Mission: Impossible – Fallout doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Rather, it presents a wheel that’s been well cared for, polished to near-perfection, primed and ready to entertain in every way possible. That’s one hell of a wheel, but Fallout is one hell of a movie. Once in a blue moon a film comes along that is so clearly and immediately identifiable as something special, so near-perfect in execution there’s not enough accolades to describe it.
We last saw this with another action sequel few expected to be all that good, let alone a masterpiece of cinema. I’m talking about Mad Max: Fury Road, which not only surpassed all expectations, but helped redefine what action cinema could, in the right hands, become. Fallout rightfully deserves to sit alongside George Miller’s Oscar-winning apocalyptic wunderkind, and similarly impressive reasons. It might actually be the better film, honestly.
Fallout may be the sixth Mission: Impossible film, but it’s only the first that really counts as a true sequel, returning most of the characters from the previous films and continuing the saga of IMF lead agent Ethan Hunt on his never-ending mission to save the world in the most spectacular and explosive ways possible. Remarkably, it also manages to function as a standalone film, meaning you don’t have to have seen any of the other movies to enjoy yourself or follow along. You totally should, of course, at least the 4th (Ghost Protocol) and 5th (Rogue Nation).
The capture of raspy Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) has created a power vacuum from the remnants of his old organization, The Syndicate, who’ve since reformed as an even nastier outfit: The Apostles. Thanks to their crazed ideology it’s the End Times they’re after, and three missing plutonium cores provide just the ticket for targeted nuclear attacks that could trigger the chaotic change agent their mantra predicts: the greater the suffering, the greater the peace.
Things really heat up when agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) chooses to accept a mission to recover the lost cores in Berlin, with only his trusty IMF agents Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) at his side. When the plan fails Ethan is forced to choose between recovering the cores or saving Luther’s life, setting up a morality conflict that continues throughout the film.
The team’s failure leaves new CIA director Erica Sloane (a fierce Angela Bassett) to deride the IMF as little more than “a bunch of grown men in rubber masks playing trick or treat.” She assigns beefy agent August Walker (Henry Cavill, sporting the world’s priciest mustache) to accompany Hunt on a mission to extract John Lark, a mysterious fundamentalist about whom little is known, except that he’s an extremist and isn’t afraid to kill thousands to get what he wants. Lark, the mastermind behind a recent smallpox outbreak, is the key to recovering the plutonium cores before they land in the dastardly hands of the Apostles. Frantic chases through Paris, London and Kashmir ensues as our heroes race against the doomsday clock that could help the film live up to its name.
McQuarrie, who won an Oscar for writing The Usual Suspects, is the master of the fake-out, a trick he uses here no less than three times to deliver Inception-levels of double and triple crosses that will leave you guessing until the credits roll. The only director ever to return for a second outing (in a roster that includes Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird), he imbues this chapter with a greater emphasis on character development as Ethan, who’s been saving the world for two decades now, is forced to confront not just his own autonomy – has he ever chosen not to accept his mission? – but the lives of those around him.
Despite having worked with everyone from Kubrick, Scorsese and Spielberg it’s with writer/director Christopher McQuarrie that Tom Cruise found his muse. Together they’ve created some of the most intense and memorable action movies in recent memory, and Fallout may be their best yet. Recent entries in the franchise have been lauded for using ‘real stunts’, but it’s how McQuarrie frames them in all their bombastic glory that gives audiences their money’s worth. Nearly every scene is in-your-face and we’re right there alongside Hunt as he runs, leaps, smashes and crashes through everything and anything that gets in his way.
When Cruise HALO jumps into Paris, it’s a real jump that’s been filmed, the focus directly in his face as he descends with unprecedented intensity. As with Fury Road, it’s often difficult to tell where the real stunts end and the CG effects begin, as when Cruise tears through oncoming traffic on a motorcycle or dangles from the bottom of a helicopter. When’s the last time cinematography in an action movie took your breath away? Rob Hardy’s exquisite camerawork does just that, aided by Lorne Balfe’s percussive score that throbs and swells with emotional sincerity.
