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Mission: Impossible — Fallout

“I’m jumping out a window!”

That one line from Tom Cruise in the trailer perfectly encapsulates all the reasons I had to be skeptical about Mission: Impossible — Fallout. It’s been five movies of this franchise, for fuck’s sake. I’ll remind you that in the last movie, the filmmakers had to contrive the most ridiculously secure facility they could think of, just so Hunt could retrieve a disk from an underwater turbine. And in the movie before that, he was climbing the goddamn Burj Khalifa with his bare hands.

Moreover, this franchise has been going for two decades. Tom Cruise is 56 years old now. Even outside the “Mission: Impossible” franchise, we’ve had Jack Reacher, The Mummy (2017), Edge of Tomorrow… really, the last time Cruise even tried to play a character other than “Tom Cruise, action star” was goddamn Rock of Ages back in 2012!

So here’s Ethan Hunt — after five movies and twenty years of surviving falls, auto collisions, shootouts, beatings, and anything else that could possibly kill him in fifty different ways — worried about jumping out of a window. What other explanation could there be, except that he’s getting old?

But despite my misgivings, I still went to see Mission: Impossible — Fallout, encouraged by the outstanding critical reception. To be blunt, the opening gave me very little reason to hope. The first scene is a transparent and godawful nightmare fakeout, and then Hunt wakes up to a scene with an obnoxious lens flare. But then we get some covert skullduggery, Hunt gets his exposition dump, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it,” the message self-destructs, and we’re off to stop a nuclear holocaust. Mercifully, the movie got better from there and it kept on getting better.

I won’t go into much detail regarding Ethan Hunt, because it’s Cruise’s signature role and you should already know what you’re getting. Though I will say that at long last, the franchise finally and directly addresses Michelle Monaghan’s character for the first real time since she got married to Hunt. It brings some much-needed vulnerability to Hunt without diminishing or weakening his longtime love interest, and indeed, Monaghan gets to play a direct active role in the climax. That was a neat touch.

On the subject of female leads, Rebecca Ferguson is back and kicking ass. It was really quite clever how the franchise weaved her back into the fold, especially since it meant she got to keep on playing the enigmatic “What’s her game and whose side is she on?” angle for a while longer without setting back her character development. Very well done. Elsewhere, Vanessa Kirby is this film’s winner of Tom Cruise’s “Up-and-coming Actress Sweepstakes”, here playing a broker of illicit wares. Kirby is great fun to watch, playing a badass femme fatale with seductive delight.

Then there’s Angela Bassett, stepping into the franchise as the new CIA director. Predictably, she’s terribly intimidating as the bitch in charge with nothing to prove. She’s also the direct superior to Henry Cavill’s character, and it’s genuinely exciting to see him play a more openly antagonistic role for a change. That said, Cavill and Cruise are supposed to be playing two overly aggressive super-spies who hate each other, but it falls flat because there’s no substantial difference in ideology or methods to power that conflict.

(Side note: You may be upset about Cavill’s recent misogynistic comments and his terrible damage control thereof. Before you boycott the film because of that, I’ll remind you that J.J. Abrams and Tom Cruise both have long and publicly visible records of promoting women in Hollywood, and I have it on good authority that they’re both pissed off about Cavill’s incident. Couple this with certain events that happen in the movie, and it’s a safe bet that Cavill is not coming back to the franchise anytime soon.)

Then of course we have our returning players. Alec Baldwin plays Alec Baldwin as only he can, though it’s fun to see him get in on the action for a bit this time. Simon Pegg is of course the neurotic comic relief as only he could provide. Jeremy Renner was too busy maybe possibly but not actually being in Infinity War to even get a passing mention in this picture. The big surprise here is Ving Rhames, who finally — FINALLY — gets enough to do that he leaves a memorable impact.

Moving on to the plot… well, I won’t go into details here. Suffice to say that this is a spy caper, with all sorts of international intrigue, conflicting agendas, secrets, lies, dealmaking, double-crosses, and so on, and so forth, etc., etc. It’s all specifically and expertly engineered to be complicated and compelling in the moment, and forgettably simple when everything’s resolved. And really, that’s easily the biggest reason why this movie so damn entertaining. The action scenes are so much more exciting when we don’t know what the characters will do to try and one-up each other.

