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Non-Review Review: Mission – Impossible: Fallout

Mission: Impossible – Fallout has the best third act of any blockbuster in years.

To be fair, the first two acts are highly enjoyable on their own terms, with writer and director Christopher McQuarrie building and maintaining momentum across the film’s near-two-and-a-half hour runtime. As expected of the franchise, Fallout is peppered with memorable set pieces that push the plot along with an endearing commitment to in-camera action set-ups, impressive stunt choreography and ambitious imagination; skydiving through a thunderstorm, a brutal bathroom brawl, a daring mid-movie motorcade abduction, a three-dimensional topographical pursuit.

Snow escape.

While all of these elements work well, with the bathroom brawl in particular serving as a worth addition to the franchise’s set piece canon, the final act of Fallout is a masterclass in blockbuster film-making. It is a genuinely dizzying piece of spectacle, a soaring accomplishment that manages to ratchet up the suspense for the better part of forty minutes, making excellent use of an ensemble in close geographic proximity but in very different situations. McQuarrie skilfully understands the rhythm and the tempo of the scene, crosscutting beautifully between the various strands to sustain the tension.

Fallout is not the best film in the Mission: Impossible franchise; it isn’t quite the all-rounder that Mission: Impossible III was, and it lacks the gleefully demented sustained adrenaline rush of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. However, it is a testament to the remarkable and sustained quality of the franchise, and the best movie of the summer to this point.

Just dive right in…

The Mission: Impossible franchise is a thoroughly modern piece of movie-making in technical terms. The production quality on these films is astounding, and there is simply no way that a film like Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation would have been possible to produce during the nineties. In terms of technical craft, the Mission: Impossible films rank alongside (or even above) many of their contemporaries, having learned a great deal about the art of making big-budget blockbuster cinema from the crowd-pleasers of the twenty-first century.

At the same time, there has always been something slightly old-fashioned about the Mission: Impossible franchise, at least in terms of the storytelling employed. “Old-fashioned” is not a pejorative term, in this case. In terms of narrative and foundation, the Mission: Impossible films hark back to an older style of blockbuster. They are defined by in-camera effects and practical stunt choreography. They are also still largely driven by star power, which is a rarity in the era where even Dwayne Johnson seems to be struggling to attract an audience to his stand-alone efforts.

Let’s not altar our plans.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Mission: Impossible franchise is the manner in which it avoids so many of the potential challenges of modern blockbuster movie-making. Unlike many of their contemporaries, the Mission: Impossible films have never become caught up in continuity or mired in mythology. It is a feature of the franchise, with characters able to come and go between installments (and even take breaks between appearances) without damaging the audience’s investment in the story that is being told.

(Sometimes characters stick around, like the character of Luther Stickell, played by Ving Rhames. Stickell is the only character aside from Ethan Hunt to appear in all six films in the franchise. Sometimes characters disappear after a single installment, like most of the team in the original Mission: Impossible or Mission: Impossible III. In some cases, characters can appear in multiple installments and disappear without a trace. Jeremy Renner was a supporting character in both Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation, but is entirely absent from Fallout, without any explanation needed or offered.)

For good or Ilsa.

This episodic nature of the franchise has historically been enforced in the same way that it is on the Fast and Furious films, by a tendency to draft in directors with strong and distinct visions to put their own stamp on each installment. It is fairly common for major properties to rotate directors between films, but modern franchises place an emphasis on consistency; think of the “Marvel house style” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where all the films are consciously designed to fit together as a stylistically cohesive whole.

In contrast, the Mission: Impossible films have always allowed the directors to shape and define the films in question. This explains why the six films can feel so different from one another. Mission: Impossible is undoubtedly a Brian dePalma film, a pulpy high-stakes thriller about betrayal and manipulation. Mission: Impossible II is unquestionably a John Woo film, complete with slow motion, duel wielding and doves. Mission: Impossible III is unmistakably a JJ Abrams joint, with a convoluted plot and an old-school blockbuster aesthetic. Ghost Protocol is shaped by Brad Bird’s wonderful eye for forward movement.

A deep dive, continuity-wise.

Part of what is particularly interesting about Fallout is the manner is which it seems consciously designed to strain just a little bit against those expectations. It marks a number of firsts in the context of the Mission: Impossible franchise, many of which are actually the first time that there has been a second time. Fallout is the second film in the franchise for writer and director Christopher McQuarrie, who is the first director to return to the franchise. Fallout is also the second film in the franchise to feature Sean Harris as an antagonist, the first time that a villain has returned from one film to the next.

More than that, there is a strong sense that Fallout has been consciously designed as an extended homage and celebration of the Mission: Impossible franchise. The film cleverly and cannily brings together elements from the previous five films, often quoting from memorable characters and set pieces. These don’t generally represent continuity as modern franchise films understand it, in that there is no need to do any homework to appreciate these elements. Instead, it feels McQuarrie is simply acknowledging the work of the previous four directors who put their own stamp on the franchise.

