Thursday, August 9, 2018

Improving on Perfection: Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise, and Ving Rhames in Mission: Impossible – Fallout. (Photo: Polygon)

Tom Cruise was always instrumental to the Mission: Impossible series, right from the jump, not just as its star but as its primary producer. He collaborated with some of the greats of genre cinema, using the distinct cinematic voices of creators like Brian de Palma, John Woo, JJ Abrams, Brad Bird, and Christopher McQuarrie to create new visions of action-oriented spycraft. Ethan Hunt was his answer to 007, and in crafting this franchise at both the macro and micro scales – he’s involved at every level, from script to stunt choreography – he has made sure to execute it at such a high degree of quality that it’s now James Bond who’s running to catch up with Cruise’s signature straight-backed sprint, and not the other way around. While Daniel Craig’s tenure as 007 hit its lowest point with the regrettable misfire that was SPECTRE, Cruise’s run as Ethan Hunt is approaching its zenith, with 2015's Rogue Nation setting the bar so high, I wasn't sure it could be surpassed. Fans of action cinema miss the latest installment, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, at their peril: it’s the spy thriller honed to its deadliest razor-sharp edge, about as perfect an action movie as you could ask for. I've never been happier to have my skepticism proved wrong.

The continuing storyline of the Impossible Missions Force and its members (Cruise’s Hunt, Simon Pegg’s Benji, and Ving Rhames’s Luther, along with newer additions like Rebecca Feguson’s Ilsa Faust and Alec Baldwin’s Hunley) narrows its focus in Fallout, moving away somewhat from the ensemble storytelling of the previous films and centering strongly on Hunt as its embattled protagonist. Terrorist mastermind Solomon Lane (the ghostly-voiced Sean Harris), though captured and incarcerated after the events of Rogue Nation, strings the IMF along a series of setups and double-crosses meant to manipulate Hunt into facing the consequences of his actions as an international spy, while CIA director Sloane (a steely Angela Bassett) sends her personal “hammer,” an agent named Walker (Henry Cavill), to make sure the IMF’s actions coincide with her own interests. Fallout is a succession of no-win scenarios, each more “impossible” than the last, which contribute to a mounting sense that Hunt is surviving on borrowed time – making every action set piece thrum with the possibility that it might be the last, for any of the all-too-human members of the team.

McQuarrie is the first director in the franchise to return for a second run, and the first to pen his own screenplay, providing a clarity of vision and intent that makes Fallout a lean and mean vehicle for high-stakes tension and exciting action. The clockwork precision of his sequences from Rogue Nation (like its now-famous opera scene) ratchet up to unbearable levels of suspense in Fallout, playing out with exquisite timing and shattering impact. McQuarrie is the best kind of action director in that he stages cool-looking choreography and jaw-dropping stunts that are driven by genuine dramatic tension, in which the goals, the stakes, and the geography are always crystal-clear, and he's the smartest kind of action writer in that he knows how to really put the screws to his characters. The M:I series took a few stumbling steps to get here, but seems to have finally arrived at the same type of satisfying action typified by all-time genre heroes like Indiana Jones, where Hunt isn't the flawlessly competent Bondian archetype, he's a man scrambling to save himself and his friends from situations that just can't seem to stop going south. Nothing ever goes according to plan, and he constantly gets the crap kicked out of him  but, like Indy, he uses wit, daredevil courage, and no small amount of luck to somehow scrape through.

Cruise scaling a cliff face with probably way fewer safety measures than you'd think. (Photo: IMDB)

This intimate understanding of the functionality of good action cinema makes Fallout a playground for McQuarrie's nail-biting set pieces. A skydiving infiltration goes horribly wrong; a brawl in a nightclub bathroom sees Walker and Hunt, both human weapons of mass destruction, challenged by an unexpectedly lithe opponent; negotiations with black-market vendors reach a fever pitch of nervous tension; convoy ambushes smash through the established plan of attack and veer quickly into “anything can happen” territory. Fallout's motorcycle chases and helicopter battles are not only dramatically satisfying, but charged with desperate potential energy  you know that what you’re seeing isn’t a special effect, it’s really Cruise who’s really putting his life on the line for our entertainment. And it’s not so much the apprehension that you might see something horrible happen; it’s the knowledge that what you’re seeing is real -- that they actually got this footage at all. (Cruise broke his ankle making a death-defying leap; they kept that take in the final cut.) Does anyone need reminding by this point that the man is 56 years old? It’s almost impossible to appreciate the level of craft on display in Fallout in terms of its efficient editing (by Eddie Hamilton), its intelligent staging, or its flawless pacing and choreography, when you’re so gripped by the white-knuckle experience of its moment-to-moment velocity. In the few brief moments of lucidity I had, I was dumbstruck by what McQuarrie, Cruise, and the rest of the cast and crew had accomplished.

After her star-making turn in Rogue Nation, I was irritated that Rebecca Ferguson was given less to do in Fallout; I have to console myself with the knowledge that she now feels like an essential part of the franchise, as much a constant as any of the other characters (and just as badass – in one scene, she survives being hit by a car, and sells her escape with the same Indy-inspired "gritting-through-the-pain" realism as Cruise). The cast really works in Fallout to sell the bond between the members of the IMF; their loyalty to one another has been stated as fact in previous entries, but this is the first time I actually felt it. They’ve survived five other impossible missions by this point, and their friendships hold together with the emotional strength of fire-forged steel. I’d come to question the necessity of some of the ensemble, given that it grows with each new entry – when we have a Benji, why do we still need a Luther? why add a Walker when we’ve just thrown Faust into the mix? – but McQuarrie’s script justifies all of its players, letting solid performers like Pegg, Rhames, and Ferguson explore the internal limits of their characters with some affecting performances.

In fact, it’s that same sense of justification that powers the growling engine at the heart of Fallout. McQuarrie made all the right choices in his approach to the sixth entry in a blockbuster franchise, grasping the opportunity to outdo his own work on both a technical and a narrative level, justifying all of it through sheer quality of execution. I kept trying to second-guess the storyline, thinking that I’d figured out who the double agents were and how the double-crosses were going to play out, and McQuarrie was two steps ahead of me at every turn. I haven’t seen an action film as deliberate, as confident, as muscular and tense and brilliant, since Mad Max: Fury Road – and walking out of the theatre, I was suffused with the same vibrating energy I hadn’t felt since May 2015, when I’d first seen George Miller’s modern masterpiece, and left the cinema knowing I’d seen something very special.

Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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