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Review? Mission. Impossible; Fallout!

By Mark Laherty

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is the confusingly punctuated sixth – yes, sixth – instalment in the long-running and well-regarded Mission: Impossible series and the second to be directed by Christopher McQuarrie. This movie is the first to present itself in the franchise as a straight sequel, which makes it a less-than-ideal jumping-on point. This is unfortunate for me because – cards on the table – I hadn’t seen a Mission: Impossible movie before this one. Just a slightly embarrassing pop-culture blind spot there. Take this review as the point of view of a newcomer.

At first, it seems like it isn’t going to be that awkward to just jump in. Fallout isn’t the kind of movie where the things that are happening matter. It doesn’t seem too concerned about getting you to care about the people involved. Rather, it’s a two-hour romp of Tom Cruise, so unaged that we can only assume he has a haunted portrait in his attic, running around and climbing things.

But, I do have to file an actual review, so here goes: Tom Cruise plays a Tom-Cruise-shaped action movie man (to be fair, perhaps the action movie man) named Ethan Hunt, who the movie credits with a globally unparalleled ability to (yes) run around and climb things. This time, a mission goes south when Hunt sacrifices the dangerous plutonium cores he was tasked with retrieving so that he can save his friend. Now, those cores might fall into the hands of “anarchists,” a group the movie thinks I will buy as scary bad guys.

Hunt must now run around the world and visit several exotic locales to recover the plutonium, generally doing his action movie thing. But, he is accompanied by a sterner CIA agent August Walker (no relation to Doug), a punch-man who likes to punch things. Walker is played by Henry Cavill, who has a moustache. You may have heard jokes about Cavill’s moustache being awkwardly edited out of Justice League reshoots; this movie is what caused that.

The movie is trying to centre itself mainly on the dynamic between Cruise and Cavill. But, it doesn’t work very well. Now, you might respond that it doesn’t have an obligation to work very well given the kind of movie this is. A lot of people enjoyed this as the shallow knockabout that it’s trying to be. That’s valid. But, the movie keeps teasing that it’s going to be something deeper. So, when it fails to deliver and snaps back to Tom Cruise running, it stings.

Part of the problem here is that the movie only succeeds in drawing out what might be called ‘emotion by association.’ It will remind you of something from a previous instalment – a familiar face or something Hunt learned to do – and just leave it at that. This will get a response from people who have seen those movies because they will think “Neat, that guy! I loved that guy from the other one!”

But, it’s rarely trying to say even the slightest, simplest thing. It’s reference humour played as emotional beats. Since I haven’t seen the other movies, I was always smacked in the face by just how little was going on during these big, swelling-music moments (speaking of which, the score by Lorne Balfe is nothing to write home about and is only memorable when re-using the classic theme). I’ve seen it remarked that this movie, as the first Mission: Impossible sequel that’s trying to tell a follow-up story, tried to be a sequel to all five previous movies. I can’t speak to the truth of that statement, but it would explain the result: an almost Dadaist mish-mash of surfaces with nothing underneath. If anyone was made to believe that the characters in Fallout have depth, then that’s a credit to how good Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Alec Baldwin, etc. are at their jobs.

Well, most of them. Cavill isn’t great. We can stop blaming that on Zack Snyder. He does an amazing job in the ambitious fight scenes but, as an actor, he’s just a handsome dude with one facial expression that goes on a slider from one to ten. But, it’s not like he was given much to work with. Cavill’s punch-happy rival operative is totally dysfunctional as a foil to Ethan Hunt because Ethan Hunt also spends the whole movie punching things.

The movie posits that Hunt is better than his rival Walker because he uses violence less and will prioritise the life of one person over the life of millions. Not only is this an insufficiently distinct difference to hang even the silliest of action movies upon, it’s also the wrong answer to the Trolley Problem. Every time this point came up, I felt like I was losing my goddamn mind. There’s a moment within the first ten minutes where Alec Baldwin falls just short of looking directly into the camera and saying, “Ethan Hunt is right about everything.” Again, these movies obviously aren’t meant to inspire deep thought. But, if you’re going to put an ideological conflict in there, give it some elbow grease.

The plot twists are peculiar. This is something that obviously can’t be talked about in depth without spoilers. The story follows the same kind of methodology as the BBC’s Sherlock whereby it looks like something shocking and unexpected is about to happen, then it turns out to be something else. Think of it as a twist-and-untwist. It can be great to pick up on little clues, watch the cogs turn, and have the narrative surprise you. But, the ‘untwist’ always leads the story back down the most predictable and least interesting path.

Maybe there isn’t much point in criticising the actual story. As stated at the top, it really is just an excuse to watch Tom Cruise run around and climb things. And, to be fair, what running and climbing he does! Frequent comparisons to Mad Max: Fury Road aren’t quite justified because Fury Road had the advantage of characters that you probably cared about (plus a killer aesthetic). But, like Fury Road and Daredevil, there’s a genuine physicality to it. Many of the stunts were pulled off for real. If you see Cruise do something in this movie, it’s more likely than not that he actually did that.

This is remarkably, embarrassingly refreshing in the current blockbuster climate. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, beloved and all as it is, often has fight scenes which feel like special effects punching other special effects because that’s what they are. Fallout is leagues ahead. There’s a high-altitude helicopter jump which Cruise and Cavill pulled off in real life three times. The second act sees, among many other great set-pieces, a genuinely wonderful long running sequence. By leaning into self-parody a little, the movie allows itself to push Cruise through an even more absurd and spectacular feat of endurance than usual.

Cruise is hardly in need of more praise but has certainly earned it here. Unaged as he is, I think that people of my generation mostly understand this guy in terms of reference jokes, which is fair. So, let’s be clear: I’m pretty sure the main reason anyone likes this movie, the main reason such a dull story currently sits at 97% on the infernal Tomatometer, is that Tom Cruise is right there on the ground doing all this ludicrous bullshit. The man has the best running form I’ve ever seen. Back straight, arms pumping like pistons on the fucking Enterprise. Unlike every other action movie star, I fully believe that Tom Cruise could kill a man in real life.

That’s about the size of it. I can hardly overstate my enthusiasm for the shockingly good action scenes. If the script for this movie was even slightly okay, it could have been an instant classic. So, it’s frustrating that the story blows. It just blows so hard.

Mark Laherty writes about media and politics on his WordPress blog. You can also support him on Patreon.

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