"...this is it, Ethan, the fallout of all your good intentions..."
Twenty-two years ago, Tom Cruise created a workshop with the Mission: Impossible franchise in which some of the world’s greatest filmmakers could craft their own personal riffs on action cinema. With the first M: I, Brian De Palma made one of his definitive films: an espionage tale stuffed with the auteur’s trademark voyeurism, POV shots, split diopter set ups, and a climax aboard a French bullet train that still stands as one of the most thrilling set pieces in the history of blockbuster filmmaking. With Mission: Impossible II, John Woo transplanted his double-barreled Hong Kong melodramatics onto a larger than life American canvas, resulting in anti-real motorcycle fu that mixed in a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious for good measure. These movies were the distinct products of the visionaries Cruise invited into his new arena; visual castles that stood on their own and could've only come from the artistic architects constructing them, while simultaneously serving the superstar by delivering his own answer to 007: Impossible Mission Force operative Ethan Hunt.
This approach was tweaked ever so slightly when Cruise brought in J.J. Abrams, Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman to mold Mission: Impossible III. In retrospect, the '06 sequel felt like a soft reboot of sorts, as we pick up with Hunt (Cruise) at home, during a party celebrating his engagement to Julia (Michelle Monaghan), a Virginia nurse who doesn't know about her beau’s Top Secret vocation. Hunt's been retired for six years, and is called back into the fold to rescue an old protégé (Keri Russell), thus leading to an array of spy shenanigans that involve black market arms dealer Owen Davian (the late, great [and underutilized] Philip Seymour Hoffman). Abrams applies the same sort of "Mystery Box" storytelling that became his television trademark on Lost and Alias – as Davian pursues an undefined "Rabbit's Foot" weapon – even going as far as to transform Hunt into a riddle that Julia's "solves" by way of getting forcibly inserted into international tomfoolery.
With this second sequel, Abrams injected a new mythology into the franchise, as the episodic nature of the first two films was jettisoned in favor of a more serialized style of narrative (with Bad Robot helping produce subsequent installments). Brad Bird's Ghost Protocol found the IMF being disbanded after a break-in at the Kremlin – during which Ethan and promoted field operative Benji (Abrams' Nuevo Star Trek Scotty, Simon Pegg) are framed for a simultaneous bombing – as enigmatic “analyst” Brandt (Jeremy Renner) keeps tabs on Ethan's team as they try to clear their names. On top of the usual thrilling action, Bird injected a sense of humor that capitalized on Abrams' relationship quips (that truly felt like the covert equivalent to his work on Felicity), stamping these daring escapes with an animators' fingerprint; a Looney Tunes take that ensured The Incredibles author's background was felt in the final product.
Enter Christopher McQuarrie, whom Cruise had been working with since the Academy Award-winning Usual Suspects screenwriter co-penned Bryan Singer's Hitler assassination adventure, Valkyrie. Together, the duo took Lee Childs' paperback military icon and transformed him into a second cinematic ass-kicking series for Cruise: Jack Reacher (a franchise the scribe helmed the first film for, after doing BTS "script doctor" work on Ghost Protocol). McQuarrie's Rogue Nation – the fifth film in the M: I canon – is viewed by many as a high water mark in the series, and for good reason. It's a muscular work of big studio craftsmanship, delivering possibly the best meat and potatoes set piece to date (a brawl/sniper duel at the Vienna opera) while also gifting longstanding characters room to grow (Benji becoming an integral part of the operation), and delivering a Blofeldian arch nemesis for Hunt to battle in Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), head of the international anarchist sect The Syndicate. All the while, Ethan is hunted (heh) by CIA Director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), who believes the IMF is a danger to not only American national security, but the world’s.
McQuarrie's Fallout is not only a continuation of Rogue Nation, but also acts as a culmination of the series up to this point. It’s the first film in franchise history where an artist not only returned to the director’s chair, but wrote it himself, as well (this time without a story assist from Iron Man 3's Drew Pearce). In turn, everything about McQuarrie's second turn at bat makes his first swing for the fences seem quaint by comparison. Fallout is comprised of a series of escalating action set pieces, each more intricate and death-defying than the last. Yet even when the movie gets intimate with its violence – as it does during an early hand-to-hand throw down in a club bathroom (which has already been gif'd into oblivion) – there's a thundering ferocity to the choreography that batters and bruises as much as it makes you bolt upright in your seat. At the same time, this sixth installment in the titular TV series' adaptation becomes the most personal, as we're forced to witness Ethan Hunt's living manifestation of destiny finally consider his moral reckoning.
In short, if Mission: Impossible is Cruise's James Bond, then this is the series' Skyfall, where we truly wonder if its front man has all the time in the world. Hunt and the IMF are back in commission, with Director Hunley now heading up the operation as part of the team. In a dizzying information dump (delivered via a copy of Homer's The Odyssey), Ethan chooses to accept his next assignment – to track down John Lark, the unidentified head of The Apostles: rogue terrorists who've splintered off from Lane's Syndicate and continue to wreak havoc around the globe in secret. The Apostles are seeking to obtain plutonium in order to build a string of nuclear bombs, so that they can smash the current world order and rebuild humanity's social systems from scratch. Hunt, Benji, and longtime team member Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames – the franchise’s consummate source of brusque wisdom) must stop them from doing so.
