I have a confession to make. There’s this thing that happens to people who review movies on any kind of quasi-professional circuit. A kind of numbing of the enthusiasm gland by proxy of the inability to overlook a film’s shortcomings. The more movies one takes in, the more unavoidable it is to not diagnose lazy writing, poor story structure, bland acting, choppy VFX… The collection of pratfalls these XXL “turn your brain off” tentpole films tend to suffer. When you see 200 movies a year, the bar to dazzle becomes impossibly high. What works for general audiences who catch a movie every few months often feels flat and stale for the critic – just another coat of crisp digital paint lazily slathered on poorly recycled narrative – because we’ve already seen this exact story twice this year.
I’m not trying to be elitist. Quite the opposite in fact. In many ways, us obsessive movie watchers have inoculated ourselves to thrills. We’ve chased the dragon so adamantly that nothing short of cinematic heroin manages to finger the dial. Which is to say that when a movie does manage to dazzle, to amaze, to alarm, to make one’s palms sweat and one’s knuckles cocaine white, to conjure one to stab a fingernail marks into one’s own knees – that is a feat worth standing up and dancing for. Mission Impossible: Fallout is that rare elixir for the criminally underwhelmed. Watching it, I felt like Tuco Salamanca snorting the blue. It kicks like a mule. I expect I’ll be chasing that feeling like a salivating addict for the next few years at the cineplexes.
The final guard of a dying age of superstar, Tom Cruise is the last action hero and never has his skill been in sharper focus. If the Mission Impossible franchise has long been a stage for Cruise to display his considerable athleticism and unwavering charisma, Fallout is the movie equivalent of a coup de grâce; the jaw-dangling muscle work of American Ninja Warrior crossbred with the raw magnetism of a Bachelorette contestant. At one point, Cruise snaps his foot like a carrot vaulting over rooftops and limps away to make sure his team gets the shot. That kind of commitment cannot be faked. You can’t digitally create actual pain. You can’t synthesize thrills on this scale. If Fallout is one long cinematic orgasm, it sure ain’t faked.
Through single-shot HALO jumps to flipping and spinning in an actual helicopter (CGI be damned), Cruise gives his body and soul over to Ethan Hunt’s death-defying shenanigans, putting himself in the pilot seat on every incredibly dangerous stunt asked of him. And that work shows. Fallout is intensity purified by extension of Cruise’s unadulterated commitment. Like Hunt for his mission, Cruise is quite literally willing to die for these movies.
The post-colon Fallout part of the title applies in two ways. On the one hand, this is the first proper sequel for the now 22-year old series, with events, characters, plot-lines and even the villain (the snake-tongued Sean Harris, now with a fiery scraggle of disheveled hair) directly entangled with 2015’s Rogue Nation. Mission Impossible has long been a series built on reinvention – the constant changing of the creative guard is part and parcel of why each entry feels so wildly diverse and born anew. The injection of fresh talent has proved critical lifeblood for the series – and allows for each installment to be so stylistically dissimilar – but in maintaining the same director (Christopher McQuarrie) – a move I was admittedly initially suspect of – Mission Impossible has never reached such impossible heights. McQuarries takes the notion of making a direct sequel to a long running franchise – a la 007’s not-so-successful Quantum of Solace – and uses it to blow everything up to the nth degree. The set pieces are bigger, longer, more fulfilling and always tethered to a pertinent emotional stake. If Brad Bird’s unbelievably entertaining Ghost Protocol felt like a benchmark for high-flying action-circus antics and MI:3 tied Ethan’s emotional cycles and life outside the job into the proceedings, Mission Impossible: Fallout harangues the whole kit and caboodle into one non-stop rollercoaster of in-your-face set pieces and genuine emotional payoff.
Tipping his hat to earlier franchise watermarks, McQuarrie homages by recreating and perfecting. There’s a bite of nostalgia cheese for every Mission Impossible fan in the audience, casual or hardcore alike, with a spread of sequences that mimic that whence came before. There’s a play on the duplicitous opening interrogation of the first Mission Impossible, a Benji-navigated parkour sprint from MI:3, the high-speed motorcycle races of MI:2 and Rogue Nation. A callback to Max. Even Hunt’s skill for cliff-face free climbing makes an appearance. Fallout plays like an updated greatest hits album whose remixing transcends the original tracks. It’s a goddamn action masterpiece.
On the other side of the spectrum, Fallout is about choice. Specifically, the choice to save one life at the expense of the many. The fallout of an early decision launches the plot of this sixth mission, forcing Hunt and his team to play catch up, always a step behind, relying on hope and chance and willing to risk everything to save not just the world but each other. Ethan Hunt grapples with the idea of sacrifice at many a critical junction and McQuarrie manages to further complicate a once-not-so-well-defined character by asking what he is willing to sacrifice for the greater good. This makes for a darker entry – one super-enhanced by Rob Hardy’s artful, picturesque cinematography and Lorne Balfe’s spectacularly riveting score – one that confidently puts character development and action spectacle on the same footing.
Here, Hunt is joined by IMF mainstays Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg) to recover three plutonium cores. In imprisoned anarchist Solomon Lane’s (Harris) absence, the former Syndicate has collapsed and transmogrified into rogue operators calling themselves The Apostles. With the help of recent ally/platonic love interest Isla Faust (Rebecca Ferguson, absolutely killing it again) and under the watchful eye of sinewy handler Walker (Henry Cavill and his sex mustache, both welcome additions), Hunt and his team are tasked with recovering these weapons of mass destruction before the new world order is aggressively dismantled.
As is often the case in these kinds of movies, the plot is secondary. Even Mad Max: Fury Road, rightfully hailed as one of the few great action movies of the generation, was essentially a story about a guy and a girl driving into the desert, and then driving back. What makes an action movie soar is the world-building, the characters, the sense of adventure. And, equally important, balls-to-the-walls practical effects. CGI may have made the impossible possible but stripping that back returns gravity to the proceedings. These punches connect. These falls have weight. The fallout is real. So too is Fallout one of the greatest action movies of the 21st century.
CONCLUSION: ‘Mission Impossible: Fallout’ is action movie heroin. Impossibly entertaining, grittier and more artful than its forebearers while still maintaining its smarmy roguish charms, ‘Fallout’ is the result of mind-blowing technical merit underscored by well-earned emotional connection. Tom Cruise proves once and for all that he simply is not human.