For my friend Steve:
Mission: Impossible—Fallout is the latest in the series that was rebooted with Tom Cruise way back in 1996, when the image of Cruise suspended above the floor grabbed the nation’s attention and helped kick-start the new series. Since then, the stunts have become more and more daring—with lots of ink spilled on the risks Cruise takes, always working to have the newest installment outdo the previous ones in daring-do.
In doing so, the balance of the action films has switched from espionage thrillers with some kicking action scenes with a soupçon of “How do they do that?” to now, where the plot provides the through line for a series of increasingly dangerous and nearly incredible action sequences and stunts that have a life of their own. These scenes are the equivalent of great song-and-dance numbers in a musical whose plot is nearly irrelevant. Yes, there is some kind of new mission involving double- and triple-crossing (at least), Angela Bassett is still too intense for most screens, and the world’s fate is once again in the balance.
Cruise is now in a league of his own with this film, that seals once and for all his outsized action pedigree. My film-knowledgeable brother believes he deserves a special Oscar for his amazing work in the series. I suggested a Lifetime Achievement Award, at least if future couch-jumping or Leah Remini don’t get him first. He’s a force of nature here, and he inspires a sense of thrill, wonder, and lastly, awe for the performer, which can take one out of the film at every such sequence. Fortunately, the film kept the sequences tied to the plot, and kept the action moving at such a place that the increasing implausibility is overridden by respect, near-astonishment, and adrenaline.
Cruise, also a producer of all the modern MI films, may well have peaked with this film. In his mid-50’s when this was filmed, Cruise is only human, after all, and his face is beginning to show the inevitable. That makes his action work all the more electrifying for now, but the series will suffer if the stunts get any crazier, with the inexorable focus on the star’s superhuman abilities over the story itself. This one keeps the story tight, the sequences just this side of credibility, and the other characters worth the watching.
This one is cast well, with one exception. The femme fatale (or is she?) is Vanessa Kirby, who played Princess Margaret in Netflix’s The Crown to great effect. Here she is smoky, sultry, and smart, and nails the necessary attitude and mystery. The “team,” now down to two, is a perfect couple to balance Cruise’s distancing coolness: Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg. They are both immensely appealing screen personalities, with Rhames pulling in the heavy action hero direction and Pegg always riding along on a strong comic persona (even in the more dramatic scenes). The pair succeeds in surrounding Cruise with a necessary amount of heft, humanity and humor to prevent him becoming too recessive a presence. Michelle Monaghan “acquits herself well,” shall we say, and Alec Baldwin nearly succeeds in transcending his comic persona and personal uneven reputation by playing it strong and straight. And lastly, on the good side, Rebecca Ferguson (who is all over the place these days), lends her own heft and solid acting skills to the mix, making a nearly unbelievable character come to life.
The only regrettable casting, unhappily, is Henry Cavill. He makes a great (and underrated) Superman, but he can’t seem to find a role that fits him as well as the Supersuit. At first, I was internally complimenting Cruise on allowing a taller, better looking and buffer actor to be in the same shot. But then Cavill’s character got introduced, and his early line readings reminded me of a good community theater presentation. The direction the film takes his character (spoiler alert) helps a little and gives him a little something more to work with. He’s a strong physical presence on film, and he makes a good action fighter, but he never nailed his character when it counted.
Comparisons have been made to the 007 series, which are legitimate. But the series are clearly two different cinematic animals. Perhaps the best shared aspect at the moment is the aging of its central character, which both series are now starting to address. Considering Cruise’s controlling nature and role as producer (where Daniel Craig is simply an actor), the references to advancing age and (heaven help us) its inescapable limitations may help the series. It might be smart to capitalize on Cruise’s advancing age as either a comic or humanizing thread, something to give some richness and additional leavening to the intensity of the plot and action, with less reliance on one-liners and irony.
The film is beautifully shot and intelligently edited. Christopher McQuarrie (Oscar winner for the screenplay of The Usual Suspects, released back in the year of the newly rebooted series) directed for the second time in the series, previously directing Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation. It’s only his fourth turn as director, with two other action films to his credits, Jack Reacher and The Way of the Gun. He clearly prizes action over performance and narrative plausibility, but these films are about neither. The film is slick, fast-moving, and is essentially a series of mouth-opening stunt sequences threaded together by a plot that had something to do with international intrigue and destroying most of the world…I think. In any event, it’s the joyride of the summer. There are twists and turns everywhere—in the plot, in the relationships, and with the action—that keep everything moving along. It barely holds all its disparate parts together, but it does. I’m sure I’ll see it again.