Mission: Impossible — Fallout completes possibly the most improbable cinematic hat trick in Hollywood history: An unpromising series that began with three patchy, uneven entries has now produced three terrifically entertaining ones. Mission: Impossible 4-6 is not the best trilogy ever, but surely no other sequel trilogy has so handily surpassed the original trilogy?
I’m not convinced that Fallout, directed by Christopher McQuarrie, is better than its two immediate predecessors, Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol or McQuarrie’s own Rogue Nation. Yet it not only feels of a piece with them, it ties them and, in some way, the series as a whole together. It feels both like a final chapter and a springboard for a new beginning.
As different as they were, the first three Mission: Impossible films were all marked by three shared problems. First, colleagues came and went, Ving Rhames’ Luther Stickell being the only mainstay, but there was never a sense of an ensemble or a team — an Impossible Missions Force (IMF) — around Tom Cruise’s redoubtable Ethan Hunt.
The filmmakers also repeatedly miscalculated how unpleasant or distasteful things could get while still being fun. (M:I II’s misogynistic mistreatment of Thandie Newton might be the low point here.)
Finally, each of the first three films ended with Hunt ready to walk away from the IMF. It’s like neither he nor the series knew what they wanted to be when they grew up. If he didn’t care more than that, why should we?
The new direction came with Ghost Protocol, which understood the franchise had always been at its best when it was a lark, and adjusted course accordingly. Rogue Nation and now Fallout continue this trajectory (McQuarrie is now the first director of more than one M:I movie).
Taking advantage of Simon Pegg’s rising star, Ghost Protocol promoted his Benji Dunn from a minor deskbound role in M:I III to field agent and full-on comic-relief sidekick. Other players have now stuck around for more than one film: Jeremy Renner was in both Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation, and Rebecca Ferguson and Alec Baldwin, introduced in Rogue Nation, are back in Fallout.
But the trio of Cruise, Rhames and Pegg define the essential spirit of the new trilogy, of the IMF and hopefully of the series going forward. (Ferguson is a welcome presence, but she isn’t exactly on Ethan’s team, so the IMF still lacks a recurring female member.)
Ghost Protocol also allowed Hunt to be more physically vulnerable, missing some of his action marks and occasionally getting knocked for a loop (for example, not quite making the final jump in the Burj Khalifa set piece).
Like a stunned Indy sprawled at the feet of a German bruiser in Raiders or a panicky John McClane knocking his head on the underside of a table in Die Hard, Hunt’s susceptibility to a disorienting hit induces both winces and smiles, humanizing the hero and elevating the stakes.
This is an easy balance to get wrong: This spring’s Tomb Raider beat up Alicia Vikander’s Lara Croft too much, inducing winces but not smiles. And in Skyscraper Dwayne Johnson theoretically has physical limitations, but he faces every challenge with stoic determination and an occasional quip.
Finally, Ghost Protocol coalesced all of Cruise’s laser-like focus and determination into a definitive version of a hero for whom saving the world is not just the most important thing, but the only thing. Yes, Hunt married Michelle Monaghan’s nurse Julia in M:I III, but in retrospect, it seems that was a mistake; they can never be together, both for her sake and for everyone else’s. Like Superman, Hunt can never belong to one woman, because he belongs to the world.
McQuarrie understands all this, and in Fallout offers the clearest vision yet of what the big-screen Mission: Impossible is all about. But McQuarrie is also a self-aware filmmaker who slyly critiqued the series in Rogue Nation, indicting Hunt as a “gambler” whose methods are “indistinguishable from chance” and whose successes look “suspiciously like luck.”
This indictment was ironically validated in an underwater sequence in which Hunt had to randomly choose between two identical computer components. Then there was the ridiculously overdetermined finale about putting the villain “in a box,” which didn’t look like luck at all, unless you thought about it.
Now in Fallout McQuarrie kids the excessive precision of his own finale, putting the IMF in one situation after another where they have no real plan. Like Indy going after the Ark of the Covenant, they’re making it up as they go — or, in Fallout’s signature line, they’re “working on it.”
