Here at FilmFisher, movies are considered excellent if they offer “some meditation on truth or beauty or holiness which stands to remain for weeks and months after leaving the theater.” Mission: Impossible – Fallout, like most action films, offers little in the way of contemplation, which is why I have granted it only three and a half fish. I explain this now to preclude confusion over what might seem a disparity between the somewhat measured rating I have given the film and the rather fervent praise I am about to lavish on it.
It is currently summer, the season of the year most given to the search for sensational pleasure. As a native of southern California, the seasons mean little to me as far as weather is concerned, but the rhythms of the calendar make themselves felt in my moviegoing habits. In winter, I am drawn to the cerebral, the contemplative; I am prone to return to The Tree of Life, or The Master, or Inside Llewyn Davis. I am more likely to watch black and white films in the winter. When it is summer, I want films that engage the viscera and stir the passions. I do not want films that are too fine, that require too much from my intellect, so I often watch superhero movies that I know do not satisfy, the way a gluttonous man eats too much dessert after he has ceased to be hungry. This is not a blanket condemnation of summer movies, however. There are good desserts and bad desserts, and there is a time for everything under the sun, and every now and then, a good dessert is in order.
If you enjoy a good summer movie, you really ought to go see Mission: Impossible – Fallout, which is the most outrageously entertaining and thoroughly satisfying summer movie this year. Indeed, depending on how generous you are, it may be the year’s only good summer movie, and it may also be such an embarrassment of riches that no others are needed.
I am a taciturn moviegoer by nature, but on several separate occasions during Mission: Impossible – Fallout‘s runtime, I found myself unable to suppress vocal expressions of delight. This is the kind of spectacle where one cannot help but laugh breathlessly at what is transpiring onscreen, and yet it carries itself with sufficient seriousness that one is never quite laughing at it; instead, one laughs because it pushes itself so far over the top that respectful incredulity is the only proper response, and because laughter is the only way to make the tension bearable. This is the kind of film from which one emerges with an adrenaline high that lasts for a few hours after the credits have rolled. These are not particularly lofty goals for a film to aspire to, but a great deal of craftsmanship is required to achieve them this effectively, so let us give credit where credit is due: in an unlikely turn of events, over the course of three films in the last decade, the Mission: Impossible franchise has proven to be the single most reliable source of big-budget entertainment at the movies.
Almost everything in Fallout has been seen before, but this feels less like a failure of imagination and more like proof that director Christopher McQuarrie knows novelty is an airy, flighty thing to chase after while competence is solid, tested by time. McQuarrie does not reinvent the wheel, but he spins it faster than anyone, and always knows exactly which direction he’s rolling. Fallout does not use tropes as shortcuts or crutches; instead, it uses them as reliable devices in service of a story that is grounded in character and theme firmly enough to feel personal, even introspective. This is the kind of film where massive, elaborate, thirty-minute-long set pieces are interspersed with brief interludes of exposition, but these action sequences are not merely exercises in virtuosity (though they certainly are that). Films of this kind often pay lip service to “Theme” by throwing out a few references to some vaguely philosophical notions before settling back into a routine of meaningless sound and fury. Fallout is centered on the thesis that the heroism of Tom Cruise’s super spy, Ethan Hunt, stems from his unwillingness to sacrifice even a single innocent life to save theoretical millions. This is hardly a novel idea, but it is woven so thoroughly into the action of the film that it might as well be called Mission: Impossible – Trolley Problem. McQuarrie’s script wisely verbalizes its theme only a few times before presenting Hunt with repeated situations in which he must weigh one life against many. When Hunt’s mission demands that he extract his nemesis Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) from an armored convoy, the obvious strategy is to kill all the guards. Of course, this is unthinkable to Hunt, who concocts an elaborate scheme to avoid causing the death of a single policeman – only to catch another officer in an unexpected crossfire. “I’m sorry,” Hunt says, pausing briefly from his mission to offer what aid he can. Hunt’s commitment to saving individual lives always sends complications rippling outward through his plans – the fallout of the film’s title. CIA director Erika Sloan (Angela Bassett) sees this as an impractical weakness, but Hunt’s superior Hunley (Alec Baldwin) sees it as his unique strength. “You use a scalpel,” Sloan sneers. “I prefer a hammer.” However, Sloan’s “hammer,” August Walker (Henry Cavill), is a callous brute who is happy to endanger millions, arguing that suffering is a prerequisite to peace. Hunt’s refusal to accept collateral damage as a necessary evil is precisely what marks him as a good man.
It is always nice, when reviewing a movie for a site with a pronounced classical bias, to be thrown such a bone as the copy of Homer’s Odyssey that conceals Cruise’s self-destructing mission briefing in Fallout’s opening passages. One could probably gather enough material to craft a decent essay likening the crafty Hunt to Odysseus, Homer’s man of many ways, with a Penelope in the form of his wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), and an Achilles of sorts in Walker, his handsome, selfish blunt instrument of a foil. There is even a loose analogue for the sorceress Circe in the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), a flirtatious underworld broker for whom Hunt, going undercover, must play a beastly part.
