Enjoy it: This is the best action franchise out there, and maybe the best franchise, full stop.
ILSA: What the hell is he doing?
BENJI: I find it best not to look.
Hello! I’d like to welcome everyone back for today’s meeting of the Mission: Impossible Appreciation Club. It’s been a few years for some of you, but that’s okay; you’re always welcome here.
We just have a few items on the agenda, then you’ll have plenty to time to mingle, catch up, and share your own thoughts on the brilliance of the latest Tom Cruise Stuntacular.
Item 1: How did we get here? When did the M:I franchise transform from something of a guilty pleasure to the universally hailed and beloved film series it is today?
That’s a great question, and many of you have asked it. The truth is there isn’t a single moment when Mission: Impossible became what it is; it was a gradual thing, hard-earned, an alchemy of talented directors, a singularly focused star doing what he does best, and an audience that had fatigued of grim, dour shakeycam action filmmaking and was ready to embrace something new by re-embracing something old.
No one here needs me to go through the entire history of the series, because if you’re in this room, you’re certainly a fan. But it’s worth remembering that 1996’s original Mission: Impossible, starring a babyfaced Cruise and directed with Dutch angles and psychosexual tension by Brian de Palma, looks and feels nothing like the latest films in the series. Though a few sequences stand the test of time (notably the Langley heist, still one of the Great Heists of modern moviemaking), other stretches are painfully out of date (anything involving the internet or Jon Voight). John Woo’s 2000’s M:I 2 was its opposite in every way: loud, dumb, operatic, and weirdly reliant on doves. Many of us believe the turn came with the third film, which J.J. Abrams gave an emotional throughline while embracing the absurdity of McGuffin-chasing by never actually telling us what the “Rabbit’s Foot” was for. It also featured the series’s best performance, from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
But by 2006, while MI:3 was appreciated by many, the action genre had been entirely subsumed by the Bourne style: aggressive, frenetic, disorienting. Those films, especially the Paul Greengrass entries Supremacy and Ultimatum, were expertly done (even earning an Best Editing Oscar), so many a director tried and failed to emulate them, making increasingly lazy choices in decreasingly watchable movies, while others simply gave up entirely and let CG animators do all the work. Even those of us who loved Bourne knew that aesthetic wasn’t sustainable, and longed to return to a more classic style of filmmaking that didn’t take itself too seriously.
Item 2: Why are these films so special? Twelve years later, which is an eternity in Hollywood, that time is absolutely now.
We’ve been blessed with now three-straight home runs from Cruise & Company, a remarkable run of consistency and craft with each installment pushing our American Jackie Chan (as Jason Concepcion tagged him on The Rewatchables) to his physical limits: in Ghost Protocol, he famously dangled off the side of the tallest building in the world; in Rogue Nation, he taught himself to hold his breath for six minutes; in Fallout, the 56-year-old gladiator performed a HALO jump in camera, at magic hour. He does it for our pleasure; as I wrote in my Rogue Nation review (which I graded much too low; it’s actually my favorite now), it’s our appreciation that drives him — the awareness that despite the Oscar nominations he earned earlier in his career, this is his true calling, and he will do it until he can no longer walk, and by then hopefully scientists can fit him with bionic limbs so he can just keep going.
The secret sauce, however, is how at no point does Cruise make it look effortless. He sweats, he heaves, he swears at his current mode of transportation. Knowing that Cruise actually broke his ankle leaping off a rooftop, knowing that the aforementioned HALO jump is an even greater feat of cinematography and choreography (one shot, three good takes, a focus puller operating entirely by feel) than mere stuntwork, knowing that Cruise is flying the helicopter himself in nearly every shot of Fallout’s Kashmir climax — it doesn’t take you out of those sequences, but erases any distance between Cruise and Ethan Hunt. It actually makes you more invested, more delighted, more in awe, because you know what you’re seeing is real. But the film works just fine without that knowledge, because writer/director/Cruise Whisperer Chris McQuarrie, the franchise’s first returning director, seeks to one-up Rogue Nation in audacity and dramatic stakes. It’s not just about Cruise and the stunts, but about having an appealing cast tell a compelling story while we watch Cruise process his death wish in real time.
Which leads me finally to Item 3: How good is Fallout?
It’s so damn good, guys. I’ve spoken now for several minutes without telling you anything about the film’s actual plot, not because there’s much to spoil, but because you don’t need to know; you don’t even need to have seen any previous entries (though if you’re here at today’s Mission: Impossible Appreciation Club meeting, you surely have). Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) is back from Rogue, but the handy recorded mission briefing at the film’s beginning elegantly explains it all: stop the bad guys from getting their hands on plutonium, or else. An early moment of weakness — or strength, depending on who you ask — finds Hunt choosing to save teammate Luther (Ving Rhames) instead of protecting the Case of Danger, and the rest of the film is all about Hunt trying to get it back while fending off threats from without and within, the Trolley Problem writ large. Standard Mission: Impossible formula, but I’d suggest there is nothing wrong with that, because it is a very good formula, especially in the hands of a writer as detail-focused as McQuarrie.
Simon Pegg is back too, of course, as well as Alec Baldwin as himself, and the magnetic Rebecca Ferguson (pregnant at the time of shooting!), whose mission interweaves with Hunt’s. Alas for Jeremy Renner, absent from Fallout because he was too busy not being in Infinity War, but new faces include Henry Cavill as a bruising CIA agent (featuring the infamous mustache that took down Justice League, but I say job well done and it didn’t need much help anyway), Angela Bassett as his boss, and a slinking Vanessa Kirby (The Crown), all fitting into McQuarrie’s graph of Trustworthy/Untrustworthy with varying degrees of surprise. Perhaps the smartest writing decision is in encouraging the audience to get in front of the “twists” so we feel like we’re part of the team, arguing over whether to cut bomb wires with two seconds left or one.
With a watchmaker’s precision, sequences develop with a keen eye toward cause and effect, and split-second changes (or “changes”, if you know what I mean) of allegiance feel earned rather than compulsory. McQuarrie is a highly technical director, a wizard of geography management, and never has to sacrifice logic just to make something look cool — there’s a fluidity to the chaos, with every angle and cut chosen with purpose. Even a shot as simple as watching a couple of characters walk from sunlight to shade grabs attention. These are also long films, and Fallout, at 147 minutes, is the longest of all, leaving you wrung out by design, building in intensity to such a degree it frequently had me gasping, laughing, and clapping, often simultaneously; its greatest pleasures should be discovered in the theater, not by reading about them.
And through it all, Cruise delivers as only Cruise can, sprinting across London rooftops, speeding through Paris roundabouts, taking beatings and getting up again, dangling from helicopters as the quality of the camera image changes just subtly enough for you to point in astonishment and breathe Oh yeah, this is practically a documentary now, as I couldn’t help but do. Cruise is the Man in the Arena, striving to do the deeds with great enthusiasm, and we salute him.
And now we’ll take a short break; we’ve got refreshments in the back, as well as a suggestion box for what you’d like to see Ethan Hunt do next. My vote, as ever, is “go to space.”