Mission: Impossible–Fallout is the pinnacle of blockbuster filmmaking
Has there ever been another film franchise that has three home runs in a row? Because it’s not that the Missions: Impossible get better each time, but that they manage to be different every time. Like Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation before it, Mission: Impossible–Fallout remains true to the core of the series while having its own distinct look and feel.
There's one additional layer as to why that is impressive this time around. For the first time ever, a director returns to the franchise for a second turn. Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise have had an incredibly fruitful streak of collaborating over the last decade, from his writing credits on Valkyrie up through today, and Fallout is the third time McQuarrie has acted as writer/director on a Cruise project. This happens to also be the most ambitious and successful one yet from both an action and story perspective.
While stunts have always been a hallmark of the franchise, they’ve been escalating significantly since Cruise decided to climb the outside of the Burj Khalifa in Ghost Protocol. Fallout delivers on the sheer spectacle, featuring both a High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) jump and something that can only be described as helicopter acrobatics. Not that Cruise is doing acrobatics in a helicopter, but with a helicopter. That may sound like something Jason Statham’s over-the-top-intense character from Spy would brag about doing it, but McQuarrie and Cruise execute the key elements of good action so effectively, the only thing you can think in the moment is “ohmygodohmygodohmygod” as the action unfolds before you.
There are at least three technical elements of each action sequence in the film that are all handled superbly, from the two described above, a bathroom fight scene or a motorcycle chase through Parisian traffic. The first is the inherent authenticity of the stunts themselves. There are real people doing real things. I am sure that there are computers enhancing some of it (removing wires, compositing backgrounds) but there is something unmistakable about something actually happening. The second is that each of these scenes is shot to maximize visibility. The cuts and camera movements are purposeful, but each scene exists to show the action, not hide it in the edit. And the third is the sound design. Every rush of air passed the camera following a motorcycle, every thudding punch or crashing glass is used to the fullest effect. McQuarrie and team have chosen exactly what sounds are heard and when (something which happens in all movies, like the end of Die Hard where with police cars and a massive crowd, all you hear is falling paper of all things) but they have made all the right choices. The sounds in Fallout take the verisimilitude to that perfect level the series is known for, where you get a small dose of vertigo, or you can swear there really is wind rushing by your head at 100 miles an hour.
Ethan Hunt (Cruise) has always been the main character of these films, with his defining trait being that he has a superhuman ability to complete any task or overcome whatever obstacle that stands between him and “mission accomplished.” In some of these films, especially the two previous installments, this makes Ethan the unknowable Dad to a team of highly skilled specialists. Rarely did those films give us a glimpse inside the mind of Ethan Hunt the way that J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III did, pushing him to his limits because he wife was in danger. Hunt’s compassion is the only weakness he is allowed to have, which goes back to the first film in the series. This time, rather than as an act of desperation to try and control him, the situations Ethan must work through are designed to exploit this weakness and trap him in it.
The entire story begins to unfold because Ethan saves Luther’s (Ving Rhames) life rather than protecting weapons-grade plutonium. Behind the plot are the Apostles of Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), still imprisoned from Rogue Nation, but very much still plotting and sporting an even greasier look than before. Additionally, geopolitics puts the IMF team at odds with Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), and is also saddled with CIA oversight in the form of the with the cocky Agent Walker (Henry Cavill). Each situation Ethan faces is an escalating series of hard choices. How does a “living manifestation of destiny” contend with a no-win scenario?
McQuarrie has peeled back a layer of mystery from Ethan Hunt, making this the most nakedly emotional entry in the series. Through his best friend Luther, his ‘little brother’ Benji (Simon Pegg), his equal, Faust, and his rival Walker, we see all of these foils for Ethan, and people who understand him in a different way. Most impactful of all is Julia (Michelle Monaghan). After two movies dancing around or ignoring the fact that Tom Cruise’s character is married, we finally get the full understanding of their relationship. The reveal itself is masterfully handled, not in terms of surprise, but in the way this film handles the quieter moments just as well as the ones involving Tom Cruise running at full speed. It all comes down to Hunt's particular worldview, and the things that he feels are required from him, and what he will risk to accomplish his mission.
This is the key aspect of Fallout that makes it a unique entry in the series: it does not ignore Ethan’s past or the passage of time. Whenever the Bond films decide to do it, the rate of success varies from clumsy and obvious (Die Another Day, Spectre) to playful (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) to forming the thematic core of the film (Skyfall). Fallout is mostly in the Skyfall camp, while series diehards will notice that there’s at least one thing or moment that calls back to each prior entry in the series. Ethan Hunt, this is your life.
Fallout is an amazing achievement on every level, yet the focus on Ethan doesn’t leave a lot of room for the supporting cast (new and returning) to have their own complete storylines. The White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) stands out as a new character I would love to learn more about, but most of what we know about her is told to us rather than shown. All we really know is that she is excited by danger. So while the team dynamic at the backbone of Ghost Protcol remains my platonic ideal of a Mission: Impossible, Fallout is absolutely its equal while also completely on its own in terms of focus and tone. That we get both is what makes this the best film franchise.
Mission: Impossible–Fallout opens in Philly theaters today
We've been celebrating the Christmas in July that is the release of Mission: Impossible – Fallout all week long! Click on the image for all of the entries from the week: