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On “Mission Impossible – Fallout” and the M:I Cinematic Universe

Mission Impossible Fallout!

“Hi, kids. I’m Tom Cruise, and I’d like to talk to you about rooftop playtime safety…”

I saw Mission Impossible – Fallout in its second weekend of release and have spent numerous days since then doubting I could contrive more than 300 words out of “such nonstop wow”, which was more or less my initial impression of one of the year’s most exhilarating films.

But longtime MCC readers know every movie I see in theaters gets its own entry, even if it’s not always timely or relevant or useful to anyone but me, not unlike the rest of this site’s contents. Off we leap into that wild wordy yonder, then.

Short version for the unfamiliar: Tom Cruise’s sixth outing as IMF agent Ethan Hunt is another series of action scenes set in assorted countries tied together with big MacGuffins and a discerning selection of quiet character moments. In this case the MacGuffin is a three-pack of plutonium spheres useful for making nuclear bombs or playing some extremely high-stakes lawn bowling. Returning villain Solomon Lane (Prometheus‘ Sean Harris) is still alive and in prison after the events of Rogue Nation, but a new set of international henchmen arrive on the scene with a plan to break him out and help him slaughter millions — his dream vacation in a nutshell.

Once again Our Heroes must stop Lane’s machinations, but thanks to a delicate situation gone wrong in the prologue, Ethan finds himself saddled with an unwanted pair of sidekicks: Henry Cavill and the contractually protected super-mustache that helped ruin Justice League. Cavill is CIA agent August Walker, assigned to babysit Our Heroes and make sure they save the day better this time and don’t turn evil like half the spies in all those past James Bond films or all those other Mission: Impossible installments.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Old M:I teammates Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Alec Baldwin, and writer/director Christopher McQuarrie are all back for another ride on the merry-go-round, along with Rogue Nation‘s British rival spy Rebecca Ferguson. (Sadly the harmonic convergence of an MI6 agent appearing in M:I-6 is never pointed out.) Ethan’s ex-wife Michelle Monaghan likewise returns with slightly more lines and scenes than ever, which isn’t saying much and still isn’t fair.

New faces include Angela Bassett (Black Panther and so much more) as the new IMF boss in town, Vanessa Kirby (Princess Margaret in The Crown) as a bonus femme fatale, Frederick Schmidt (Metallo from The CW’s Supergirl) as her brother/henchman, and Wes Bentley (Interstellar, The Hunger Games) late in the game as a pretty nice guy.

There’s no Stan Lee because that’s some other cinematic universe, but we get one surprise cameo from CNN’s Wolf Blitzer as technically Wolf Blitzer. Between this and his bit in Skyfall, he’s among the very few personalities to appear in both a James Bond film and an M:I film. Also on that short list is stuntman Liang Yang, who takes on the Cruise/Cavill tag team in a bathroom martial-arts duel and who guarded a lady in Skyfall. (As one of the masked crimson guards, he also sparred with Rey and Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi.)

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? “There cannot be peace without first a great suffering,” claims our villain Solomon Lane, who thinks world peace will ensue after he gives the world a mutual villain to hate. He and Thanos represent a new breed of villain who’ve convinced themselves “the end justifies the means” for any heinous crime up to and including mass murder. For anyone with a remotely decent upbringing it’s not hard to poke holes in their logic. The biggest difference between heroic sacrifice and villainous sacrifice is that the best good guys are willing to die themselves for the greater good, while the bad guys delude themselves that killing others is the best contribution to society.

Other than the underlying, understated theme of sacrifice, M:I-6 is once again all about the stunts — Cruise’s much-ballyhooed HALO jump, the breathtaking helicopter dogfight, the car and cycle chases, the assorted fistfights and club fights, the impressive 1000-yard dash across real London rooftops, and more more more.

And it’s not just Cruise doing all the fighting this time, either. Not everyone’s great at it (alas, poor bookish Pegg does try), but quite a few folks get in some convincing licks. Even Baldwin gets to pick up a gun at one point. Much love and attention and craft were put into these sensational stunt spectaculars — no feeling of corner-cutting and very few moments of obvious stunt-performer insertion. McQuarrie and his crew clearly took their time in nailing everything just so, for maximum impact and without making the editor do all the heavy lifting, which far too many directors fall back on for their choppy fake fight scenes nowadays.

Nitpicking? Beyond the weaknesses of the first two films, the biggest letdown for me about the M:I series has been the lack of continuity between the films. The recurring players help a bit, but none of them grow or change much from one to the next, none of the calamities have anything to do with the other, and no one ever mentions previous films. They’re done-in-one pop singles, built like episodic television on a grander budget and often with a world-class cast, but every sequel is so expertly welcoming to new viewers that anyone who’s seen every M:I film doesn’t get a membership payoff for keeping up. That’s all on the first five films, though.

By contrast, Fallout is the first one to feel like the arrival of a M:I Cinematic Universe. In addition to arch-villain Solomon Lane’s comeback, two supporting characters are related to someone from Brian DePalma’s first M:I that I’d completely forgotten. The death-defying climax partly hinges on a callback to one of the better components of John Woo’s M:I-2. Michelle Monaghan’s journey from M:I-3 Concerned Girlfriend to Ghost Protocol throwaway cameo to Rogue Nation total omission is rewarded with a logical, positive step forward. It’s refreshing for a sequel finally to acknowledge the earlier ones with any specificity, and not just for the sake of gags or winks.

Ultimately that’s the opposite of a nitpick, though. Whoops.

Part of me wishes the film weighed a little more deeply on the emotional scale and spoke to some theme more ambitious than “spy life is hard”, but another part of me is so enamored of Cruise’s and McQuarrie’s action-adventure results that this second part of me is telling the first part of me to shut up.

So what’s to like? I’ve gotten more finicky about my action scenes as I’ve gotten older. Some days I wonder if I’m too jaded and if I’ll ever be thrilled again. Then along comes a movie like Fallout that delivers that sensation of uncompromised headlong acceleration.

Some aspects of Tom Cruise’s life bug me to no end, and I’ve seen a mere fraction of his total lifetime output, but when he’s in the zone like this, he’s a must-see theatrical juggernaut. He and McQuarrie seem to have latched on to a work ethic and a filmmaking chemistry lacking in the other box office letdowns he’s endured in recent years. If Cruise can somehow keep up this impressive action-junkie midlife crisis without his limbs shredding to bits or his organs crumbling to pieces after so many on-set injuries, I won’t be surprised if the two of them return in a few years for one more go-around, turning their collaboration into a trilogy and somehow, possibly through magic, making the next one even better.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Mission Impossible – Fallout end credits, but a few of the technical-effects credits confirm wires were used in some scenes, implying Cruise does need some help and isn’t a literal Superman…though at least he’s got the hairless upper lip for it.

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