A time traveler from 1996 stepping into 2018 would have a hard time recognizing the world he finds himself in. But amid a spate of revolutions – economic, technological, political, cultural – there are few things as consistent as Tom Cruise in the role of Ethan Hunt, a role he first played 22 years ago. Running, punching, falling, shooting, blowing things up, being hung, dangling, on the brink of being killed, Ethan Hunt is an island of stability in a turbulent sea. And in this case, after more than two decades and six films, Cruise reminds us that he’s capable of a lot more than that.
The “Mission: Impossible” movies are the oldest franchise in Hollywood that endures without a need for innovations, lengthy breaks or reboots with a younger star. Batman, Spiderman and the rest were there earlier (if we don’t count the “Mission: Impossible” television series), but those franchises didn’t remain whole. All of them underwent metamorphoses and restarts with new stars. But not “Mission: Impossible.”
On the other hand, “Mission: Impossible,” however successful as a franchise, varies widely in terms of the quality of its individual films. Its directors, dominant figures in the industry – Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird and Christopher McQuarrie – have turned out very uneven films. This has hampered the effort to add depth to the Hunt character and enable him to enter the big leagues with the likes of James Bond and Jason Bourne. The replacement of most of the supporting actors in each film further hindered the development of the character, who had to forge new ties every two hours. (Ving Rhames has been there from the beginning, but his character, Luther, didn’t contribute much.)
“Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” the sixth episode in the series, marks a genuine turning point in consolidating Ethan Hunt’s status in the annals of cinema spies. It’s not so much that the character has developed or changed, as his surroundings. Cruise’s Hunt is more stable and credible than ever. The major change occurs behind the camera, in a way that allows the hero to do what he does best, and in practice to understand his character through his actions.
McQuarrie, who also directed the previous movie in the franchise, “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” is the first director who’s been invited back a second time. Not surprising, given the chemistry that developed between him and the star. It’s actually the fifth collaboration between Cruise and McQuarrie – as screenwriter – and the third time he’s directed Cruise. They also made “Jack Reacher” (2012) together, and honed Cruise’s physical side. In “Fallout,” McQuarrie is given greater leeway to leave his mark, including solo scripting.
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The plot gets underway about two years after “Rogue Nation,” but there’s no need to refresh one’s memory ahead of seeing the new movie. A convenient reminder arrives in the form of the familiar note that self-destructs in five seconds. An anarchist group called “The Apostles,” established on the ruins of the syndicate from the previous movie, is trying to gets its hands on plutonium in order to detonate three nuclear bombs in the Vatican, Mecca and Jerusalem, and thereby to bring into being a new world order. Hunt and his faithful team – Luther and Benji (Simon Pegg) – are sent to thwart the scheme and find out who the leader of The Apostles is.
But as in every picture, Washington has doubts about Hunt. So the team is bolstered by CIA agent August Walker, played with an impressive air of threat by Henry Cavill, who’s more accustomed to disappointing viewers as Superman. MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) also crops up time and again, though after her role in “Rogue Nation” her motives this time are a mystery.
From this point on the plot becomes as labyrinthine and devious as the spies’ loyalties; people tend to dress up as other people, and chase follows chase with an aura of classical Europe. Seemingly, this is just another regular episode of “Mission: Impossible,” but only seemingly. With the real stars of Hollywood’s major box office hits these days being an army of special effects people equipped with computer programs and demonstrating a fondness for superheroes, “Fallout” offers an alternative: a return to the roots.
There are, of course, abundant special effects – this is 2018, after all – but the new film draws much inspiration from the past. Rather than an emphasis on visual effects, our attention is riveted by the cinematography, the editing, the sound and the choreography of the chases. The action is integrated into the story in a manner that is relatively consistent with the progress of the plot and the development of the characters (if one ignores the tendency to climb every familiar monument in Paris and London). The use of music and sound design as a dominant tool, in the spirit of director Christopher Nolan (“Dunkirk”), dovetails with framing in which the camera refuses to let go of the character in the center. The cinematography, by Rob Hardy, forces the viewer to absorb every blow together with Hunt – and he absorbs plenty of blows – without escaping to the outside with the aid of frenetic editing.
McQuarrie, who gained fame as the screenwriter of “The Usual Suspects,” grasps that Hunt is at his peak not when he’s a superhero but when he becomes a punching bag. I’d never understood the star’s insistence on doing stunts himself, other than for reasons of ego, especially after he was injured while jumping off a roof in the shooting of this movie. But “Fallout” makes extremely intelligent use of Cruise’s body.
The audience’s knowledge that he’s the one performing the stunts heightens both the effect and our capacity to identify with every punch and crash to the ground. At the beginning of the film the hero is described as a “chisel” in comparison to Walker, who’s called a “hammer.” After 22 years on the job, Ethan Hunt looks tired, and that works to his advantage. If in the previous films every blow he took wasn’t really experienced viscerally by the viewers, this time we’re in free fall with him on each plunge from a building.
The result is a return to rough, clean, physical action that’s implausible in the best sense. Whether it’s on a motorcycle in the streets of Paris, on foot across the rooftops of London or in a helicopter amid mountains, Hunt’s new vulnerability turns the movie into a kind of jolting rollercoaster ride, on which the hero finds himself as much by force of circumstance as by his own will. Hunt can climb a thousand skyscrapers like the Burj Khalifa, but a fight set in a small bathroom is one of the best scenes in the franchise’s history. Still, kudos to the use of technology: this is one of the few movies that is not excessive in its use of 3D, photography and even lighting to create complex, layered spaces, which add up to more than some Disneyland-style gimmick, like an object that’s hurled toward the camera.
Along with the action, the most significant innovation McQuarrie brings to the franchise is a modest but noteworthy attempt to distill and sharpen Hunt’s character. After five films, the studio finally figured out that you don’t replace a winning team; the fact that Hunt is surrounded by the same veteran partners allows the filmmakers to expand his story somewhat, and in return also to set him apart from colleagues in the cinematic world of espionage. At the heart of “Fallout” is an old dilemma that rests on the “trolley problem” from the world of ethics: whether to kill one person in order to save millions. If loyalty to homeland and love of a woman were the driving forces of the previous pictures, the dilemma Hunt confronts this time begins to build him a genuinely human character, beyond a collection of impulses.
Thirty years ago this month, “Die Hard,” one of the best action movies of all time, was released, and seeing it again recalls what’s been lost in a world that’s drifted into superheroes and fantasy. Visual effects haven’t destroyed the cinema, absolutely not, but overreliance on them sometimes encourages creative laziness and makes us forget a few basic elements that are found in sweeping action. Cruise, a stuntman in his soul, and McQuarrie, who continues to develop as a director, here achieve a joint peak. “Fallout” is the best film of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise, and at the moment it’s also the best action movie of 2018, while dozens of avengers linger far behind.