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“A Bunch of Grown Men in Rubber Masks Playing Trick or Treat.” Mission: Impossible – Fallout and Good Old-Fashioned Espionage Fun…

One of the most striking aspects of Mission: Impossible – Fallout is how thoroughly and how completely it rejects the idea of morally compromised blockbuster protagonists.

The Mission: Impossible series has always had a bit of an auteur quality to it, with individual writers and directors bringing their own styles to bear on a given installment. The original is very much a Brian dePalma film, leaning heavily into themes of identity and Hitchcockian tension. The second is very much a John Woo film, complete with slow motion black leather and white doves. The third is a J.J. Abrams film that comes in and very consciously tweaks the formula while drawing attention to its own plot mechanics. The fourth is a string of incredibly impressive and kinetic action sequences strung together with Brad Bird’s patented sense of pacing and spectacle.

However, there was some tension when Christopher McQuarrie was recruited to direct the fifth film in the franchise and returned to direct the sixth. McQuarrie is primarily known as a writer rather than a director, with only a handful of director credits to his name. McQuarrie doesn’t necessarily have a distinctive style, although he has a long-standing relationship with Cruise from his work as director on Jack Reacher and as writer on Valkyrie and The Mummy. However, in a high-stakes action series, there was always a question of what McQuarrie could bring to the series to put his own distinct slant on the series. Whether he has or not is still a matter of heated debate; some would argue that Mission: Impossible is an ode to Tom Cruise as auteur or to the stuntman as auteur.

That said, there is a sense that McQuarrie is approaching the material in his own unique way. Perhaps reflecting his own background as a writer, his two Mission: Impossible films tend to play rather heavily with the idea of what a Mission: Impossible film actually is, even if they aren’t quite as ponderous or self-conscious as the recent James Bond films. McQuarrie’s scripts for his Mission: Impossible films are decidedly writerly in a way that Mission: Impossible II and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol are not, and in a markedly different manner than Mission: Impossible III. In fact, arguably the biggest issue with Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation was that McQuarrie was too writerly, working too hard to sell the idea of Ethan Hunt as a compulsive workaholic.

Fallout perhaps gets the balance right. A large part of this is down to the careful structuring of its action sequences to build a sense of propulsive momentum. Most Mission: Impossible films tend to peak in the middle; the dangling sequence from Mission: Impossible, the Vatican sequence and bridge raid in Mission: Impossible III, the skyscraper climb from Ghost Protocol, the opera sequence and underwater dive from Rogue Nation. Instead, barring the spectacle of the HALO jump, the set pieces in Fallout constant escalate. They ramp up; the bathroom brawl, the Paris motorbike chase, the two-level urban pursuit, all building to the three-thread helicopter climax.

However, part of that is undoubtedly down to the fact that McQuarrie seems to fundamentally understand how a Mission: Impossible film works, and so weaves it carefully into the plot. Fallout superficially resembles a modern franchise blockbuster in a number of ways; the pulsing Lorne Balfe score, the darker and edgier teases, the heightened sense of continuity, the ridiculous escalated stakes, the crosscutting climax. However, all of these elements serve to emphasise the relative simplicity of Mission: Impossible as a series, and to celebrate what distinguishes it from contemporary blockbusters rather than attempting to close the gap.

The Mission: Impossible films seem relatively old-fashioned as far as blockbuster franchises go. They are released at a fairly steady pace, but with significant gaps between films. There is always relatively little gossip or hype around them until they actually arrive. There are seldom any casting rumours. There are no hardcore fans wondering how this instalment will fit within an established continuity. There is no post-credits teaser to set-up the next installment. Each film has a markedly different tone instead of enforcing a consistent house style across the films. It is possible for audiences to dip their tow into a particular film in the franchise without having to do any real homework.

More than that, they are a rare modern franchise that seems to be driven as much by star power as by the intellectual property. This may be largely down to how Brian dePalma adapted Mission: Impossible for the big screen in 1996, in the era before X-Men and Spider-Man effectively changed the blockbuster landscape. dePalma approached Mission: Impossible not as a sacred “mythos” to be adapted to screen with fidelity and delicacy. Instead, dePalma treated Mission: Impossible as a springboard to crafting his own decidedly esoteric psychological espionage thriller. There are elements of the original Mission: Impossible that can be traced back to the original show, but it is about as faithful to the source material as Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman: Returns.

