Once a man named Tom Cruise had a dream. He had a vision that he would produce and star in a series of spy films that would be a rival to and yet in some ways the opposite of the James Bond series. Where the James Bond films have done everything they could to follow a formula and try to fit within the same template for decades at a time Cruise’s films would take the opposite approach and shake things up dramatically with every installment and in doing so they’d be able to explore every kind of action movie as the years went on. This plan lasted for about three movies as it went from the Hitchcockian thrills of the De Palma directed original, to the hyper-kinetic action of the John Woo directed second film, to the snarky meta comedy of the J.J. Abrams directed third installment. However, after that third movie Cruise put the brakes on the consistent inconsistency plan and started to use that third movie as a sort of starting point for a more traditional film franchise. Characters like Simon Pegg’s Benjamin Dunn started returning in every movie, plot points like Hunt’s previous marriage began to be acknowledged movie to movie, and the directors they chose to take on installments had less distinctive styles. There were some upsides to this, the last film Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is something of a series highlight, but I must say I mourn the loss of that original vision. The most recent entry in the series, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, is perhaps the biggest break to the franchise ethos to date in that it has the director of that previous film (Christopher McQuarrie) has returned for a second film and has made what is more or less a direct sequel to it.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout picks up a few years after the previous movie and it appears that “The Syndicate” that Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) brought down in that movie has given birth to an anarchist collective of agents inspired by Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) known as “The Apostles.” In the film’s opening scenes Hunt finds himself trying to intercept a black market deal that would have landed three plutonium cores in the hands of The Apostles but loses them to save his team. IMF Secretary Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) still trusts Hunt after that but CIA director Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett) sees him as a liability so she insists that he be shadowed by one of her own agents, August Walker (Henry Cavill), during his mission to recover the plutonium cores. That mission will of course be a high stakes globe-trotting ordeal that will require Hunt to risk life and limb at every stage.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout has come out amid a barrage of hype as some of the early reviews were beyond ecstatic. It’s sitting at 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and some of the quotes about it have really been out there including an oft quoted tweet by the always excitable David Erlich which called it “easily the best action movie since [Mad Max:] Fury Road. Just god level stuff.” Frankly I think this hyperbole has done the movie a bit of a disservice because I think my expectations going in were a bit skewed by it all. This defiantly isn’t the best action movie since Mad Max: Fury Road, in fact it isn’t even the best action movie since Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. That hype made the film’s first half particularly jarring, especially when the film first has Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill interacting with some really strained buddy cop dialogue. There are also some moments that just do not hold up to scrutiny. For example right after that aforementioned Cruise/Cavill argument the two of them do this big HALO jump from an altitude that requires them to wear oxygen tanks, which is a cool scene, but it’s all being done just to get into a Parisian building… a building which looks like it could have been much more easily infiltrated by simply buying a ticket to the giant rave that’s going on inside of it.
Around the one third point of the movie I accepted that the critics had overdone it and accepted that this was going to be less of a landmark action movie and more of a logical continuation of the long running series and started to sit back and enjoy myself. As expected the film delivers a lot of the gigantic action scenes and stunts. That HALO jump I mentioned before is ruined slightly by context but it’s certainly an impressive bit of filming logistics and stunt work. There’s also a climax involving Tom Cruise dangling from a helicopter that I’m sure was all kinds of difficult to make, and we all know about how he injured himself jumping between buildings in London. Of course the incredibly high standards that this series has set for itself does become a bit of a problem. For example, this movie has not one but two chase scenes involving motorcycles which would both be extremely impressive on their own but here they’re being compared to the iconic (if extremely silly) motorcycle chase from Mission: Impossible 2 and the also extremely impressive chase from Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, and while this chase might be a little better on paper it isn’t a giant leap that leaves those other chases in the dust. Similarly the film never quite comes up with a stunt that’s as conceptually insane as the Burj Khalifa scene from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol or the “dangle from an airplane mid takeoff” scene from Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. I suppose there’s that helicopter scene but that just doesn’t have quite the same purity of concept.
I must say I also found the storytelling inbetween the action scenes to be serviceable but noticeably weaker than what we saw in the first and fifth films, which remain my favorite of the series. There are twists and turns galore in the movie but a lot of them don’t feel entirely earned and they don’t flow as naturally as they tend to in better spy movies. Ultimately I do think the choice to bring McQuarrie back instead of following the series usual “one movie per director rule” is a big part of the problem. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with McQarrie himself but, he’s clearly quite competent behind the camera, but he isn’t really trying to go at the film in a new way at all and he isn’t even really trying to recapture the magic of the last film either. Rather this is possibly the first time that a Mission: Impossible is solely interested in being exactly what people expect from a Mission: Impossible movie and not much more. Outside of the stunts it does next to nothing that previous installments hadn’t done better and neither Hunt nor his supporting characters have really gotten all that interesting over the years. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not suggesting anyone skip this movie. A dude dangling from a helicopter payload is certainly something that’s worth seeing, but I feel like this could have been a lot better if they’d been a bit bolder with the style and put a little more serious thought into the script.
*** out of Five