Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Cast: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Vanessa Kirby, Michelle Monaghan
In 2015, both James Bond and Ethan Hunt went rogue. MI6 and IMF, their sophisticated secret-service organizations, were being disbanded by governments that had stopped trusting in old-school one-man missions. The transatlantic winds merged; the situations of both our heroes were identical. The stakes, therefore, were sky-high – they were essentially battling for relevance, for survival in a new world marked by strategic rationality and modern filmmaking. They were fighting for individuality and disorder. Their entire genre was in danger.
Out of them, however, it's only Hunt – guided by director Christopher McQuarrie – that was hailed. Rogue Nation was a slick, tense, imaginative, brave and sinewy work of kinetic art. But Bond's Spectre, helmed by Sam Mendes, was a hard film to like. It's because, after Skyfall had humanized the famous British double agent, people had begun to engage with Bond on an emotional level. It wasn't so much the physicality and daring anymore, but the 'intellectuality' of his story that came under scrutiny.
Except for perhaps during J.J. Abrams' Mission: Impossible III, Hunt has had no such baggage. Over the next two installments, Brad Bird and McQuarrie turned the iconic Tom Cruise avatar into something of a haunted superhero. The 56-year-old Hollywood superstar knows that the very concept of a fearless 56-year-old doing crazy stunts and not over-thinking his plans is what keeps the franchise so endearing – and enduring. Like, say, a John McClane taking to technology. He is then hardly a spy thriller anymore – in fact, Cruise is deliberately patronizing (combine this with the arrival of Simon Pegg as 'funnyman' Benji since Ghost Protocol) and even somewhat indolent during the expository portions. For him the script is just a filler to reach the next gravity-defying stunt. Almost every new set piece begins with him yelling, "I'll figure it out" – that is, dumping the plot and throwing caution to the wind (literally). Hunt isn't here to speak; he's here to jump.
Which is why it's a bit surprising that McQuarrie, a staunch believer in the "action speaks louder than words" formula, over-designs the stakes of Mission: Impossible – Fallout (otherwise, ironically, known as MI6). It's almost like he tries to make Hunt's new mission sound…possible. That's not to say the set pieces aren't breathless – a high-altitude skydive over mainland Europe, an endless chase sequence across Paris and a ridiculous helicopter chase over the Himalayas are exquisitely crafted pieces of pure cinema. But when they appear, we feel relieved rather than anticipatory. In fact, the action is far more coherent than the plot. It's easier to follow the exact mechanics and geographical awareness of Hunt within a choreographed scene than map the events and characters and deceits that lead him to these scenes.
The 56-year-old Hollywood superstar knows that the very concept of a fearless 56-year-old doing crazy stunts and not over-thinking his plans is what keeps the franchise so endearing – and enduring.
The film begins with Hunt dreaming about his wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan). His small IMF team messes up a mission in Berlin, which leads to nuclear warheads falling into the hands of a shadowy group called The Apostles. John Lark is a key name thrown around randomly. Simultaneously, the CIA, led by a new chief (Angela Bassett), puts an assassin (Henry Cavill) in charge of babysitting Hunt's pursuit of redemption. Casting a known face like Cavill – whose moustache is far more expressive than his face – is not the most elegant way to deal with a story full of unidentified villains. Hunt discovers that he will have to trade psychopathic ex-spy Solomon Lane for the warheads; at one point, three different groups are eyeing his bike-heist across Paris.
Throw in the complex return of MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), the strangeness of a corrupt broker called The White Widow (The Crown's fantastic Vanessa Kirby) and the desperation of IMF head and former CIA director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) – and we have a movie, not unlike The Dark Knight Rises, clumsily trying to lend perspective and heft to the world its hero has to save. Lorne Balfe's score, too, is more Hans Zimmer-ish in its reading of pace and themes, while Hunt's experiences are laced with reminders of his near-Batman-esque gift of haunted detachment. You almost wonder: does the film need to operate on the fringes of a Nolan-verse at all?
Fallout is fun when it's "Impossible," just not so much during the Mission buildups in between. It thrives on us finding humour in just how audacious and clear-minded some of its action is – only, I'm not sure it wants us to wryly nod our heads in disbelief even when Hunt isn't on screen. It's frivolous plotting, like a cold side extending the wait for the main dish. This happens quite often, but Cruise's boundless energy and unerring faith in the franchise immediately distracts us from the film's lack of self-awareness. He directs viewers to what is important, and to what might eventually set this legacy apart from an existential Bond series, a tireless Bourne series and the dozens of overcooked superhero franchises dotting our times.
Much of our enjoyment of the Mission: Impossible series is derived from the fact that filmmakers continue to challenge Cruise's ageing body and our ageing minds – and by extension, the traditional core of action filmmaking. It seems to be getting better with every installment not because these are actually better genre movies – they're not in the same league as a Mad Max: Fury Road or The Raid: Redemption – but because they remain loyal to a form that an entire generation has been forced to outlive. The mess of the current blockbuster landscape makes them shine brighter than they perhaps might have a decade ago. To McQuarrie's credit, he clearly knows that he is creating no masterpiece, and counts on the fact that viewers admire his vision in context of the era Cruise defies.
In a sense, Fallout, too, is inherently nostalgic, forsaking fancy visual effects and digital wizardry to present a cute save-the-world fairytale. Hunt, unlike Bond, continues to embody the last-man-standing spirit of his franchise – he counts on the stray bullets out of nowhere to save him when he's down, and walks the thin line linking surrealism and parody. Being an agent of chaos is, despite its inherent complications, infinitely more interesting than saving the planet from chaos – he'd probably make an impenetrable villain, should the makers want to collide the MI universe with other morally conflicted ones.
Hunt is, by merely existing in 2018, a Rogue Nation resisting Fallout in an age populated with capes and punchlines. Everything he does simply accentuates this underdog effect. It should come as no surprise then that the weakest link of his latest adventure is the guy who plays Superman.