2018 Film Essays

‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’ Won’t Let You Down

Continuing the narrative of his successful 2015 film Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, writer, director and now co-producer Christopher McQuarrie breaks with IMF tradition and commands the director’s seat a second time with Mission: Impossible — Fallout, aka MI6. When it comes to sheer quantity of triple-crosses, double agents, remote control gizmo toys, one-liners, stunts and rubber mask fake outs, Mission: Impossible — Fallout outdoes its predecessors. The big question now, however, is whether the longevity of this franchise is finally taking its toll on the overall quality.

Once again, Impossible Mission Force (IMF) agent Ethan Hunt and his spy fraternity face the impossible task of saving the world from an apocalyptic catastrophe. This narrative thread continues to be the bread and butter of the franchise, dating back to Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (2011). Yet, even with slight alterations to the standard apocalyptic tale, the Fallout “plot” remains largely superficial window dressing, consistent with its predecessors. It is the cast/crew chemistry and stunts that are the true selling points.

McQuarrie spices things up a bit by bringing back MI5’s villain, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). He is a radical anarchist, hell-bent on taking revenge on Hunt and the world, striving for maximum suffering to yield epic peace. Lane is a constant reminder to Hunt of his past failures and deepest fears. From MI5 to MI6, Lane’s character shifts from more of a strategist to an anarchist. Harris’ acting in MI6 as a doomsday prophet is excellent — yet not as energizing or entertaining as seen in MI5. His portrayal of anarchy is far more subdued and dull than that of Heath Ledger as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008).

This time, a new challenge to the IMF is the tight CIA leash around Hunt and his crew, as the top spook, August Walker (Henry Cavill), keeps a careful eye on them, with orders to terminate if they go rogue. Walker presents the main physical threat to Hunt individually, while Lane taunts the IMF top agent psychologically. Both target Hunt’s heart, and neither characterization is sufficiently strong.

The best relationship dynamic is between Hunt and MI6 Agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), another carryover from MI5. She continues to add new energy and a coolness factor to this veteran franchise. More importantly, as a femme fatale archetype, Faust presents a relationship challenge for Hunt, restoring to this franchise its cagey, team conflicts.

Yet, the adrenaline rush of the action sequences is the primary audience pleaser. Surpassing Rogue Nation, which had mid-tier heist stunts, Fallout jumps an even bigger shark with such style and grace that one cannot help but wonder in awe of the absurdity McQuarrie presents on screen. Cruise effectively turns Hunt into a mix of Captain America and Evil Knievel, chucking reality straight out the window. Throughout the stunts, McQuarrie and film editor Eddie Hamilton create a terrific visual narrative flow, and cinematographer Rob Hardy’s use of both medium and long shots in the IMAX format is especially impressive, pushing the IMAX format to its limit, comparable to Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Whether it is Paris’ night cityscape during an intense HALO jump or car and boat chases during the day, each MI6 frame pops with texture and exquisite attention to detail.

The best example of the crew’s talents does not come from the more dangerous moments, but, rather, from the smaller ones. McQuarrie’s directorial expertise shines during a tightly storyboarded fight sequence inside a Paris nightclub bathroom. In this scene, the camera is both wide in scope and tightly focused. There is a constant sense of dread, and with hardly any cross-cutting, McQuarrie infuses this imminent danger into the audience’s view. The MI6 editing is lightning fast and crisp; the direction and tone of the film is a hybrid of sorts. It combines the grittiness of the bathroom fight from True Lies (1994) and the cold precision of the restroom scene in Jeong-beom Lee’s The Man from Nowhere (2010). Due to a real sense of immersion in this scene, one feels the pain the characters are experiencing. The audience remains grounded in the heat of the moment and is never playing catch up due to choppy framing or blocking of the shot.

Finally, one must consider the Tom Cruise factor, the essence of the film itself. Cruise once again proves he is an actor sewn from a unique material that is all his own. His ability to be both mentally and physically capable of pulling off all his stunts is unparalleled. The fact he learned to fly a helicopter for a chase sequence that rivals cinema’s best — including Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971) — makes the film worth the price of admission. What merits criticism, however, in the MI6 depiction of Hunt’s scripted wholesomeness. We now have a version of this character whose feats of strength and sense of moral justice come off as two dimensional and rather cartoonish. Hunt is no longer the genuine, somewhat flawed guy who first endeared viewers back in 1996. Based on the reported influence that Cruise has on the franchise films, one assumes this specific portrayal of Hunt is based on the actor’s wishes for the character.

I suspect that McQuarrie is afraid of challenging Cruise, who gave him big breaks with films like Jack Reacher (2012) and Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation. McQuarrie may feel a sense loyalty to Cruise’s vision, not his own, and based on the way he scripts Ilsa Faust, it is obvious that he can write morally confused characters. Now imagine what McQuarrie could do with Ethan Hunt. By the end of MI6, the biggest question left isn’t about how one can top these stunts, but what constitutes the next stage in Ethan Hunt’s character arc?

Overall, Mission: Impossible — Fallout is a good summer flick that won’t let you down if you’re searching for cinematic entertainment. McQuarrie has proven himself to be an excellent director for future installments and probably worthy of taking the helm of DC Comics’ film division at Warner Brothers. J.J. Abrams should stay on as a long-term producer of the Mission: Impossible films because he helped mold the series in a sustainable franchise. However, it’s Tom Cruise who may be the issue. Cruise must cease playing Hunt sooner than later, if not now. Otherwise, Mission: Impossible films could turn into a form of spy self-parody, outdoing the worst of the final Roger Moore James Bond films. When it comes to explaining this to Cruise in a polite but matter of fact manner, that might prove to be the most impossible mission of them all.

Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture. 

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