After all, the big twist in the original Mission: Impossible is Jim Phelps betrayed the IMF and murdered his team for personal enrichment. In the context of the film, this made sense. Phelps was played by Jon Voight, who was on the cusp of reinventing himself as one of the great shady character actors of the nineties; it was only a year away from his turn in Anaconda and two years away from his role in Enemy of the State. However, the character of Jim Phelps was an important and beloved part of the original television series. The twist in Mission: Impossible was a sharp betrayal of what had been an important institution of the original series, like a version of Star Trek where Kirk stabbed Spock through the heart or a reimagining of The X-Files where Scully murders Mulder.

It is a good thing that the internet was still establishing itself as a cultural fixture when Mission: Impossible was released, perhaps demonstrated by the movie’s need to dramatise the idea of an “electronic mail” through animation for the older members of the audience. The modern internet, populated by fans who throw temper tantrums over the characterisation of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, would tear the film apart for such a brutal “betrayal” of a beloved character. Instead, dePalma seemed to get it in under the line. The use of Jim Phelps in Mission: Impossible seemed to give the film franchise a lot of creative freedom to define itself and reinvent itself, free of the shackles of fidelity to the source material.

In the twenty-first century, it was argued that popular culture shifted more towards the idea of intellectual property than celebrity. It could be argued that movie stars do not really exist anymore, at least not to the same level as they did in times past. Will Smith has arguably been struggling with this realisation, trying to adjust to the post-move-star-age. Dwayne Johnson has occasionally struggled to launch movies based on his name alone. In contrast, intellectual property has filled that void. Shared universes are all the rage. The modern box office is dominated by sequels. Franchises will extend beyond the life-times of most of the audience and into the distant future.

What makes Mission: Impossible so interesting is the fact that the film franchise seems to have compensated for changes to the cinematic landscape by folding old Hollywood conventions into new Hollywood realities. It is a franchise built around the idea of its movie star as the intellectual property; the only thing that links all six Mission: Impossible films is Tom Cruise himself. (Not Ethan Hunt, who is always whatever Cruise needs him to be at a given moment.) It is a very canny and very savvy way of repackaging a more traditional and old-fashioned style of film for modern audiences. Mission: Impossible films exist as a delightful paradox; audiences recognise them as Tom Cruise films, but they still tend to perform better than other non-franchised Tom Cruise films.

In a way, this is very much par for the course with Cruise. Cruise is a much more savvy operator than most observers give him credit for, and a much stronger actor. However, Cruise has a habit of weaponising what has been used against him in the past. Social media almost collapsed his celebrity in the first decade of the twenty-first century, a string of viral faux pas that began with couch-jumping and led to Paramount Pictures severing their long-standing contract with the star. Cruise was humiliated and humbled by this string of incidents, which massively undercut his image at a time when he was trying to package himself as a wholesome and well-adjusted family man. (Not for nothing does Mission: Impossible III open with Ethan Hunt as a domestic god.)

However, in the years since, Cruise has made a point to exploit social media. In particular, Fallout has benefited greatly from social media exposure. The gif of Henry Cavill reloading his arms. The jokes about Henry Cavill’s moustache. The first shot to be released, which seemed to designed to evoke the “distracted boyfriend” meme. Even Cruise himself seemed to take advantage of this trend. Part of the publicity tour included Cruise working the talkshow circuit with clips of the actor breaking his ankle for the audience’s amusement, and learning how to make finger hearts. Both Tom Cruise and Mission: Impossible seemed to understand how to capitalise upon the luxuries afforded by the viral and social media age.

To a certain extent, Cruise is a movie-star for the post-movie-star age. In an era more fixated on the individual celebrity of its leading performers, Cruise would likely have a harder time escaping some of his baggage; reports that he had Nicole Kidman’s phone tapped or the story of his relationship with Nanazin Boniada. (Perhaps, more mundanely, even stories about wanting to eat Katie Holmes’ placenta would likely have tarnished him as a weirdo in the public eye.) However, in the post movie-star age, Cruise’s star persona can be flattened and reconstructed. It can be folded into a simple narrative. Because Cruise has anchored himself to the Mission: Impossible franchise, where his star persona is arguably the defining identifier, he almost side-steps these potential landmines.

Indeed, in keeping with the blurring of the Mission: Impossible mythology and Tom Cruise’s celebrity baggage, it is worth nothing that Fallout makes a point to incorporate various nods to its lead’s star persona. The early bathroom brawl features a somewhat clumsy “gay panic” joke, perhaps alluded to long-standing rumours about Cruise’s sexuality. (Cruise has won defamation cases against those publishing such claims, but they remain such a matter of public record that even Cuba Gooding Junior’s father is aware of them.) The film’s climactic throwdown between Cruise and Cavill does little to disguise Cruise’s shorter stature, itself a long-standing Hollywood punchline. The movie’s opening plot against religion may even allude to his own controversial religious beliefs.