Hanging on in there.

Fallout introduces the new character of “The Widow”, who is a direct relation to a prominent character from the original Mission: Impossible. In terms of plotting, the film also borrows a central twist from the original Mission: Impossible. There is a rather overt reference to one of the defining images from Mission: Impossible II towards the climax. Ethan Hunt’s short-lived marriage from Mission: Impossible III is brought back into play, complete with an escalation of its stunning helicopter set piece. None of these references are intrusive or distracting.

In fact, there’s something playful in the way Fallout suggests that Ethan Hunt has unexpectedly (and without any conscious effort) built a history himself. However, Fallout has the strongest connection to Rogue Nation, which makes a great deal of sense given that both films are the work of Christopher McQuarrie. Fallout carries over several key characters from Rogue Nation, who are explicitly continuing their own arcs rather than having new ones. Ilsa Faust is still trying to settle her account with British intelligence, and Solomon Lane is still in custody following his apprehension at the climax of Rogue Nation.

Cruising altitude.

Fallout is perhaps the first film in the Mission: Impossible franchise that feels like a sequel rather than its own entity, which is a daring and bold creative departure from the franchise template. It’s a risky gambit that could potentially undercut future installments by taking away one of the most appealing aspects of the franchise. After all, it very superficially evokes the trappings of modern franchise movie-making that the Mission: Impossible series have largely avoided, with callbacks and references and in-jokes. The lack of these sorts of knowing touches has long been one of the series’ core strengths.

Perhaps the smartest thing about Fallout is that these narrative elements are not simply carried over from Rogue Nation as continuity for their own sake. Instead, these elements serve as thematic weight within the story that McQuarrie is constructing. As the title implies, Fallout is very much structured as a story about consequences. As Solomon Lane taunts Ethan Hunt at one point during the narrative, this is a movie about “the fallout of all [his] good intentions.” It is a story about how actions create reactions, how decisions lead to further dilemmas. It’s a novel approach to a Mission: Impossible film.

An August Agent.

Repeatedly throughout the film, the characters draw attention to ideas of consequences. The entire plot is driven by a decision that Ethan makes early in the story, which puts plutonium in the hands of a sinister terrorist organisation. When CIA agent August Walker is assigned to babysit his team, Hunt is assured in no uncertain terms, “If you hadn’t have lost the plutonium, I wouldn’t be here.” People make decisions, those decisions drive action, those actions have reactions. Fallout suggests that these reactions cannot always be neatly confined within a single episodic narrative.

In some ways, Fallout is a story that is only really possible because the carry-over of Christopher McQuarrie as the first person to direct two Mission: Impossible films. Because he is engaging with his own work on Rogue Nation, it does not feel like criticism or homage. Instead, it feels like a strong thematic point. Lane does not disappear just because Rogue Nation is over. Faust does not live happily ever after just because Rogue Nation is over. It’s certainly a valid approach to a Mission: Impossible film, an idea that fits comfortably within the framework of the espionage and action movie genres.

Going underground.

More than that, Fallout brushes against the idea of consequentialism, the challenge in determining whether the moral responsibility for any horrific event lies with the actor who made the choice that allowed the event to occur in the first place. Early in the film, characters repeatedly draw attention to the idea that Ethan Hunt is a character who makes decisions, and that those decisions come at a price. Various characters use a lot of “if…” and “then…” formulations to reinforce this point.

Indeed, Fallout repeatedly draws attention to the conditional clause and the element of choice in the series’ most iconic catchphrase. “Should you choose to accept it,” Winters muses at one point, turning the mission briefing over in his head. “That’s your thing, right?” Later on in the film, Lane taunts Hunt with a similar observation, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it… I wonder, did you ever choose not to?” There is an unspoken implication there, that Hunt’s decision to accept these missions comes with a greater sense of responsibility and even culpability.

A (small)poxy scheme.

Hunt’s morality is very much the focus of Fallout, contrasted with various other characters. He is suggested to be the “scalpel” in contrast to the “hammer” represented by Winters. His rigourous morality is contrasted with the studied amorality of “The Widow” who simply deals with “buyers and sellers” on various sides of the law. Hunt is also contrasted with the villains, a group of “Apostles” who subscribe to the teachings of a mysterious John Lark. Lark advocates an extreme form of utilitarianism. “There cannot be peace without first a great suffering; the greater the suffering, the greater the peace.”