Of course, McQuarrie is an efficient craftsman above all else, but he does seem to enjoy winking in the direction of the more academic crowd. In Rogue Nation, Fallout’s predecessor, he set a key sequence at a performance of Puccini’s Turandot, using the opera’s story of a prince and princess courting each other with elaborate tests to clue us into his film’s central storyline, the sly romance between Hunt and Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). Fallout’s opening reference to the Odyssey is similarly instructive: following the broadest strokes of Homer’s epic, this film ultimately centers on Ethan and Ilsa’s circuitous attempts to return to their respective homes. It also aptly frames Fallout as the second part of a duology – the Odyssey, if you will, to Rogue Nation’s Iliad. (These are portentous comparisons to be drawing for movies whose main source of appeal is watching Tom Cruise risk his life on camera, but I make them, in the spirit of the films, with a bit of a knowing twinkle in my eye.) The two films share a director and several cast members, but the connections run deeper. Both center on the same theme: the tension between Hunt’s care for his loved ones, his commitment to the job, and his unwillingness to endanger anyone else’s life. Indeed, structurally speaking, the two films are mirror images of each other. Rogue Nation begins with a grandiose aerial stunt and then ramps down to become increasingly more personal. Fallout reverses the arc, starting small and ramping back up again until Hunt is flying a helicopter through the majestic Himalayas.
This connection between two entries is anomalous for the Mission: Impossible franchise, which tends to feature standalone stories with a minimum of connective tissue, but by my count, Fallout references each of the five films that preceded it. Some of these are mere winks or nods, but others signal McQuarrie’s intention to retroactively impose continuity on a franchise that has never been concerned with it. Next to Rogue Nation, the Mission: Impossible film to which Fallout is most closely tied is actually the original, directed by Brian De Palma and released twenty-two years ago in 1996. The plots bear little obvious resemblance, but soon begin to reveal similar contours. In both instances, Hunt must assume the identity of a traitorous dead man to earn the trust of an underworld figure. That the White Widow here is the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave’s Max from the first film highlights the connection. (Incidentally, Kirby is remarkably well cast here; the mannerisms shared by the two Vanessas are eerie.) Yet the similarities between the two films primarily serve to stress a striking reversal.
De Palma’s film centers on a young Ethan Hunt – Cruise, at the beginning of his career as an action star – and his betrayal by his mentor, Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), who fakes his own death before framing Hunt as a traitor to cover his tracks. Phelps has no grandly political motivation, no anarchic manifesto, no aims of mass destruction; he is merely a disillusioned old man, describing himself as an “obsolete piece of hardware” after the end of the Cold War. Because he is notably older than Ethan, and acts as a surrogate father of sorts, the overtones of their conflict are generational in nature. The Mission: Impossible franchise begins with a young Cruise deposing his predecessor – Phelps was the hero of the television series upon which the films are based – and taking his place.
Twenty-two years have passed since then. Now, in Fallout, Ethan is the old man, and though you wouldn’t know it watching him run, you notice it watching him fight side by side with Walker, who Cavill plays with a cocky charisma recalling that of a younger Cruise. But here it is the younger Walker, motivated by a sense of cynicism and disenfranchisement not unlike Phelps’, who fakes the death of his evil alter ego, John Lark, and tries to cover his tracks by framing his elder, Hunt. Cavill’s wardrobe of trenchcoats is even visually reminiscent of Voight’s (though his mustache is without equal), and both finally die in fiery helicopter crashes. By bringing things full circle to the original film, McQuarrie underlines how the longevity of the series and its star have, almost poignantly, become central to its appeal; to marathon the six Mission: Impossible films is to see twenty years of Cruise’s life flash by onscreen.
But although Hunt may be getting old, he is not going down without a fight. “I won’t let you down,” he tells his teammates after hijacking a helicopter he does not know how to fly. “I won’t let you down,” he repeats to himself like a mantra. The line between Ethan Hunt and Tom Cruise has always been a blurry one, and this may well be what Tom Cruise says to himself as, well into his fifties, he continues to risk life and limb for a good stunt. In Rogue Nation, Hunley hilariously described Hunt as “the living manifestation of destiny,” but Fallout leans even further into these mythological overtones. Hunt’s journey here begins with a descent from the heavens into the (criminal) underworld, into a realm of confusion and moral murkiness, and concludes with a death-defying ascent up a sheer cliff face, a return to perfect clarity. The blinding white that fills the screen when Hunt saves the world once again and the hazy light of the hospital where he lies recuperating afterwards are almost heavenly. Yet despite the Odyssey references, in the end, Hunt’s Penelope – though she still loves him – has married another man. Ethan Hunt has no earthly home; he has no place to lay his head. He has only his calling, and the teammates who help him pursue it.
Over and over in Fallout, characters tell each other how important Ethan Hunt is, how righteous he is, how much the world needs him, and though there are no capes or masks in sight, this becomes one of the best superhero movies in years – about a man who soldiers tirelessly on with the weight of the world on his shoulders. This is the apotheosis of Ethan Hunt, the deification of Tom Cruise. The moral of the story goes something like, “Cruise is great, Cruise is good” – or, to twist a line from one of his earlier films, “We want him on that wall. We need him on that wall.” There is something more than a little goofy about all this, and yet there’s also something endearingly sincere about it, and at the end of two and a half relentlessly exhilarating hours of the finest entertainment movies are offering right now, perhaps Cruise has earned a bit of tearful praise from his onscreen co-stars. He won’t let us down. In the end, Fallout is nothing more or less than a tribute to the last great action hero of our time – a man who may be the stuff of myths after all.