It is especially notable in the film’s final act, which reunites Ethan Hunt with his ex-wife Julia. In a very tender scene, Ethan apologises repeatedly for the fact that simply being in his orbit has cast her so much. (It is worth noting that both of these emotive apology scenes are performed within the movie for the benefit of an audience; Luther, Benji and Ilsa watch both reunion beats.) At the end of the film, Julia makes a point to forgive him for the harm that he has (indirectly and unintentionally) caused to her. It is an act of public absolution. In the context of Cruise’s highly publicised love life, and in the wake of messy and traumatic divorces from both Nicole Kidman and Katie Holmes, it seems almost as though Fallout is playing out its lead actor’s psychodrama on the big screen.

Nevertheless, no matter how complicated the relationship between Tom Cruise and Ethan Hunt might be, how difficult it might be to discern the break between star persona and intellectual property, there is no denying that Cruise is an essential aspect of the long-running franchise in a way that speaks to an older style of Hollywood movie-making. Tom Cruise is Ethan Hunt in the way that Sylvester Stallone is Rocky, rather than in the way that Ben Affleck is Batman. Coupled with the emphasis on practical effects and a general rejection of concepts like continuity, this explains why the Mission: Impossible franchise feels so strangely old-fashioned in the era of films full of knowing nods and computer-generated spectacle like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom or Spectre.

With Fallout, McQuarrie explores exactly what it is that makes Mission: Impossible unique in the modern blockbuster landscape by contrasting it with a host of its contemporaries. In particular, McQuarrie contrasts his Mission: Impossible films with the modern iterations of the James Bond franchise. This makes a certain amount of sense, given that both franchises are effectively modern reinventions of classic sixties spy thrillers. However, with the casting of Daniel Craig, the James Bond franchise went a very dark and gritty direction, adopting a very grounded aesthetic informed by spy movies like The Bourne Identity. The franchise placed appreciably softer emphasis on gadgets and much greater stress on brutality.

McQuarrie’s two films openly quote from and reference the Daniel Craig films. One of the highlights of Rogue Nation is an elaborate opera sequence that seems taken directly from Quantum of Solace. The character of Ilsa Faust is introduced as a modern Bond girl, a character who is competent and compromised, with her narrative arc and ambiguous loyalties. In Fallout, the film doubles down on these nods and allusions. The bathroom brawl seems like a shoutout to the teaser of Casino Royale, revealing the two kills that earned James Bond his “double-O” status. One of those kills was a grotty and brutal brawl in a bathroom, markedly different from anything in the franchise to that point. Fallout offers a more heightened and playful riff on the same basic idea.

Perhaps most obviously, Erica Sloan makes a point to refer to the brutal assassin August Walker as “a hammer” in contrast to Ethan Hunt as “a scalpel.” This evokes M’s description of the Craig-era James Bond as “a blunt instrument” in contrast to the more refined spycraft of earlier iterations of the character. In many ways, August Walker is much more like more modern big budget blockbuster spies like Jason Bourne or Daniel Craig’s James Bond than earlier cinematic secret agents. Fallout can scarcely bother to conceal its contempt for Walker as a character, a man who doesn’t know how to operate the oxygen canister on his suit and who dives into a thunderstorm that promptly incapacitates him.

Even before Fallout reveals Walker as the villain of the piece, the film is very explicit in how awful he is at the job that he is doing. Hunt initially believes that his assassination of every Syndicate operative that he was sent after was mere incompetence, and there is enough evidence on screen to support this position. Walker almost gets himself killed within meeting Hunt, and then promptly condescends to Hunt on landing. Walker only briefly incapacitates an opponent in the bathroom by smashing an incredibly valuable piece of equipment over his head. It is no surprise that Walker seems to genuinely irritate Hunt in a way that even Solomon Lane does not, to the point that Ethan takes great pleasure in calling him a “prick” at the climax of the film.

Fallout also rather consciously plays with the language of the post-Christopher-Nolan blockbuster, arriving a decade after the director reshaped the blockbuster landscape with The Dark Knight. Indeed, the influence of The Dark Knight is very keenly felt on Fallout, most obviously in Lorne Balfe’s ominous synth-heavy score but also in little details like the disfigurement of August Walker at the climax. The raid on the police convoy is a sequence that feels lifted from The Dark Knight in the same way that the bathroom brawl comes from Casino Royale, beginning with a diversion forcing the police underground and which features one of the cars thrown into the river. Sloan’s closing monologue even mirrors the closing scene with Jim Gordon, about the things this hero can do that others can’t.

