Watching Mission: Impossible – Fallout I was reminded of a discussion I had with friends a few years back. Tom Cruise is the closest thing America has to Jackie Chan. A fair rebuttal would be Jackie Chan is the only Jackie Chan, but Cruise remains the one American action star almost pathologically committed to doing his own stunts.
American cinema is filled with great action; modern cinema is no exception. Most modern action scenes are computer generated. I’ve talked before about the visual consequence of having your action scenes being primarily CGI. It may look cool but more often than not it will feel or look repetitive and stale. Incredibles 2 felt alive and visually distinctive and inventive because the VFX people and the people making the rest of the film were one in the same.
Christopher McQuarrie is no stranger to Cruise or physical stunts. His Jack Reacher starred Cruise as well. It contained fun and lively fight choreography and a fantastic car chase in which Cruise did most of the driving. Much of the press for Fallout has been touting the amount and skill of “real action”. For good reason, the action in Fallout at times feels visceral.
The stunts and action scenes are more than just well done-they are well shot. McQuarrie and his cameraman Rob Hardy, make the tension within the moments of the intense action feel palpable. Action scenes are about more than whether or not they are real or not. They are the result of the director, the cinematographer, and the editor, Eddie Hamilton.
A cut a second or two late or early could be devastating to the tension. What Fallout does so brilliantly is understand, not just how the action works, but how film works. Cruise racing down side streets of Paris isn’t just exhilarating because it’s really Cruise on the bike. McQuarrie, Hardy, and Hamilton have worked together to give you distinct angles and piece them together to elicit a feeling of exhilaration.
It helps Fallout that Ethan Hunt is more enigma than a cipher. Much like Cruise, we feel as if we know Hunt. A side effect of sitting in a dark room while watching images of him larger than life. It gives one a sense of intimate familiarity. When Cruise stares at someone or something, eyes narrowed with gritted teeth the question we in the audience almost always ask is, “I wonder what he’s thinking?”
The plots of the Mission: Impossible movies tend to be easier described as “one damn thing after another”. Which is fine, no one really remembers what the movies were about anyway. Fallout is one more damn thing after another. I haven’t seen all the Mission: Impossible movies. But when I try to think back on the ones I have seen I can’t tell if it’s the same movie; or me making a whole movie out of fragments of the others.
The script by McQuarrie is a byzantine labyrinth of plot threads and motivations. I gave up trying to figure out what was going on about thirty minutes in and just went along for the ride. Still, while you don’t feel all the two and a half hours of Fallout, you do feel some of it. Cruise’s Hunt is a character in a constant state of self-doubt and flagellation. The genius is he never talks about it. We’re told this by other characters and it’s less Batman brooding and more just Hunt being somewhat suicidal and really just plain extra.
Still, it’s the shallow characterization that causes Fallout to drag from time to time. When Luther (Ving Rhames), Benji (Simon Pegg), and Hunley (Alec Baldwin) argue about what Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) might be plotting or who the mysterious John Larkin might be – it’s fine. We sit back in a glorious stupor and let it wash over us. After all the characters on screen seem to know what’s going on. Sometimes that’s all you need.
Yet, other scenes feel flat-such as when Ethan and Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) have what seems like the same conversation over and over. Ferguson’s Ilsa, an intriguing character, gets the short shrift. A British version of Ethan Hunt, who happens to be a woman, Ilsa is never herself boring. It’s what she’s given to do or say, which is almost a pittance. She kicks ass, yes, but not enough, and her arc is overshadowed by McQuarrie’s fascination with Ethan’s “fatal flaw”.
Of all the misdirections and little tricks, Fallout does pull it never really tries to hide the fact that the CIA’s August Walker (Henry Cavill) might be a bit on the shady side. Cavill’s mustache, glorious as it may be, is a fun piece of old-school genetic foreshadowing. He’s a bad guy, clearly look at his mustache! I’ve seen Cavill in no less than four movies half of them I have liked. Justice League was bad but I kind of love the raggedy misbegotten misfit of the DC universe.
But for the first time, I was actually allowed to see the charm of Cavill. No, I haven’t seen Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. but rest assured it is now on the list. Cavill is a fun and physically daunting presence.
He’s an amusing contrast to Cruise’s Hunt. Whereas Hunt is innovative and seemingly impulsive while actually being cunning and over-prepared, Cavill’s Walker is a wrecking ball. He waits off to the side watching the situation unfold before stepping in to knock the obstacle out of the way. It’s the type of fun performance that makes you angry he hasn’t been in better films up to this point.
McQuarrie fills Fallout with humor but not jokes. When Walker and Ethan take out a man in a club bathroom it turns out to be more of a brawl than they were expecting. McQuarrie’s script carefully has Ethan explain to Walker what the plan is and how it needs to play out. When the two are forced to improvise it’s only afterward we see how the whole plan has been gleefully decimated.
Angela Bassett as the director of the C.I.A., Erica Sloane, is woefully underused though. Then again if the movie were four hours long and a one-woman show starring Bassett my complaint would likely be it was still too short. Still, I wish she would have had more to do.
But as it is, she is a much-needed voice of what passes for reason, in the Mission: Impossible universe. Bassett gets the closing voiceover, which more movies would be wise to copy. After all, even if the movie was a dredge to sit through listening to Angela Bassett do the story’s coda in voice-over would be a heck of a strong note to go out on.
Far from feeling rote or tired, McQuarrie has made a breathless cinematic tome of action. If it drags from time to time the masterly crafted set pieces alleviate the strain of the script. Fallout is not made to be watched on your phone or laptop. It is made to be seen on the biggest screen possible. From start to finish it is a sincere effort of joy and excitement. It hits the ground running and doesn’t stop until the end credits roll.