Like, it seems, most people on Twitter who watch movies, your film editor undertook the admittedly enjoyable task of revisiting the entire Mission: Impossible film franchise in preparation for the release of its sixth entry, Mission: Impossible – Fallout. It’s something of a whiplash-inducing experience, as so much of the series to date has flown in the face of continuity; each film was the work of a different director and usually a different writer (or writers), and each film introduced a new villain, new female lead, and new skeptical boss for the series’ hero, Ethan Hunt, played by Tom Cruise. In fact, Cruise and co-star Ving Rhames are the only constants in every picture (and even Rhames only makes a cameo in the fourth entry).
But around the time of 2015’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the films began to settle on something of a house style, via the contributions of third entry director (and producer of each subsequent film) J.J. Abrams, and marking the third appearance of co-star Simon Pegg, and the second of Jeremy Renner. Renner’s absence from Fallout is a bit of a disappointment, as it’s otherwise the most direct sequel in the series to date – marking the return of not just the previous picture’s writer/director (Christopher McQuarrie), but its villain (Sean Harris), its bossman (Alec Baldwin) and, best of all, its kinda-sorta romantic interest (Rebecca Ferguson).
As usual, the plot is somehow both simple and maddeningly complicated. The Apostles, a splinter cell of The Syndicate (the previous film’s crew of rogue agents-turned-terrorists), have acquired three stolen plutonium spheres. Ethan and his team are charged with getting them back – but the undercover buy goes sideways, and Ethan has to let them go to save Luther (Rhames).
And thus begins an elaborate ruse to acquire them again, which requires Hunt going under deep cover as an international terrorist and coordinating the esape of Solomon Lane (Harris), whom he put away in the last film, and – look, I could fill this entire review with plot machinations and double-crosses (if I even followed all of them, and that’s a big if) and you’d skim right past them (if you haven’t already), because that’s not what we’re at a Mission: Impossible movie to see.
We’re there for the set pieces, the big action beats in which Tom Cruise risks his life and intricate identity swaps are performed and computers are hacked with split-second specificity, and here is where a word of warning is warranted: Fallout does not move at quite the same accelerated clip as the more recent entries. It runs a heftier-than-usual 147 minutes, and much of that excess comes in the first half-hour, when McQuarrie does a fair amount of table-setting (perhaps a bit more than is necessary, what with the aforementioned continuity to the previous entry).
And the action takes a while to ramp up – there are moments, to be sure, like Cruise’s much-vaunted halo drop above Paris, or the wall-breaking bathroom fight in which Cruise and spook chaperone Henry Cavill try to take down a particularly resilient bad guy (and, more importantly, Mr. Cavill loads his fists). But McQuarrie doesn’t really put the pedal to the floor until his big Parisian car/truck/motorcycle chase scene, and even then, the film is closer to the talky-spy-movie-with-action-beats of the first two entries than the (admittedly breathless) tumult-of-set-pieces structure the recent films have strived for. The most important piece of the Paris chase is a quiet, breath-held moment with an unfortunate cop; before it plunges in to the bonkers closing sequence, McQuarrie’s script gives Luther a lovely little explainer about his friend, and love, and loyalty.
And then comes that climax, a 15-minute ticking-bomb situation (with about four other elements thrown in) that’s not only the most over-the-top sequence in the series’ history, but the funniest; there are a couple of images in there that are like something out of The General. Part of the reason it’s funnier – that scene in particular and the movie in general – is that while Tom Cruise may neither look like, nor be willing to admit that he is, a 56-year-old man, he is at least allowing the filmmakers to ding his armor of vulnerability. He is no longer the agent who only needs to grit his teeth as he shimmies down a high-speed train or leaps from a flying motorcycle; he’s kinda getting his ass handed to him in that bathroom fight, and the look on his face as he jumps out of a Parisian office building is not one of invincibility, but resignation. More and more, he addresses his desperate situations not with confidence, but with a barely convincing “I’ll make it work!”
In those moments, Fallout is acknowledging its hero’s age, and something else that’s often eluded these movies: a sense of history. Sure, they’ll call back to the Langley heist (usually as a point of comparison to whatever difficult extraction they’re attempting next), but the new film is full of little shout-outs to the earlier pictures: a character linked to Vanessa Redgrave’s Max from the first film, an ingenious scene that recalls that picture’s cold open, a key moment in which Ethan must call upon those rock climbing skills from the second entry. And yet, those moments aren’t just about this new spirit of continuation, nor are they winking, Marvel-style fan service. They instead make Fallout feel like the ultimate mission, one where our hero must call upon all the skills he knows, and everything he can do.
“Mission: Impossible – Fallout” opens tonight.