Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)
Here there be spoilers...
The Mission: Impossible franchise has proven uniquely durable at a time when most big movie properties have been recast and rebooted into the ground, and it’s attracted some loudly announced affection from cinephiles in recent years. It’s not too hard to discern why. At a time when blockbuster cinema is increasingly dominated by special effects-driven epics, many of them packed full of CGI-enabled superheroes played by actors cast more for personality than athleticism, the Mission: Impossible films still fly the flag for relatively old-fashioned Hollywood values, as sturdy star vehicles sporting globe-trotting productions and an emphasis on authentically dizzying stunts and relatively human-scale action mayhem. Cruise’s interest in working with diverse directors resulted in a series that’s been defined by each talent chosen to handle the instalments. Brian De Palma kicked off the series way back in 1996, wrapping up some incoherent secret agent cavorting with a fine gloss of De Palma set-piece deployment that laced together Hitchcock and the likes of Topkapi (1964), and a uniquely rude approach to the inherited paraphernalia of Bruce Geller’s popular 1960s TV series.
John Woo took over for the infamously showy, woozy 1999 sequel. J.J. Abrams made the leap from television to handle the third film in 2006 and injected emotional stakes for the hero but also gussied proceedings up in choppy, kinetic yet awkward filmmaking. Animator Brad Bird took on the fourth episode, Ghost Protocol, in 2011, bringing some real ingenuity to staging even as he all but revelled in the series’ shallowness. Screenwriter-turned-director Christopher McQuarrie, who had worked with Cruise on Jack Reacher (2012), took on the series with 2015’s Rogue Nation. The plot here takes up several dangling threads from previous instalments, including the fates of Ethan Hunt’s (Cruise) former wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) and spy turned insidious chaos-monger Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), in an entry that aims for a slightly more serious and consequential tone than most of its predecessors. Hunt, working with long-time assistants Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames), is on the trail of some bunch who have stolen a set of three ball-shaped plutonium warheads. When they try to buy the balls back in the traditional dark alley, a shadowy figure takes Luther hostage and uses him to take Hunt to take his eye off the prize just long enough to steal the plutonium.
IMF boss Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) is forgiving as he sends Hunt and team back out to finish the job, stating it’s precisely Hunt’s care for the immediate and palpably human that enables him to be so good at defending it all on the macrocosmic level. But new CIA chief Eric Sloan (Angela Bassett) is less persuaded, so she sends along a younger company man to keep Hunt on the rails, August Walker (Henry Cavill), as Hunt sets out to track down a mysterious mastermind named John Lark who seems to be orchestrating various terrorist operations. Hunt and Walker parachute into Paris for some reason to make contact with a broker dubbed The White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), who proves to be a relative of Hunt’s former underworld contact Max (played once upon a time by Vanessa Redgrave), as she’s mediating the sale of the plutonium to Lark. Another interested party saves Hunt’s neck just as a killer posing as Lark is about to break it: Hunt’s former rival and sometime helpmate Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), still working for British Intelligence, with orders to kill Lane before he spills too many beans. Hunt himself pretends to be Lark and learns from The White Widow that the price of obtaining the balls will be to spring Lane from custody as he’s being transported through Paris.
Jack Reacher was distinguished by McQuarrie’s surprisingly controlled handling, which showed he had learned much in the intervening fourteen years since his junky directing debut The Way of the Gun (2001), particularly in the opening scene of sniper violence. McQuarrie’s emphasis on the perspective of his heroes and villains and patience in staging his action scenes gave it a sense of cause and effect and coherence of time and space that felt particularly unusual. Nothing McQuarrie has brought to the Mission: Impossible films so far suggests the same level of inspiration, nor is his writing for them as vividly serpentine and nightmarish as his screenplay for Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995). There’s an echo of that film’s eerie sense of labyrinthine cabals and dank underworlds in Fallout’s conspiring terrorist groups, but there’s no chance to let that similarity fester and gain real menace or relevance. They are, instead, just fodder to justify the next extended set-piece, which are quite well done but not particularly better than anything you used to see every other week in ‘90s action flicks.
