Warning: This review does contain some minor spoilers... though not really anything not already spoiled by the trailers. The really fun reveals I try to keep mum on, though I assume most spy fans have had the chance to see the movie by now.
Christopher McQuarrie’s second Mission movie, Fallout, is the third stellar entry in a row in the Mission: Impossible series... but not quite as stellar as the previous two. Fallout feels a tad overlong, and the score isn't up to par with the best Missions, but it offers more of the excellent action we've come to expect from this series, more of the banter from supporting characters we've come to love, and some unexpected resolution to dangling plot threads from previous entries.
John Woo’s mandate on M:I-2 may have been that he didn’t have to reference events of the first picture, but McQuarrie seems determined to do just the opposite. While Fallout definitely feels most of a piece with its two immediate predecessors, it references events from all of the previous films (well, except M:I-2, whose only legacy on display here is the continued use of the voice strips it introduced as mask accessories), neatly tying together a series that started out deliberately haphazard. In fact, Mission: Impossible – Fallout nicely concludes one particular arc that began over a decade ago in J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III, while leaving the door open on another thread that began in McQuarrie’s own Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.
Sam Mendes attempted a similar feat in the last Bond movie, SPECTRE (2015), trying to sew together events from the previous Daniel Craig films after the fact, but McQuarrie succeeds much more deftly on that front. Still, this franchise wouldn’t even be here without James Bond. While it’s inevitable that every screen spy since Sean Connery lit that first cigarette at the gaming table in Dr. No (1962) has owed something to 007, Mission: Impossible – Fallout is particularly full of bits borrowed from the longer running franchise. (Indeed, it reminds me of the classic South Park episode “Simpsons Already Did It,” in which the South Park writers vent their frustration at following a longer running series that has literally done everything... in a very meta way.) From an early throwaway bit with a BMW controlled remotely by a phone right out of Tomorrow Never Dies (down to the same brand of car!) to a HALO jump into Paris (Tomorrow Never Dies again, mixed with A View to a Kill) to a prisoner escape from a submerged armored truck from Licence to Kill, a variation on a classic villain line from GoldenEye (“Why can’t you just die?!”), a helicopter dogfight filled with improbable aerobatics (SPECTRE), and even a famously deleted scene from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (a chase across London rooftops near St. Paul’s Cathedral), Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt relives a lot of classic Bond moments in Fallout… and frequently manages to improve on them.
Even the best stuntmen and greenscreens can’t compete with an actor who’s willing to actually perform the HALO jump himself… including midair stuntwork on the way down. In other cases, simply the benefit of modern filmmaking techniques gives McQuarrie’s film an edge on the classics. When his transport van plunged off a bridge in Licence to Kill, Sanchez didn’t face the jaw-dropping onslaught of a massive wave flooding the cabin and pouring over him like Sean Harris’s villainous Solomon Lane does in this movie. And even if George Lazenby did insist on performing a lot of his own stunts in OHMSS, he wasn’t insane enough to attempt the sort of leap in which Cruise famously broke his ankle as he fell just short of a rooftop and smashed into the side of a building instead.
But the Bond movies that McQuarrie clearly has in his head more than any others are Skyfall and SPECTRE. And not their stunts, but the emotional wringer they put James Bond through. Fallout is the Daniel Craig Bond movie of the Mission: Impossible series. This is an emotional journey for Ethan Hunt—more so, even, than when Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Owen Davian kidnapped his wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), in Mission: Impossible III. On this front, McQuarrie’s film doesn’t manage to outdo 007, but the effort is appreciated. (I also liked McQuarrie's use of dream sequences to grant us access to Ethan's thoughts and fears. I think that's a first for the series.) While James Bond is a rich character with literary origins dating back more than six decades, Ethan Hunt is more of a deliberate cipher. We’re just not as invested in his psyche; instead of dwelling there, we want to him push the limits of human endurance in his next feat of incredible daring. Still, it’s rewarding to see McQuarrie and Cruise push in this direction, attempting to inject more humanity into a character after five outings. And Cruise deserves credit for his acting as well as his astonishing physical stamina (at 56, no less—the same age Roger Moore was in A View to a Kill, if you can believe it!). He is really excellent in Fallout, from his reaction to seeing Rogue Nation’s Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) again in… surprising circumstances, to his delivery of the line, "Power!" as he formulates a plan on the move, quickly figuring out how to fly a helicopter in order to save the world.