Of course, it also helps that the action scenes are insanely creative and beautifully crafted across the board. This movie has car chases, motorcycle chases, shootouts, fistfights, chases on foot, helicopter chases, sky dives, you name it. The innovative camerawork and pitch-perfect editing do a fantastic job of keeping everything coherent and exciting. I can’t say enough great things about the pacing — the movie clocks in at 147 minutes and breezes by in what feels like half the time.

Even when the movie takes some time to cool down, the tension is always through the roof and the stakes are always terribly high. We’re always left wondering how the characters will try to outmaneuver each other, or when the film will pull another diabolically clever mask reveal. Yes, we do get a few extended exposition dumps, but even those are presented with an underlying tension because the necessary task seems to be impossible and the characters have no idea how they’re going to get it done until they’re flying by the seat of their pants.

Of course, that last part is a trademark component of this franchise, and it’s used to marvelous effect here. The other big component is of course the team factor. This may not be the only action franchise to make the concept of “family” into a core tenet — “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Fast and the Furious” come immediately to mind — but this franchise is singular in that IMF is very clearly and inescapably a government agency. They have to take orders from a higher authority that considers them expendable. So when the higher-ups turn on Hunt — or worse, order Hunt or his allies to turn on each other — for what the bureaucrats perceive as the greater good, it creates a moral conflict unique to this franchise while also creating another impossible situation for our heroes to somehow wriggle out of.

Moreover, the characters very explicitly talk about all the times in this franchise when Hunt has been disavowed or betrayed by those in charge, speculating on how that could affect him mentally, emotionally, and so forth. That’s a neatly clever way of building on the history of this franchise to up the stakes in this go-round. And of course the cherry on top is the finale, which directly addresses the classic “individual vs. collective” conflict we’ve seen so often in recent blockbusters, but finds a satisfying resolution that could only have been done by this franchise.

So are there any nitpicks? Plenty. There’s no shortage of plot holes, that line about jumping out a window doesn’t make any more sense in context, and I can think of one or two plot twists that are laughably predictable. Also, it really bugged me when the characters are supposed to make these huge decisions only for the ethical dilemma to be resolved in the neatest and least bloody way possible with few if any consequences whatsoever. And even on the rare occasions when characters do get killed off, the circumstances rob the death of any weight. Of course, these are all just symptoms of a greater problem.

This is the sixth movie in the franchise, and there’s no sign that the filmmakers are slowing down. So we can’t have any significant character development or story points that call back to previous films, enough to throw off the viewers who didn’t see them or don’t remember them. Similarly, we can’t have any massive developments so huge that they close off potential storylines in the sequels or risk throwing off viewers who won’t remember this one. So it’s rather ironic that the filmmakers have to make such a simple and inconsequential plot that nobody will remember a single story point a month after watching. It’s a safe guarantee that viewers will remember that car chase, that sky dive, and that motherfucking helicopter battle, but I doubt that one in a hundred will remember what the players involved were fighting over.

That said, we’re living in the post-Marvel era in which continuity is king. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great how the Marvel films build off of what came before to make every movie a vital chapter in an ongoing saga. But there’s definitely a drawback in studying up on ten years of continuity across multiple films every time we sit down to watch the latest entry. In today’s cinematic landscape, there’s definitely a place for a series that barely gives a fuck about continuity, such that anyone can sit down and enjoy the latest film with no prior experience necessary. Or we could look to “Fast and the Furious”, which has probably done the best job of finding a middle ground between the two.

Ultimately, Mission: Impossible — Fallout was built to be a brainless and disposable action romp, and it works incredibly well on those terms. The action scenes are flat-out spectacular, and the plot has enough twists and turns to keep us going from one massive set piece to the next. The stakes are high enough to keep the audience engaged, and the conflict is simple enough that it’s always clear who’s chasing after whom in pursuit of which McGuffin. The film as a whole is simple and forgettable, but never anywhere close to insultingly stupid.

Basically, if you left Avengers: Infinity War wishing that you could spend two and a half hours getting your hair blown back by one spectacularly epic action sequence after another, but without the stress of keeping track which character is where and how they got there, this is your movie. By all means, go see it and have a great time. If you’ve got the cash to spare, go ahead and splurge on the 3D.

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