The chief selling point for the films is Cruise, running, jumping, punching, free-falling, and occasionally standing still long enough to deliver exposition. Cruise’s physical commitment on screen is indeed admirable. Yet the more I feel ordered to admire Cruise the less inclined I am, and find myself utterly unable to warm to these films except on the most ephemeral level as moderately entertaining diversions. Despite the many big claims made for them, they’re never particularly clever, or exciting, or funny, in very large part because, no matter who’s behind the camera, they all feel as carefully calculated and scrubbed of specificity as Cruise’s ahistorical screen persona. Six movies in with this series and Hunt still has no distinguishing features, so the attempts to make a big thing out of him laying to rest aspects of his past, including a salutary encounter with Julia, are very modestly affecting but hardly the stuff of operatic emotion. Harp on about James Bond’s retrograde aura all you want, but at least he has characteristics and traits. Where Cruise used to be interesting when he was willing to play against his aura of the well-scrubbed yuppie ideal incarnate, today he’s becoming ossified within that persona, and Hunt is its perfect iteration.
There’s an air of obviousness to the casting elsewhere – Bassett playing a stern high-ranker just as she did in the Olympus/London Has Fallen films, Cavill getting his spy mojo on again after the (vastly superior) The Man From UNCLE (2015), Pegg playing the same comic relief sidekick as he offered in the revived Star Trek films – that emphasises the feeling factory parts are just being swapped around. Rhames brings a carefully pitched sense of sagacity and feeling to his role as Luther, almost enough to make you forget the franchise has kept him hanging about without much to do for several entries and he’s been trucked in to give proceedings a tenuous air of legacy and emotional depth. These films offer weak camaraderie, chiefly relying on vague affection for the readymade personas of the actors, like Pegg’s trademarked nerdy pluck. The film opens with an extended bluff sequence involving Benji in disguise as TV anchor Wolf Blitzer, a sequence that nods to the property’s long history of disguise and deception. And yet there’s never any feel for the pleasures of watching actors playing characters acting, no real wit or deviousness to such devices or parsed levels of performance.
Ferguson does a remarkable amount with her paltry role as she did in the last film, in part because she knows how to project Ilsa’s nominal inner turmoil as well as her poise and toughness. Ilsa is smartly offered not simply as a feminine counterpart to Hunt but also his distorted reflection, enthralled to the agencies that control her and obliged to subsist on the edge of an existential void, for where Hunt is privileged to gallivant around performing glorious missions, she’s sent out to shoot people and square the British ledger. Meanwhile another series signature, the alternation of expansive action sequences with excruciatingly stolid sequences where the characters discuss the plot and formulate plans, here reaches an apogee, or nadir, with an extended sequence of crossing and doublecrossing where Walker is exposed as the real Lark and Hunley is killed in a melee. The chief result of this is that we have to go through the motions of having another steely-eyed, disapproving boss be slowly won over to the awesomeness of Hunt and Co.
Casting the strapping young Cavill and setting him up against Cruise’s Hunt, who, despite all of Cruise’s efforts is starting to look genuinely weathered, could have opened up an opportunity to steer the series in a Howard Hawksian direction where rivalry and amity entwine, the old dog and new try to learn each-other’s tricks, and the band gets back together because they'd rather risk death in each-other's company than subsist without it. Cavill certainly seems more potent as a Hunt alternate than Jeremy Renner ever did. But the film cops out of this entirely by revealing Walker as a bad guy – itself a heavily signalled twist that lands without shock. God forbid Cruise would let anyone truly share his spotlight at this stage in his career. The fight scene that sees the two actors going up against the fake Lark has a good jolt of grit and dark humour as they both get their asses handed to them, and it’s a moment that exploits Cavill and Cruise’s diverse modes of physicality. Elsewhere, however, there’s an emphasis on “crazy” schemes and derring-do, and yet there’s never any feeling of authentic craziness welling from the filmmaking or acting. Trouble is, that’s usually where the real energy of action cinema wells from. McQuarrie tries to vary the style a little by interpolating brief episodes of imagining and fantasy, episodes that chiefly prove that McQuarrie doesn’t have an elegiac bone in his body.
That said, there are enough good moments here to keep the film watchable. One of these sees Hunt trying to deal with a Parisian policewoman who happens upon him and his team in compromising posture, only for some of Lark’s goons to open fire on them both – a touch that emphasises a certain faith propping up this series in the difference between precision and force, the personal and the global entwined. The parachuting sequence, which seems shoehorned in purely to offer an early jolt of extreme action, is well-done on its own terms, even if it makes no sense given that our genius undercover criminal mastermind almost gets himself killed for little good cause. The finale is reasonably tense and spectacular, McQuarrie cutting between three different stages of action with competence, but there’s also a strong overtone of deja-vu that’s summarised neatly when Lane thuds his fist on the floor after he’s foiled again by these meddling kids. Half the world is saved from death by radiation poisoning, but the bigger deal is that by the fade-out the decks are finally cleared so that Hunt can at least get it on with his new lady with a minimum of angst.