At the beginning of Mission: Impossible – Fallout, IMF team leader Ethan makes a call opting to save the one (longtime friend and teammate Luther Stickell, played once again by the ever reliable Ving Rhames) at the expense of the many (saving Luther requires letting three nuclear devices fall into the hands of terrorists). Not only does this decision set into motion the operational plot of the movie (recovering those nukes and preventing disaster), but it also sets up the character journey. Was that the right call? Would Ethan make it again in similar circumstances? As usual, there’s a bellicose superior who questions his call in the form of Angela Basset’s CIA Director Erica Sloan. Basset is essentially reprising her Alias role of CIA Director Hayden Chase, who had roughly the same relationship to Sidney Bristow that Sloan does to Ethan Hunt. (Interestingly, Basset’s most famous screen husband, Laurence Fishburne, played a variation on this role in Mission: Impossible III.) Former CIA Director, now IMF Secretary (“it was a lateral move”) Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) took a similar view of Ethan’s tactics in Rogue Nation, but has now come fully around to Team Ethan. It’s refreshing to see an IMF Secretary really have his back (like Tom Wilkinson in Ghost Protocol) instead of yelling at him over things beyond his control (like Fishburne), but that point of view is balanced out by Sloan’s blustery disapproval.
Sloan pulls rank on Hunley, and insists that her Special Activities Division blunt instrument (or “plumber,” to use Hunley’s Watergate vernacular) August Walker (Henry Cavill, who took the part of Napoleon Solo in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. after Cruise dropped out) accompany Ethan on his mission looking out for CIA interests—meaning, making sure that the job gets done, no matter who has to die. "You go rogue, he's authorized to hunt you down and kill you," Hunley points out to Ethan.
Walker shrugs. "It's the job. No hard feelings."
Sloan is no fan of Ethan Hunt, but then she’s not totally without her reasons. Among other things, she cites his “long and incriminating history of rogue behavior.” You know, that’s fair. Seldom a company man, Ethan has gone rogue in all but one of the movies in this series—that outlier M:I-2. That history gives another character a good framework from which to try to set up Ethan as a traitor in Sloan’s eyes, asking her, “How many times has Hunt’s government betrayed him, disavowed him, cast him aside? And how long before a man like that has had enough?” Erica’s opinion of the IMF at large (later echoed by Walker) is equally withering. “The IMF is Halloween. Nothing but grown men wearing masks.”
And so the IMF have no choice but to reluctantly agree to let Walker tag along on their mission as a new member of the team, but one whom the others mistrust. It’s a good setup, because while there have been team members before who turn out to be surprise traitors, we haven’t previously seen a team member actively pursuing his own agenda not necessarily in keeping with that of the IMF—and the rest of the team knowing that.
The mission on which Walker accompanies Ethan ties in directly with the previous film, Rogue Nation… and has roots going back even further to the end of the third film, in which the recorded voice warns Ethan of a new terrorist group calling itself “The Syndicate…” and even to the original 1966-73 TV series, in which The Syndicate (albeit one of organized crime rather than terrorism) served as a primary antagonist during the later seasons. At the end of Rogue Nation, Ethan and his team crippled The Syndicate by cutting off its head—capturing founder and former British agent Solomon Lane (Harris). Without Lane to direct them, the former members of The Syndicate (created, per Lane, “to tear [governments] down, brick by brick”), now calling themselves “The Apostles” (perhaps an oblique reference to the Cambridge Spies? Probably not…) have continued to wreak havoc around the world, and are now in possession of the nuclear devices Ethan let slip from his hands. Ethan’s mission (which, obviously, he has no choice but to accept) is to recover those devices, and keep them from getting into the hands of a dangerous anarchist known as John Lark.