Ethan Hunt represents a firm rejection of this philosophy. Repeatedly over the course of the film, Hunt is confronted with the same nightmare. Hunt finds himself placed in a position where an innocent person dies because of his choices. In the film’s opening scenes, he imagines his ex-wife killed in the nuclear fire of a disaster that he failed to stop. Later on, he contemplates a brutal undercover mission where he is required to kill an innocent security guard. During one of the action scenes, Hunt finds himself caught between letting an innocent die and blowing his cover. For Hunt, there is no choice.

A bathroom brawl.

Fallout firmly rejects the idea of moral calculus, insisting that moral virtue cannot be measured on a spreadsheet and that horrific deeds cannot be excused through positive results. There is something almost endearing in the film’s faith in Hunt, and in its trust that he is capable of handling every situation within its immediate moment. Repeatedly during the film, characters demand to know Hunt’s plan to deal with the latest crisis, only to receive some variation of “I’m working on it” as a response. Fallout believes that good is something recognisable in the moment, not from the distance. It is as simple as doing the right thing.

Fallout repeatedly mocks the idea that brutality and senseless violence can ever be a moral good of themselves. Early in the film, Fallout teases the idea of Hunt being pushed to cross his moral boundaries. “That’s not who we are,” Luther insists. “Maybe it’s time we rethink that,” Hunt replies. However, Fallout insists that wit and improvisation will always triumph over brute force and cynicism. August Walker is introduced as a darker and edgier mirror to Ethan Hunt, but his introductory action sequence also makes the argument that he’s also a lot less intelligent and resourceful. His brutality is down to a failure of imagination.

No holding back.

There is an appealing simplicity to the moral universe of the Mission: Impossible films, and Fallout raises these questions in order to reinforce that simplicity. Towards the end of the film, Ethan apologises to a character whose life he has constantly derailed, and who has been brought into a world of chaos and carnage as a result of his decisions. He is assured that his apology is unnecessary. “I’m right where I need to be. And so are you.” That is as complex a thesis statement as Fallout will offer. Things will always happen, and all that matters is that people do the right thing when confronted with a choice.

McQuarrie’s script makes an interesting, if not entirely successful, attempt to underscore this theme by tweaking the standard Mission: Impossible formula ever-so-slightly. The Mission: Impossible films tend to be quite linear in nature, the plots built around a series of breadcrumbs that typically build upon one another in order to create a plot; these breadcrumbs are often linked to set pieces. Go there, steal that, trade this, infiltrate them, confront him. The plots are always very clear in the moment, with the audience always understanding what the characters want in a given scene, what the macguffin driving a given action scene is.

Gunning for him.

Fallout alters this approach subtly, adding a layer of complexity by structuring its story around two parallel plot threads that unfold side-by-side. Instead of one macguffin, there are two; the plutonium cores and Solomon Lane. Instead of one villain, there are two; John Lark and Solomon Lane. Instead of one villainous motivation, there are two; the restoration of social order through terrorism, and revenge on Ethan Hunt. The idea is to present a plot that is appreciably more convoluted than previous Mission: Impossible films, to provide a clearer contrast with Hunt’s relative moral simplicity.

It is an interesting structural conceit, and it’s fascinating how uncanny this simple addition makes the second act. At the same time, as much as this idea to have two plots running in parallel through the film is a clever idea, it also reinforces the appeal of the more straightforward linear structure applied in the previous five films. It is not a major problem, with McQuarrie maintaining momentum across the film’s runtime. However, it is revealing just how much more smoothly the film runs when those two threads click together for the action climax.

Thinking outside the… helicopter, I guess.

These central thematic meditations are interesting, because Fallout is a film that exists very much in conversation with one of the other blockbuster landmarks of the twenty-first century. The release date that lines up (approximately) with the tenth anniversary of The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s era-defining blockbuster. A lot of the discussion around the tenth anniversary of The Dark Knight has included “hot takes” about the legacy of the film, with critics quick to blame The Dark Knight for its wave of subpar and disappointing imitators from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows to Fantastic Four.

This is nonsense, with Fallout seeming to exist (intentionally or not) as a rebuttal to these sorts of arguments. It is at once a conscious rejection of what the worst imitators seem to have taken from the original film and a joyous celebration of what The Dark Knight brought to blockbuster film-making. Fallout is structured in such a way as to remind audiences of all the clever innovations (or simply old-fashioned techniques) that The Dark Knight applied to the twenty-first century blockbuster.

Hell, Tom Cruise breaking his angle is in camera as well.

In an era of computer-generated spectacle, The Dark Knight placed a renewed emphasis on practical stunts performed in-camera, along with the use of IMAX cameras to provide a genuine sense of scale, and the sincere application of prestige-level film-making to decidedly pulpy material. The Dark Knight was a crowd-pleasing blockbuster assembled with the skill and craft normally reserved for high-brow fare. It was virtuoso film-making, released at the height of summer and in service of the kind of entertainment that was often treated as disposable.