Fallout ups the ante to such a degree it’s easier to just list its accomplishments upfront. You want the best car and motorcycle chases ever committed to film? You’ve got both, and with tons of BMW product placement! There’s a vicious bathroom brawl that easily betters Casino Royale’s iconic opening, with the most exciting helicopter chase in cinematic history followed by what can only be described as the most thrilling gravity-defying cliff spectacle, complete with an epic action-packed (!) wall climb that will make longtime fans cheer for a very good reason: Fallout is so good it even manages to retroactively make Woo’s maligned second film better.
Bonus: this wouldn’t be a Tom Cruise movie without the mandatory running scene, and the one with him dashing through Paris tops all previous Tom Cruise running scenes, too.
One of the delights of this franchise is how Cruise’s Hunt is positioned as merely the epicenter of one of the best ensembles in action. Both Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames are indispensable, offering just the right mix of humor and gravitas a movie like this needs (Rhames has never been better, in anything). Even Alec Baldwin’s impresses as IMF Secretary Alan Hunley, literally getting a few good shots in there that’ll remind you of his Jack Ryan days.
If they weren’t enough, Fallout also includes the most sensational cast of female characters ever seen in an action epic, none of whom feel remotely token or unimportant. Angela Bassett commands both the screen and CIA with an intensity rivaled only by Dame Judi Dench’s M, unafraid to deploy Cavill’s Agent Walker’s thuggish brutality without a second thought. Long may she reign. Rebecca Ferguson returns as estranged MI6 agent Ilsa Faust, working off a blood debt to help earn her freedom while proving she can hold her own as Hunt’s distraction and/or foil. The dangerously confident arms dealer Vanessa Kirby (The Crown), aka White Widow, can’t hide her obvious arousal at the mere sight of Ethan, turning in a performance that borders on the erotic using just her eyes. Michelle Monaghan also returns as Hunt’s ex-wife Julie, providing an unexpected emotional lynchpin that also serves as a reminder of what the stakes really are – for both Ethan and the world.
No talk about about Mission: Impossible would be complete with giving due credit to Tom Cruise, the series’ most remarkable special effect. Throughout a remarkable 22-year run he’s led every adventure, constantly upping both the onscreen pyrotechnics – and insurance premiums. Despite being Hollywood’s most famous runner, at some point age will catch up with him. Either that or one of those crazy stunts will finally do him in.
Roger Moore was roughly the same age when filming Octopussy, both his sixth and penultimate turn as James Bond. By 1985’s A View to a Kill not even the best special effects team could help Moore pass as a credible action star and he graciously stepped aside. At 56, Cruise practically defies reality by giving his, and perhaps the most astonishingly athletic performance ever seen in a non-Chinese action film…and even then it’s close. Recognizing it’s him actually doing all the crazy stunts and – literally – bone-breaking choreography will send your CG-mushed brain into overdrive.
If you’d have said twenty years ago the star of Cocktail and The Firm would someday, somehow morph into Jackie Chan nobody would have believed you. Respect.
Despite his best efforts to stop the aging process, Cruise isn’t getting any younger; if and when the time eventually comes, who could possibly replace him? Not just the Ethan Hunt character, but as the lead of a franchise that’s been specifically tailored just for him? Who could possibly plug the gigantic vacuum of charisma and dedication his absence would trigger? It’s hard to imagine there was once talk of setting up Jeremy Renner to take over this (and the Bourne) franchise. No offense to Renner, but he didn’t feature in this or the last Bourne and Avengers movies. Was he even missed?
Mission: Impossible – Fallout isn’t just the best action movie of the year – it’s the most awe-inspiring and grin-inducing action blockbuster since Mad Max: Fury Road. The action is intense, the stunts are truly spectacular, the plot both intelligent and thrilling – has any franchise ever had a six installment that’s ever been this great before? It also reconfirms that primacy of the true movie star in service to pure entertainment – and to entertaining. Perhaps we’ve been so spoiled by CG fakery and interchangable stars so often we’ve forgotten how good movies like these can be when the talent behind them cares about the audience in front of them.