Even the narrative structuring evokes the work of Christopher Nolan. The climax of Fallout is a spectacular piece of blockbuster cinema, but one especially notable for its use of cross cutting between three parallel lines of action. This is how Nolan tends to structure his own films, most notably The Dark Knight Rises and Dunkirk, with a climax that often cuts across multiple high-stakes action threads in a steady rhythm and tempo. What makes McQuarrie’s use of crosscutting in Fallout so striking is the fact that it is so far outside the usual Mission: Impossible playbook. The Mission: Impossible films are so heavily invested in Ethan Hunt and Tom Cruise, that spending so much of the climax away from him feels almost disorienting.

The casting of Henry Cavill evokes the spectre of Nolan’s cinematic legacy; Cavill is the cornerstone of perhaps of the most controversial and divisive shadow that Nolan casts. Cavill played Superman in Man of Steel, a film that attempted to apply a Nolanian sensibility to Superman with very mixed results. The films that followed, including Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad seem to demonstrate the limits of the “darker and edgier” aesthetic for modern blockbuster filmmaking. As such, Henry Cavill seems to exist as an avatar for all the wrong lessons that a film could take from Christopher Nolan. It is perhaps revealing that the first and last action set pieces featuring Henry Cavill make a point to have him fall rather than fly.

(Along similar lines, the casting of Cavill largely affirms the importance of Tom Cruise to the franchise and his perpetual enduring appeal. Cavill famously replaced Tom Cruise in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which makes him another of the young potential replacement for the action star, like Jeremy Renner in Ghost Protocol. Rumours circulated that following the disappointing performance of Mission: Impossible III, there were plans to replace Ethan Hunt with William Brandt. However, two films later, Brandt is gone and Hunt is still there. In fact, McQuarrie originally considered killing off Brandt early in Fallout. As such, Hunt’s defeat of Walker suggests another young potential replacement vanquished by Cruise.)

Repeatedly, Fallout plays with the sort of moral ambiguity that is expected of modern blockbusters; the argument for utilitarianism and sacrifice, for the need to make an impossible choice for the greater good. Fallout sets out its stall early in this regard, during the teaser at the start of the film, when it seems like terrorists have successfully detonated three nuclear bombs. Ethan looks dejected, as he is forced to compromise with a terrorist to help prevent future losses. At one point, Luther holds him back from torturing the collaborator. “That’s not who we are,” Luther observes, understanding the Mission: Impossible brand. Hunt replies, “Maybe we need to reconsider.”

This spectre looms over Fallout in a variety of ways. John Lark’s manifesto is repeatedly discussed over the course of the film, treating global peace as some sort of simplistic mathematical puzzle. “There has never been peace without first a great suffering. The greater the suffering, the greater the peace.” During the same interrogation, Luther urges Ethan to think about “the greater good.” On meeting Alan Hunley before his trip to Paris, Hunt is told about the “flaw” that is “deep in his being” that will not allow him to make the tough calls necessary to save the lives of millions at the expense of the individual.

Fallout repeatedly teases this idea. The entire plot is motivated by Hunt’s refusal to sacrifice Luther during the opening sequence, a decision that allows three nuclear cores to fall into the hands of terrorists. Hunt has nightmares about scenarios where he is (directly or indirectly) responsible for the suffering of innocent people. In the opening scene, he imagines Julia being burnt alive by a nuclear explosion as Solomon Lane reads a list of charges against him. The plot of Fallout is largely driven by reactions, what Lane describes as “the fallout of all [Hunt’s] good intentions.” As such, it implies a sort of a consequentialist outlook, where each choice must be weighed by the cost attached.

The characters repeatedly come back to the iconic catchphrase from the series, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it.” On the plane, Walker remarks to Hunt, “Should you choose to accept it, that’s the thing, right?” During his first proper conversation with Ethan, Lane muses, “I wonder, did you ever choose not to?” There is a clear sense of moral weight behind decisions, and the film repeatedly suggests that actions have consequences and those consequences can be horrific. Ethan goes undercover as John Lark, and is almost drafted into a brutal attack on a police convey. Hunt visualises that attack, and the violence that he would have to inflict to maintain his cover.

Indeed, the White Widow herself seems to exist to illustrate the cynicism of refusing to make a choice. The White Widow exists in a moral vacuum; she is introduced at a charity benefit, but hobnobs with terrorists and fences for the CIA. She is the very definition of a compromised character, but one who has abandoned any sense of moral authority. “I’m just a broker,” she tells Hunt. “I connect a buyer and a seller.” She acts as though her refusal to engage in any moral calculus places her above the fray, but it is very clear that it does not. She is an obstacle and a threat to Hunt, a character without any moral principle.

