#50 — Mission: Impossible — Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie, 2018)
In a cinematic era absolutely overrun with superheroes, how can a more conventional action movie titan keep up? Fictional demigods streak across the sky, routinely patching up the very fabric of the universe. Surely a guy who’s mostly good at riding motorcycles and climbing forbidding rock faces can’t really compete in this booming economy of ludicrous derring-do.
At the start of the twenty-tens, the Mission: Impossible film series was at best an afterthought. Tom Cruise’s star power was the dimmest it had been since he exploded into the stuff of box office legend during the nineteen-eighties. His status as an actor on his way out was so locked in that the mounting of a fourth Mission: Impossible installment was largely perceived as a way for Paramount Pictures to offload the franchise from Cruise and onto the shoulders of the suddenly ascendent Jeremy Renner. Instead, Cruise landed in the film, stripped of numeric signifiers and dubbed Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, more fully and frenetically engaged than he’d even been before on screen. Director Brad Bird somehow recognized that Cruise has it in him to approach every action sequence with the unyielding commitment of a kamikaze pilot, and he staged the material accordingly.
If Brad Bird cracked the code for Mission: Impossible films — and Cruise’s part in them — then writer-director Christopher McQuarrie became the cryptanalyst who figured out how to make them work as the cipher kept escalating in difficulty. A collaborator with Cruise on Valkyrie, Jack Reacher, and, critically, the gleefully ingenious Edge of Tomorrow, McQuarrie was enlisted to concoct new spy assignments of notable improbability. Mission: Impossible — Fallout, McQuarrie’s second outing presiding over the exploits of Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and his perpetually frazzled colleagues, pushes the action movie and the spy thriller to delightful extremes. It captures the globetrotting zing of James Bond films of old, with a modern spruce-up to the insouciant spirit of Sean Connery’s portrayal of espionage. Echoing comedic improv, every last hesitancy is steamrollered by a headlong charge into the rollicking possibility of the moment, tossing the film’s hero into fresh, elaborate peril with a giddy cry of “Yes, and….”
Mission: Impossible — Fallout has a plot, but I don’t really care what it is. And part of the pleasure of the film is the way it cannily employs the familiar emotional beats of genre drama — devastating betrayals and bittersweet reunions — and yet doesn’t quite commit to them. McQuarrie is like one of those modern magicians with a meta bent, showing off the secret mechanics of a trick as they perform it, and somehow making it surprising and grandly entertaining even with the facade knocked away. The movie bounds from one set piece to another without ever feeling like it’s sacrificing cohesion or disinterestedly biding time between orchestrated cataclysms. Like Raiders of the Lost Ark a generation earlier, Mission: Impossible — Fallout captures the adrenalized fervor of bygone movie serials, where getting to the next cliffhanger in style was the chief imperative.
And the fearsome feats are staged with expert skill and shrewd visual inventiveness, all in the service of convincing the audience that Cruise sees it as his solemn duty to risk life and limb for the amusement of others. He leaps from airborne vehicles, throws haymakers to the point of exhaustion in a pristine white restroom, races through the streets of Paris, and bangs his body ruthlessly into every ungiving surfaces he can find. He’s an unhinged gladiator who throws himself willingly to the lions. Anything Cruise does requires a similar effort by the personnel wielding cameras and other filmmaking craftspeople, giving the resulting product a sharpened clarity that takes it beyond spectacle. It’s a movie that clearly took hard work and is willing to show the sweat, as surely as if the salty droplets were actually flecked onto the lens. Let other assembled blockbusters digitally sketch in miracles of physicality; McQuarrie, Cruise, and company want everyone to know that hard contact will leave a mark. It turns out there are all sorts of ways to defy gravity.