Trouble is, they fail, and just when Hunley's about to send Ethan off to retrieve the fuel for these potential world killers, new CIA honcho Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett) puts a halt to their operation and assigns watchdog and brutal Agency assassin August Walker (Henry Cavill) to ensure the IMF doesn't literally drop these balls again. Now, Ethan must broker a deal with the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) – a middle-woman for global agents of destruction – to re-obtain the goods. In order to do so, the Widow insists that Hunt, Walker and re-emerged British warrior without a country Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) break Solomon Lane out of prison and deliver him to the Apostles as currency for the nuclear core. Thus, a Michael Mann-style tactical prison break, where Walker's deadly code thrives and Hunt's ethical center is tested until he's once again in so deep that even the audience isn't sure which way is up.
Just as Ferguson's Faust became the most memorable new element of the series in Rogue Nation, Fallout is just as much Cavill's picture as it is Cruise's (if not more so at times). Before now, Cavill has never really been given a role that's allowed him to organically shine, having been shoved down our throats in Zack Snyder's Superman pictures that - if we're being honest - only required the beautiful actor to pose and punch a bunch of shit in front of digital tableaus. As August Walker, Cavill becomes a weapon of blunt force trauma, almost always seemingly searching for a reason to roll up his sleeves and start pummeling whatever opponent he's currently up against. Walker's reputation precedes him wherever he goes, but McQuarrie is wise to not lean on the assassin’s disrepute, and actually shows him bulldozing through every action scene without a moment's hesitation. It's as if Cavill knew this is his moment, and goes toe-to-toe with Cruise, bringing as much charisma as the marquee luminary without flinching for a moment. This is a coming out party, so everybody pop the champagne and then start mopping the blood off the floor.
Equally clever on McQuarrie's part is his decision to capitalize on the presence of Ilsa Faust, and continue her journey – which runs parallel to Ethan's – back home. Beyond possessing an almost supernatural level of chemistry with Cruise, Ferguson injects the right amounts of sadness and physicality into her character, making Faust both a worthy adversary and love interest. Ilsa could command her own set of movies, divorced from the M: I mythos, and they’d probably be just as captivating as when Ferguson's working with this team of talented performers. We want to see her complete her mission and regain her country's trust; just as much as we want to see Hunt and the IMF boys save the world. There's something to be said about jumping into a series this late in its existence and being able to command not only our attention, but favoritism the way Ferguson does. She’s unbelievable.
As much as it seems like a broad, throwaway literary reference at the movie's beginning, The Odyssey actually becomes paramount to comprehending what McQuarrie's doing with Hunt and Faust's arcs, as they're both attempting to get home to the ones they love. The trials of Ilsa Faust at the hands of the British intelligence community trudge on, as she has to seemingly play every side in an attempt to not be a stranger in every strange land. Concurrently, Hunt is haunted by dreams of the fiancée he forced into hiding (at the end of Ghost Protocol), his every professional action having affected her ability to live a normal life. Julia is the mortal embodiment of fate’s guilt, just as Ilsa's undertaking is the genre cinema materialization of her crimes against country. Together, Hunt and Faust are steering an unseen ship, which may just lead to each other, should they not die trying.
No matter how good McQuarrie is as a writer – and he is very, very good – Fallout is a veritable stunt show as the crew skydives out of cargo planes, zips through Paris atop motorcycles, engages in car chases in London, and Hunt even teaches himself to fly a helicopter during the show-stopping final chase through an Indian mountain range. In many ways, this feels like the perfect counterpoint to the "intimate" smallness of Mission: Impossible III, as McQuarrie – along with cinematographer Rob Hardy and some out-of-this-world second unit work – goes mind-crushingly big while telling an intensely personal story for his characters. When combined with Cruise's commitment to practical stunt work (and you will fear for his safety on multiple occasions), McQuarrie creates true, tangible spectacle the likes of which we rarely see on the screen during the pixilated superhero age. We actually believe these characters could die at any second, regardless of how much movie magic sleight of hand is occurring onscreen.
Perhaps this is why Fallout may be the most viscerally satisfying blockbuster sequel since James Cameron changed the whole game with Terminator 2: we couldn't bear to see any of these individuals hurt or kill themselves in the course of saving each other (and, by illusory extension, all those seated in the auditorium). McQuarrie has zeroed in on what makes each of the players tick to such an acute degree that our hearts are collectively ready to explode if the bomb they're trying to diffuse goes off, or the helicopter Ethan's haphazardly piloting crashes. It’s a dexterous mixture of formal brilliance and movie star audacity that cannot be watered down, all thanks to the creative control Cruise grants those he chooses to work with. In Christopher McQuarrie, the aging boy wonder may have discovered his finest collaborator, as they’re both seemingly out to craft pulp brilliance, and Fallout succeeds in spades.
Mission: Impossible - Fallout hits theaters this weekend.
This article is part of B.M.D. Guide To: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE