How good can a summer tentpole, the sixth film in a long running series be? Especially when the star is getting a bit long in the tooth and has, shall we say, “personal issues.” The least of which might be the fact that his box office grosses have reached a point of diminishing returns.
That’s the question Mission Impossible: Fallout aims to answer.
Tom Cruise has had a remarkable run at the box office for thirty-plus years. He has positioned himself as the last action hero. Or at least the oldest (all apologies to Liam Neeson who’s in in the fade now). Outside of the Mission films, the Cruiser’s efforts to set up another franchise have fallen woefully short. Jack Reacher got a sequel no one was asking for and The Mummy, er, died in its tomb. Taking down an entire cinematic universe with its demise.
Which is why the MI series is so important to Cruise. As far as hits go, it’s the only thing he can count on. That’s not to say he hasn’t snuck in some films of quality in this latter portion of his career. The two movies he made with Doug Liman are both pretty damn good. Last year’s American Made was a good reminder of his undiminished charm. He plays a fine rascal with that megawatt smile of his. Even better was the poorly titled Edge of Tomorrow (seriously, who doesn’t prefer Live. Die. Repeat.?). A smashing mix of the Terminator and Groundhog Day.
Neither lit the fuse with audiences though. And Cruise – who seems to have largely left behind the left turns in his career (Magnolia, Eyes Wide Shut, Born on the 4th of July, etc.) – is back in the ring to take another swing as Ethan Hunt.
It’s a little sad, really. The idea that Cruise spends all this time chasing hits. But here we are.
I’ve always been a bit mixed on the MI Series. The first one I found a bit workmanlike outside of the suspended in air download heist sequence. John Woo’s follow up was completely batshit. I’m not sure if it’s a wonderfully terrible movie or just a terrible terrible movie. I did begin to warm to the series with the third film, which paradoxically is the least successful of the six.
JJ Abrams brought genuine emotion to MI3. The inclusion of Michele Monaghan as Ethan’s wife humanized the proceedings. Philip Seymour-Hoffman is still the best villain of all the films. The late great brought a strange sort of soulless detachment that made him terrifying in a very real way. There was no mustache twirling or scenery chewing. Hoffman was all the more frightening because he seemed like he might actually exist in the world.
Films 4 and 5 had a similar vibe. High on thrilling stunt work and action set ups. They were both brilliant machines. But they were machines.
Which is what makes this sixth installment so enjoyable. It’s a near perfect blend of the heart exhibited in 3 and the eye-popping action of numbers 4 and 5.
By now, we feel we have a good sense of Ethan Hunt. Let’s face it, he’s basically a Tom Cruise avatar. Driven. Relentless. All teeth. 6 does an improved job of showcasing his connection with Simon Pegg’s Benji and Ving Rhames’ Luther. There is an easygoing comraderie between the three. While the film version of Mission Impossible is miles upon miles from the team-oriented concept of the television show it was birthed from, Benji and Luther are given more to do here than usual. It’s a slight but welcome shift.
Better still is Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa. Cruise can have a tendency to overpower his female counterparts on film. Especially if they are not fully written. That doesn’t happen with Ferguson. Who is entirely believable as a secret agent and has a strength of presence that is conveyed even without dialogue. She also shares solid chemistry with Cruise as well. This may be a Tom Cruise movie, but she does not take second place when onscreen.
The return of Monaghan is essential too. Late in the film there is a genuinely affecting sequence between her and Cruise. The type of scene that would hold up just fine in a straight drama that has nothing to do with attempting to stop a group known as The Apostles, who are looking to set off three nuclear bombs to cause chaos, anarchy, and a new world order.
Which of course, sounds a bit like almost any plot of an action movie like this. Let’s face it, if you spend too much time thinking about it, well, it would seem ridiculous. Because, you know, it kinda is.
The smart thing director Christopher McQuarrie (back again after 5) does here is he never gives you much time to wrap your mind around plot. Because this thing moves. For the first time in a career spanning nearly 40 years, Tom Cruise is in a film that may be more relentless than he is. The film barely allows a breath before moving on to the next fraught sequence.
While some of these set pieces are particularly spectacular (the skydiving and helicopter scenes come to mind), others are quite rugged. Cruise and fellow agent Henry Cavill slugging it out with a mark who is in no way easy in a public loo is brutal. Rebecca Ferguson’s tête-à-tête with villain Sean Harris in the latter portion of the film is almost on the same level. You also get a lot of Cruise running. And let’s face it, no actor has ever performed that action onscreen with more alacrity than our Tommy.
Cruise does seem more physically vulnerable here. It’s not only that he finally seems a little older (he’s 5 years older than Wilford Brimley was in Cocoon – wrap your mind around that), but all the running, and jumping, and punching, and derring do comes with some consequence. There’s a sequence where Cruise is jumping from rooftop to rooftop, misses his leap, crashes into the side of the building, and limps away. Maybe it helped that I knew Cruise actually broke his leg in that scene and that drag in his right limb was real. Whatever the case, for the first time ever, Tom Cruise is having trouble keeping up with his own movie.
Cruise and crew my be trying to save the world, but they are having a hard time saving themselves. Even though you know better, MI6 makes you feel like something is at stake. Which is a fairly remarkable accomplishment.
There’s a certain snobbery that exists in some quarters of criticism about action films in general. A dismissiveness that many of us who write about movies have been guilty of.
There are times though. Times when the big machine with all the corporate tie-ins, the outlandish plotting, the ridiculous stunts, all that which make critics and awards shows turn up their noses, so successfully elevates its genre as to almost be separate from it.
I’m thinking of the second and third Bourne films. Daniel Craig’s first Bond picture. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight.
On occasions such as this, a certain deference must be paid. The rules of criticism set aside because they are rendered superfluous by the sheer experience of being put into a cinematic blender and poured into your ride home after catching your breath and releasing the arms of your seat.
Films like this don’t often win awards. Hell, films like this rarely even get nominated for awards.
We all know why that is. I’m not sure that’s right though. At the beginning of this review I asked a question. How good can a film like this be? As it turns out, very. And not simply by its own standards, although certainly that.
Mission Impossible: Fallout isn’t just the best of the series, it’s one of the best films of the year.