These ideas all reflect the sort of dilemmas that contemporary audiences expect from modern blockbusters; morally compromised characters making ambiguous decisions with horrific consequences. Even in the generally optimistic Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tony Stark built a genocidal artificial intelligence in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America sparked a major diplomatic incident in Captain America: Civil War because he refused to accept that his friend should be held accountable for his actions. Even Avengers: Infinity War is a film that consciously avoids affording any of its major characters any moral or narrative agency.

In contrast, Fallout dramatically rejects this logic and this ambiguity. When Sloan suggests snatching and torturing a target, Hunley rejects the idea out of hand. “Spend twenty-four hours we don’t have to pull a confession we can’t trust from a man we haven’t positively identified?” he asks. He counters that this sort of ridiculous exaggerated only-occurs-in-feature-films ticking clock scenario is exactly what the Impossible Mission Force is designed to deal with. Over the course of Fallout, both Sloan and Walker dismiss the IMF as “Halloween, a bunch of grown men wearing masks.” Sloan and Walker mean this dismissively and condescendingly, but Fallout embraces it enthusiastically. They are grown men wearing masks, and that’s why Mission: Impossible is awesome.

Fallout repeatedly teases the prospect of going “darker and edgier”, but always pulls back, because it understands that it’s not really necessary for a summer blockbuster to be “darker and edgier.” The teaser sequence with the three nuclear bombs initially seems like a massive failure on Hunt’s part, but is promptly revealed as a very cunning ruse. An elaborate set-up that would never work in real-life, but which works because Mission: Impossible never claims to be real life. The thrill in these films is not watching the heroes become morally compromised, it is in witnessing the ingenuity that they employ to avoid being compromised. It is worth noting that Sloan is himself caught out by a grown man wearing a mask.

Fallout argues that it’s more fun to watch Ethan Hunt improvise a spectacular solution to a crisis than to wallow in despair and angst. Hunt has nightmares about moral compromise and responsibility, but the best action sequences in the film arise from his stubborn refusal to accept these sorts of compromise. He manages to spring Lane from custody without taking a single innocent life. In fact, he even hands a bunch of mercenaries over to the authorities as part of an elaborate high-stakes chase sequence. Repeatedly, Fallout insists that there’s no impossible situation that Hunt cannot evade with a daredevil action sequence.

Fallout offers a surprisingly simple moral calculus, arguing that Hunt’s morality boils down to simply doing the most moral thing at a given moment. “I’m working on it” and “I’ll figure it out” are recurring motifs within the film, the characters often embarking upon a course of action before they have a viable solution. The characters head to Kashmir before Benji has figured out how to disarm the nuclear bombs, but that’s okay because he does. Ethan jumps on board one helicopter before figuring out how he’ll get the detonator in the other, but that’s okay because he does. When he apologises to Julia for all the hurt he has caused her, she responds with a very zen, “I’m right where I’m supposed to be, and so are you.”

It is tempting to read this as some sort of broad political analogy about foreign policy in a complicated geopolitical climate, but it isn’t really. The James Bond and Jason Bourne movies are very engaged with the idea of being political and relevant, of playing with the question of what heroism looks like in the modern world and whether or not that is viable when states are self-interested actors. Mission: Impossible has never really been interested in that question, except at the fringes of the earlier stories; some post-Cold-War angst in Mission: Impossible, some hints that the organisation might be a bit shady in Mission: Impossible II, and some War on Terror paranoia in Mission: Impossible III.

However, Fallout simply seems to be making the argument that this is just the best way to tell this story, that what distinguishes Mission: Impossible from so many of its competitors is that old-fashioned derring-do, the commitment to the kind of clean and neat heroism that is very rarely seen in big-budget adult-aimed blockbusters these days. Fallout understands that the complete lack of moral ambiguity and depth is not a weakness in the franchise, but a strength. It helps Mission: Impossible to stand apart from more earnest and conscious blockbusters that try to grapple with big ideas about the state of the modern world.

Mission: Impossible is ultimately just a hunch of grown men wearing masks. And isn’t that great?

Just a quick shout out. This piece was inspired in part by conversations with Luke Dunne over at Film in Dublin about the series. He has his own theories about the Mission: Impossible franchise that are well worth discussion.

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4 Responses

  1. All the stunts are very good and I have enjoyed a lot while watching.

  2. That was a great review.

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