Since former CIA honcho Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), once an IMF Force skeptic, is now an IMF true believer, there’s a new skeptical CIA chief, Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett), with a new rap against Hunt and the IMF: not that they take too many chances, but that they aren’t cold-blooded enough.
Hunley and Sloan agree on one thing: Ethan Hunt cares as much about one life as he does about millions of lives; to sacrifice the one for the sake of the many is all but unthinkable to him.
But what Sloan sees as a weakness, Hunley sees as a strength. The issue is raised by an early stumble in which Hunt’s concern for a team member puts countless lives at risk. But it comes into sharp focus in a small aside in which a chance interloper is momentarily a cause of comic consternation before becoming the subject of a brief life-and-death crisis. What is one life in the grand scheme of things? To Hunt, collateral loss of life is never acceptable.
Because of Sloan’s misgivings, Hunt is saddled with a CIA partner, a ruthless assassin named August Walker (the Man of Steel himself, Henry Cavill) with a reputation for shooting first and asking questions later. “You use a scalpel,” Sloan tells Hunley. “I prefer a hammer.” (The line implicitly contrasts Hunt with Daniel Craig’s 007, whom Judi Dench’s M likewise called a “blunt instrument” in Casino Royale.)
Continuing the trajectory of the last two films, the villains are political radicals who believe a great global upheaval is necessary to usher in a better world. Sean Harris’ terrorist (or post-terrorist) mastermind Solomon Lane, who was just the right kind of creepy in Rogue Nation, is back, with a shadowy association called “The Apostles” in place of the Syndicate. (The name appears to have no deeper significance; there’s a brief but key plot point —mild spoiler warning — involving a scheme to target the most sacred cities of all three Abrahamic faiths.)
Shout-outs to all three films of the first trilogy make Fallout a culmination of sorts. Michelle Monaghan’s Julia, briefly glimpsed at the end of Ghost Protocol, has a more substantial role here, and gets more dignity here than in past appearances.
She’s also remarried, which I confess I didn’t expect, since I had assumed she and Hunt were still secretly married, even if they couldn’t be together. (Their love, the priest told them in M:I III, “is not to be diminished by difficult circumstances, and it is only to be dissolved by death.” Well, I guess there were good prima facie grounds for an annulment.)
Meanwhile, Hunt is jumping out of a Boeing C-17 at 25,000 feet, a spectacular HALO (high-altitude, low-opening) parachute jump with astonishing aerial acrobatics at up to 200 mph, because of course he is. Not to mention climbing sheer cliff faces, speeding on a motorcycle against traffic in Paris, dangling by a rope from a helicopter and then piloting the helicopter in a harrowing chase sequence, and running and jumping across the rooftops of London.
The technical challenges and rigors of the HALO jump probably make it the most impressive sequence in any M:I movie, although my favorite action sequence in this film might be a brilliantly choreographed fistfight pitting Hunt and Walker against a surprisingly formidable opponent. The growing rivalry between the two men is subverted as they find themselves battling with unexpected desperation for their lives.
Why does it matter that the 56-year-old Cruise does all these stunts himself — and that he’s really hurtling toward the earth at 200 mph and not in a wind tunnel in front of a green screen with a CGI sky behind him? Why do we care that we can see it’s actually Harrison Ford, not an anonymous stunt double, dragging in the dust behind the Nazi truck? (I can’t stop referencing Raiders! This is a good sign.) Why are Jackie Chan and Buster Keaton so electrifying to watch?
For that matter, why is Hugh Jackman doing his own singing and dancing more compelling than M:I’s own Rebecca Ferguson as Jenny Lynd lip-synching in The Greatest Showman? We know movies are pretend, but we also know that the imaginary events are built of bits and pieces of reality.
A performer’s real talent and real effort in the service of the illusion draw us in. Our emotional connection to the character is strengthened by our awareness on one level or another of how hard the performer is working for our entertainment.
Ego and publicity play a role, surely, but Cruise dangling from a helicopter or clinging to the edge of a cliff is also a gift: one I will appreciate as long as he is able to give it.
Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Caveat Spectator: Sometimes brutal/deadly action violence; brief sexually themed remarks; divorce and marriage; brief profanity, cursing and crude language. Teens and up.