Fallout is very much a product of that school of film-making, with McQuarrie borrowing heavily from the playbook that Nolan established. The climax of Fallout is one of the most effective third acts in recent memory, in large part because it applies the film-making principles associated with The Dark Knight. The action is cross-cut in order to maintain tension for a longer period than would otherwise be viable, and breathtaking stuntwork is captured on IMAX cameras in order to give everything an incredible sense of scale. McQuarrie gives the film a clean and polished look, even when it runs of familiar espionage movie clichés.

Above it all.

There are several points at which Fallout seems to actively quote from The Dark Knight, including a daring raid on a prisoner convoy involving trucks filled with very bad men. (The references are too precise to be mere happenstance; a police truck ends up in the river, a destroyed truck prompts a suburban diversion.) Lorne Balfe’s soundtrack is heavily influenced by the work of Hans Zimmer; to the point that its opening track is titled A Storm is Coming, mirroring the opening track on the soundtrack to The Dark Knight Rises. Even some climactic make-up choices and dialogue seem to reference Nolan’s defining blockbuster.

At the same time, Fallout marks a firm rejection of the worst excesses of the lifeless imitators spawned by The Dark Knight, dismissing the laboured moral ambiguity and gritty sensibility that became a feature of so much blockbuster entertainment in the decade that followed its release. It occasionally seemed like action films were embarrassed by their more cartoonish elements in the wake of The Dark Knight, presenting a sheen of respectability and seriousness over films that didn’t really need it. Fallout has little time for this.

On top of the world.

Fallout repeatedly draws attention to the absurdity of its starting premise. The “Impossible Mission Force” is explicitly contrasted with the more grim-and-gritty Central Intelligence Agency. “The IMF is Halloween,” observes Sloan at one point early in the film. Winters is a bit more blunt in his assessment, “Grown men wearing masks.” It seems like Sloan and Winters might as well be complaining about “silly” happy-go-lucky superhero films as much as the heroes of this particular film.

It is very revealing (and more than a little pointed) that Henry Cavill is cast as Winters. Cavill is best known for his work as Superman in Man of Steel, the relatively gritty and grounded reimagining of the Superman mythos that arguably took the worst cues from The Dark Knight. Presenting the modern grim-and-gritty iteration of Superman in contrast to the more conventional and old-fashioned happy-go-lucky heroism of Ethan Hunt feels like a very telling meditation on the legacy of The Dark Knight. (Winters’ fate is also rather pointed.) Fallout positions itself as a more worthy successor to The Dark Knight than Man of Steel.

Time for reflection.

Fallout is a clever and crowd-pleasing piece of blockbuster entertainment, a fine demonstration of what makes the Mission: Impossible films so appealing in an area of shared universes and sprawling mega-franchises. Fallout is a film that understands the appeal of blockbuster cinema is more in its simplicity than its complexity, suggesting there’s nothing wrong with an old-fashioned approach if it is done well. And Fallout is done very well indeed.

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7 Responses

  1. Back in 2015 when a whole slew of spy movies came out, a friend and I agreed that the Mission Impossible franchise had basically settled into the place that the James Bond franchise used to occupy. (“Martini” rather than “stale beer” espionage, that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and concentrates on giving the audience a good time and some cool sequences in exotic locations). After the Bond franchise left that place vacant in its alternating attempts to be more like Bourne (“gritty” and “realistic”) and more like Batman (a superhero movie attempting to make its entire universe revolve around its main character).

    I still think that’s true. I used to slightly resent the M:I franchise’s attempts to emulate Bond, mostly because the TV series had done a very good thing for itself precisely by working hard to NOT be like Bond. But not anymore. Nowadays I just figure “well, Bond isn’t doing it, and somebody has to. Might as well be M:I. After all, they do it very well.”

    • On the subject of Bond: There’s a line in Fallout comparing the CIA’s hammers to the IMF’s scalpels. That must be an intentional reference to M’s famous line about James Bond being a “blunt instrument”, right?

      • Probably. One of the ways the original M:I stood out was always that it was a mind game, in contrast to Bond and his imitators’ punch-and-shoot approach.

        (The best Classic Mission: Impossible movie ever made is probably… “Ocean’s Eleven.” All you’d need to insert is a briefing scene at the beginning explaining that Terry Benedict’s casinos launder money for terrorists).

        Also, I’d be surprised if Henry Cavill wasn’t on the list of people being considered for the next James Bond.

      • That’s probably fair!

    • That’s probably fair. And I’ll admit that my biggest concern with Fallout is the worry that the film franchise is embracing the sort of continuity and serialisation that we see in movies like the Bourne movie and the Bond films.

  2. The film stays pretty grounded not just because most of these things were done practically, but also the films shooting style. It has a very unique look for a modern day Hollywood blockbuster with its glowing highlights, and pronounced film grain.

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