It’s becoming more obvious with each passing entry in this franchise that there are two distinct series within the Mission: Impossible franchise, now a hexalogy with its current installment, the Christopher McQuarrie-helmed Mission: Impossible — Fallout. The first for 10 years, beginning with Brian De Palma’s deeply underrated response to the stately and safe world of the Bond films, offering carnage and true suspense to the stately thrills of the Cold Warrior’s adventures, and ended with J.J. Abrams releasing a made-for-TV movie in cinemas all over the world that saw Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise, duh) settle down with Michelle Monaghan (who looks disconcertingly like Katie Holmes with the benefit of hindsight) despite his inclinations towards making impossible missions possible.
The second trilogy began with Brad Bird’s excellent Ghost Protocol, and may very well end with this one, and are essentially $200 million Jackass films: Plots strung around a series of stunts single-handedly meant to put Tom Cruise in danger for our pleasure. Bird succeeded wildly at his attempt, and McQuarrie, who also helmed the last film, 2015’s Rogue Nation, did arguably a little better with that installment. Fallout, while still an incredibly entertaining and very good film, is probably the weakest film the second trilogy, and the fourth best overall in the Mission: Impossible franchise.
We pick up two years after the events of Rogue Nation, in which Hunt foiled the plans of ex-MI6 agent Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) and the rest of his organization, The Syndicate, with the help of disavowed agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson, still the most badass woman in spy films) and his usual team of crackerjack IMF agents, tech nerd Benji (Simon Pegg, who Cruise seems significantly more comfortable around) and strong and steady Luther (Ving Rhames, underrated in these movies as a emotional grounding agent). This time, Hunt and company have to stop a group called the Apostles — a group of luddite terrorists who are looking to bring about peace by detonating nuclear weapons in major religious centers — from getting plutonium cores stolen from Russian missile silos. He chooses to accept said mission, but fucks up the initial hand-off, choosing instead to save Luther’s life instead of preventing the cores from falling into the wrong hands. This action gets him on the CIA’s shit list, earning him the scorn of new agency head Erica Sloane (a fierce Angela Bassett), who decides to pair Hunt with August Walker (Henry Cavill, who is playing against type and is great at it), a CIA “plumber” who is tasked with getting the plutonium at any cost, even if it means going through Hunt. This, of course, will put them at loggerheads down the line, especially when allegiances are revealed and alliances betrayed.
So, that’s a lot of plot, and the film’s only so good at keeping its head above the lake of exposition it has made for itself. McQuarrie’s pacing is just a bit off this time around, which is disconcerting, given how both Jack Reacher‘s and (especially) Rogue Nation‘s stories unfolded like precious blossoms, and there’s a lot more talk and a whole lot less action than you might expect from what others have been saying. And, sadly, when left to their characters alone, these movies suffer greatly. There’s no good reason for particular characters to withhold information from each other, but they do simply so they can have a dramatic stage-y confrontation full of banal platitudes further on down the line. No scene in this film is as striking as Faust’s introduction in Rogue Nation, and it makes me wonder where that McQuarrie went.
Also, this franchise lives and dies on its new blood — of which there’s only Cavill and his boss, Angela Bassett — and its slate-wiping from film to film. McQuarrie is the series’ first returning director, and it suffers a little bit from the fact that there’s no stylistic switch-up between films like there has been in the past. And as much as I like nasal English voices sneering at me, Solomon Lane isn’t an Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and it’s frustrating, a bit, to have his pitch-perfect ending undone by McQuarrie and company so they didn’t have to start from scratch. The main villain (and Lane isn’t it) would have been effective enough as is, why complicate that?
Unfazed by the diminishing returns surrounding him, Cruise hurls himself into each stunt with aplomb, and you can never fault the man’s effort, being the hardest-working masochist in show-business. After all, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, you’ve probably heard the story of how the actor shattered his ankle in the process of of jumping between two buildings for an action sequence. He also did HALO jumps for Christ’s sake, throwing himself out of the back of a cargo plane with specially-built high altitude diving gear so that his face could be illuminated throughout. These are two scenes that read better than they are being watched, and I honestly find myself going back over each sentence wondering why the hell I responded the way I did to them. Perhaps that it’s just that the stakes never really landed for me in any meaningful way, especially given that one now has five previous installments to compare them to. All I know is that Cruise did his personal best to keep me riveted, and when the movie was on his set-only-to-fun wavelength throughout the first two acts — especially during two incredibly clever comedic sequences involving those damn printable masks (the writing highlight of the film to be sure) — I jived with it, and when the movie zigged into an overly plotty and dramatic direction, I zagged.
Thankfully, that last act is a doozy on a cinematic and storytelling level, featuring some of the best cross-cutting that you’ll find in modern cinema outside of a Christopher Nolan movie and, despite him not sustaining a production-halting injury, Cruise’s best stunt work in the entire film. Apparently the actor actually learned how to fly a helicopter — dangerously so — in order to pull off some of the crazy shit he does in the final thirty minutes, and his effort pays off handsomely, being a white-knuckle cavalcade of outstanding action. It is single-handedly worth the price of admission and more to see Cruise try and ram another helicopter out of the sky and come dangerously close to smacking into a cliff face in the process, and absolutely worth putting up with some of the film’s shaggier bits. Is it as good as, say, the high-wire act he pulled off in Ghost Protocol, dangling at a vertigo-inducing height off the Burj Khalifa? No, it isn’t — one could argue that that installment suffers greatly because the film’s climax pales in comparison to that stunt — but it comes close enough. That alone is enough to push the film over into “good movie” territory, but I’d honestly be surprised if I ever watch this movie again. It’s not endlessly rewatchable like a number of films in this franchise, and I’m kind of bummed out by that.
It’s a bit unfashionable to acknowledge the presence of other critics in one’s own review, but I have to say that I honestly don’t understand where some of the more breathless reactions to this film are coming from. Fallout is a fun time, but to place it on the same plane as an achievement like Fury Road feels a bit beyond the pale, especially given George Miller’s masterpiece is a full 30 minutes shorter, while also being more chock-full o’action than any of its contemporaries, without sacrificing any of the essentials — character, plot, stakes.
Fallout, on the other hand, suffers from the fact that it emphasizes two of those things above all others — its twisty-turns plot and its star’s willingness to die for our entertainment — to the detriment of everything else. Who the hell really is Ethan Hunt? Why should I give a damn about his marriage? What happened, you know, after Russia got straight-up blowed up in Ghost Protocol, if we’re going to start making these movies adhere to a more strict canon? No previous Mission: Impossible left me with questions like these, and I don’t necessarily know if that’s a good thing. Fallout is fine enough, and you’ll probably be entertained by it, but I’m excited to see what Danny Boyle and company bring to the table for Bond 25. Perhaps it’ll cause this franchise to further, once again.
Still from Mission: Impossible — Fallout via Paramount Pictures.