'Mission: Impossible - Fallout': Tom Cruise, running like never before
When Tom Cruise grits his teeth and turns his speeding motorcycle into oncoming traffic, you are there. Right there. In your seat. In the moment. Feeling your eyes widen, a laugh escaping your throat, the elevating buzz of goosebumps.
“Mission: Impossible - Fallout” is the sixth in a franchise known for using old-school practical effects to deliver kinetic thrills, and it may be the best yet. It’s not as stylish and atmospheric as Brian De Palma’s “Mission: Impossible” (1996), famous for its Cruise-on-a-wire hovering-heist sequence. Nor is it as playful as Brad Bird’s “Ghost Protocol” (2011), which dangled Cruise from the dizzying heights of the Burj Khalifa. But it’s easily the most intense, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie staging gear-strippingly suspenseful action sequences with the highest of stakes. It’s the art of exhilaration.
McQuarrie, who directed Cruise in “Jack Reacher” (2012) and “Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation” (2014), is one of the bulwarks of the current action renaissance (which also includes George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Sam Mendes’ James Bond picture “Skyfall” and the work of David Leitch and Chad Stahelski on the “John Wick” films and “Atomic Blonde”). I picture McQuarrie chuckling to himself as he ginned up the screenplay for “Fallout.” It’s a remarkable piece of writing, balancing clever, over-the-top spy-shenanigan switchbacks with lengthy and complicated amalgamations of chases, fistfights, gunfights and other miscellaneous showdowns and scrapes. These, and Cruise's execution of his own hair-raising stunts, are part of the “M:I” formula, for sure, but have they ever been so well-orchestrated?
The screenplay also frames the motives of its hero, Cruise’s unbreakable action figure Ethan Hunt, with more clarity than ever before. Beneath the hoopla - you know, the 25,000-foot skydives, ankle-breaking rooftop foot chases and freeform rock climbing - is a character of great, selfless sacrifice. This time, as they say, it’s personal.
It’s been personal before - J.J. Abrams’ “M:I III” (2006) had the bad guy manipulate Hunt by kidnapping his new wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan). She returns in the opening moments of “Fallout,” in a nightmare; he awakens with a jolt, and instinctively grabs his pistol. Post-traumatic stress disorder is bound to happen after you’ve nearly died dozens of times while saving the world, and exposed loved ones to the murderous evil of international terrorists and other sundry chaosmongers. Sometimes, he gets by with only a knife and a limp. We get the sense that Hunt’s probably very weary soul is at stake, and maybe even his ability to love something other than abstract notions of freedom, ways of life, or the well-being of near-unfathomable numbers of people. For a series that hasn’t been much for subtext to this point, this is huge.
The plot - well, it’s about bad guys trying to get their hands on plutonium so they can nuke the crap out of a city or three. It’s tempting to shrug off the script’s insistence that it’s “an unprecedented threat.” It seems precedented as hell. But it’s not that important. It’s McQuarrie’s excuse to stir up a dizzying frenzy of action, occasionally broken up by beefy chunks of exposition. The base plot is relatively simple by franchise standards, making the inevitable two-faced twists, baits-and-switches and myriad double-crosses flow like overlapping melodies in a wonderfully ludicrous symphony.
Some inventory: Helping Hunt are longtime Impossible Mission Force buddies Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames). Returning from “Rogue Nation” are new IMF secretary Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), crazy-eyed evildoer Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) and British agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who kindles a bit of unspoken sexual tension with Hunt. Jeremy Renner’s Brandt, a staple of the last two films, isn’t even mentioned.
New are Angela Bassett as CIA honcho Erica Sloan, and, most notably, Henry Cavill, second-billed as August Walker, a shoot-first chunk of CIA muscle who butts heads with Hunt when they’re forced to work together. (Cavill is the film’s weak point - he always looks as if he’s trying hard, exerting himself while his castmates effortlessly breeze.) A faceless entity known only as John Lark is the terrorist puppet master. Oh, and Wolf Blitzer gets a great cameo.
That should catch us up. I’ll leave further details for your discovery, but I will say the film delivers the unexpected just when we expect it, if that makes sense. The movie is ingenious that way. McQuarrie adheres to the bare bones of formula, and occasionally even employs cliche, yet bulldozes any potential cynicism by using his considerable skill at synthesizing visual mayhem to keep us present. The mind does not wander.
As a chase through the streets of Paris goes from truck to car to motorcycle to boat to foot, you may not realize that no significant dialogue (note: “Go go!” is not significant dialogue) has been spoken for probably tens of minutes. When Ethan Hunt learns to pilot a helicopter on the fly in the most literal sense, you’re too intoxicated by the sheer ludicrous bravado of the moment to think critically. You just clench your jaw and go along with Cruise, the ageless wonder, as he runs, flies, runs, leaps, runs, drives and runs, runs, runs. You won’t want him to ever stop.
‘Mission: Impossible - Fallout’
MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of action, and for brief strong language
Cast: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Run time: 147 minutes