grip on the situation no matter how dire it might get, Fallout has the team constantly on the run after Ethan chooses to save the life of his longtime friend Luther (Ving Rhames) instead of securing three plutonium cores from the remains of the Syndicate, whom the IMF crippled in the last film but couldn’t quite finish off before they could reform as “The Apostles.” The Apostles have the ability to weaponize those cores in 72 hours, so Ethan’s team better run like hell to get them back. A constant refrain in the film is that the team needs to do some crazy thing, but they often don’t know how they’ll do it until they get there. These guys are constantly hanging off a runaway train that’s coming up real fast on the edge of the cliff and you can hear the panic in Ethan’s voice as he keeps slipping and screaming “IT’S OKAY IT’S OKAY I STILL HAVE THIS I THINK” and it’s absolutely exhilarating to watch.
If that was all there was to it, though, it’d be little more than a fun action movie. McQuarrie, long underappreciated before this movie apparently (and deservedly) got him on the radar for Man of Steel 2, knows so much better than that. The first scene of the film is a dream sequence that quickly reintroduces Ethan Hunt’s wife from the third movie, Julia, played once again by Michelle Monaghan. We last saw her in a quick cameo at the end of Ghost Protocol, revealing that she had to fake her death and go into hiding after Ethan went back into the field. The dream sequence none too subtly expresses Ethan’s intense regrets about essentially ruining Julia’s life; putting it up front colors every decision Ethan makes about his teammates and the potential collateral damage around him. When he says, and then quietly repeats “I won’t let you down” to his teammates during a crucial action sequence, it’s coming from a part of him who knows just how capable he is of doing so. Suddenly, all the dangerous, borderline insane shit Ethan does to complete his mission without getting anyone hurt just feels like a way to drown out the voice in his head that keeps telling him he’ll always be a failure. (Knowing that many of these stunts were performed by Cruise himself with no safety nets in place becomes…interesting in that light.)
Then there’s the supporting cast. Hunt’s unwanted partner in this mission is August Walker (Henry Cavill), a CIA-assigned watchdog ordered to get the plutonium back on his agency’s behalf and kill Ethan if he should step out of line. As an antagonist, Walker makes for an interesting counterpoint to Hunt. Like Solomon Lane (Sean Harris, making a return here looking haggard and wild-eyed compared to his unsettlingly sleek look from the last movie), he’s a calculator; he’s willing to live with collateral damage for the sake of a successful mission. Unlike Lane, he runs hot, often charging into situations without thinking them through, and if that sounds familiar, you’ve been paying attention. If Lane is the diametric opposite of who Hunt is, Walker is the guy Hunt could’ve been if one or two things were different, the guy Hunt probably wishes he was on one occasion or another.
On that note, Rebecca Ferguson returns as Ilsa Faust, pursuing the plutonium for her own mysterious reasons despite being essentially freed from the spy life in the last film. Simon Pegg is also back as Benji Dunn, as is Alec Baldwin as IMF Secretary Hunley. Of course, they all give fantastic performances, but it’s significant that there are no real new additions to the team this time. All of these people have a history with Ethan. All of them are in a position to get really hurt by him, at least in his mind. Ilsa, in particular, is so closely aligned with Ethan’s personality that he feels a particular kinship with her, maybe even more than Julia; suddenly, his haunting concerns about his former wife give his refusal to follow Ilsa to “freedom” in the last movie, and the ways he tries to discourage her in this movie, a brand new context. “Fallout” doesn’t just refer to the consequences of Ethan’s decision at the film’s onset, it refers to his general fear of destroying others with his baggage. There’s an emotional struggle with the self that’s playing out in the background behind the “Go get the nuclear material before it violently reshapes the world as we know it” struggle that you’re paying to see, giving Ethan (and, in turn, the film as a whole) a deeper, more vulnerable, more relatable sense of humanity than ever. Mind you, this series wasn’t exactly lacking for humanity to begin with.
Not that the stuff you’re paying for is a letdown. For a 147 minute monster, this is some of the leanest filmmaking I’ve seen in an action movie, save for maybe the John Wick movies. The comparisons going around to Mad Max: Fury Road might be a bit unfair; this movie isn’t nearly as relentless. McQuarrie and editor Eddie Hamilton (returning from Rogue Nation) aren’t afraid to go quiet and take their time through small, personal beats that break up (and ultimately support) the big, loud chaos of the action. But none of it feels superfluous; every moment on screen supports a future moment or brings further context to a previous moment. I wouldn’t cut a damn second of this thing nor would I want to. I wouldn’t add to it either; when the end credits hit, I felt so satisfied I literally didn’t know what to do with myself, opting to stand in the lobby like an idiot for several minutes while I tried to work out how the hell Christopher McQuarrie did that.
Oh, the action scenes. I don’t quite know how to describe them except to say you’re not prepared. I was privileged enough to see this on a big IMAX screen, and if you can afford it, you should too. The fight scenes feel astonishingly brutal and immersive—and not just because of Cruise. Part of the reason Cavill does so well here is that he’s maybe the only guy in this franchise I’ve seen whose physical performance could credibly stand toe to toe with Cruise’s. Much has been rightly made about the moment Cavill “reloads” his arms in the much-publicized bathroom brawl; rest assured, that’s only a hint as to how intense he is. Between that and Cruise’s apparent wish to die on a movie set, these scenes are next level. There’s a HALO jump in the movie you might have heard about; one take, no CG, just Tom Cruise being Tom Cruise, and a cameraman and stuntman brave enough to follow him.
Yeah, that happens at the top of the second act. Try to imagine how they steadily build on that and ramp up to the finale, and then ask yourself how the hell Cruise managed to only break a leg while filming this movie.
Fallout is already a miracle, and I haven’t even gotten into Rob Hardy’s (Ex Machina, Annihilation) cinematography, Lorne Balfe’s (The Crown) score, or some of the excellent sound design on display—particularly the way the score will drop out for some action scenes to really emphasize the raw impact, while one other scene is set entirely to score without sound effects to emphasize its ethereal and horrific qualities. There are so many elements of this movie that demand praise, but it’s that quiet personal hook that I keep coming back to, the one that cuts through the gimmickry and playfulness of the franchise and gets at some of the realest shit I’ve ever seen a nine-figure tentpole actioner so much as attempt to address.
J.J. Abrams figured this series out when he shifted focus to the human side of Ethan Hunt. Three films later, Cruise and McQuarrie have utterly perfected it. Blockbuster filmmaking doesn’t get better than Mission: Impossible – Fallout.
Watch the trailer here:
All images courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie
Based on the TV series created by Bruce Geller
Produced by Tom Cruise, Christopher McQuarrie, Jake Myers, J.J. Abrams
Starring Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 147 minutes