The mission, as always, is a somewhat tedious framework on which to hang lots of exhilarating action setpieces. To that end, Ethan and Walker first need to make a dangerous high altitude, low opening (HALO) parachute jump into Paris to infiltrate an elite gathering hosted by an arms dealer and information broker known as The White Widow. If that sentence rushed by you a bit, it does in the movie too. No, there’s no particularly good reason that the agents need to enter Paris by such a dangerous method, but McQuarrie expertly brushes past that with a single line of exposition you won’t stop to question until well after leaving the theater. And that’s a key function of a good Mission: Impossible director—making the audience overlook the ridiculous. Necessary or not, the HALO jump is a spectacular sequence, following Ethan in more or less real time as he free falls. Adding to that spectacle is the aforementioned fact that it’s very clearly Cruise himself performing the freefall. As spectacular as the freefall fight is at the beginning of Moonraker, it’s clear that the close-ups of Roger Moore are inserts. (Though, for me personally, that Moonraker scene will always be the benchmark for midair action.) It’s not just a fall either. After a lightning strike, Ethan needs to perform a sort of midair CPR on Walker as he plummets, meaning Cruise had to act and fall at the same time, and wasn’t merely pursuing an adrenaline-fueled hobby.
Hot on the heels of the jump, we get another terrific action scene, and once again it’s a variation on a tried and true trope of the spy genre—the bathroom fight. (It’s Cavill’s second, in fact, following The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) But McQuarrie manages to make his own mark on that old familiar standard. As so often happens, Ethan’s plans of drugging their mark with a syringe go quickly out the door, and Walker improvises by whacking the man in the face with the laptop they need to generate a mask for Ethan to impersonate him. They haul him into a stall to attempt that nonetheless (leading to some comedic tension when a group of French ravers notice the multiple sets of feet under the door of the stall and jump to their own conclusions), but he revives and proves quite a formidable opponent. Liang Yang (Skyfall) is a standout, in fact, in this scene. He’s more than a match for both agents, let alone either one, and they take turns fighting him individually and together. They’re only able to win, however, with the unexpected intervention of Ilsa Faust. Rebecca Ferguson proved a terrific addition to the team in Rogue Nation, and it’s wonderful to see her back—the first female team member (well, in an unofficial capacity, anyway) to return. (Which kind of echoes the show, where after Barbara Bain departed, female leads didn’t tend to last more than a season—if that.) Ferguson is a great beauty and a great actress, and Ilsa remains the series’ best female character to date. But she’s hardly alone.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout is packed with good roles for women, all populated by impressive actresses. During production, McQuarrie posted a photograph of them all together looking so formidable, in fact, that I mused this might be a spy movie that actually passes the Bechdel Test. Alas, it isn’t, even despite all these great female roles. But I still think the number of strong, interesting female characters with agency (or running agencies!) in this movie is perhaps a high water mark for female representation in any theatrical spy series. Amid all of these enormously talented actresses, though (including two veterans of the series), newcomer Vanessa Kirby (The Crown) manages to steal the show in a relatively small role. She is terrific as the enigmatic White Widow in her own right, but even more terrific when (or if) you realize that she’s playing the daughter of a fan-favorite character from an earlier film in the series. That revelation is subtle, and easy to miss if you haven’t re-watched the other movies recently or don’t know them by heart. But it’s a rewarding one if you have, or if you do. And Kirby does such a great job channeling the inflections and mannerisms of the renowned thespian who played her parent that she’s entirely convincing as their daughter! (Her eyes are also a perfect genetic match for that star's.) Furthermore, if that Black & Dekker reboot of The Avengers ends up happening, Kirby has secured my vote for the new Emma Peel!
Ethan's meeting with the White Widow starts out with that great sort of probing banter you get in good spy movies as they size each other up, then turns into one of the film's lower key action sequences that still manages to be a highlight. Ethan needs to get her safely out of a black tie party filled with assassins, and he starts off taking them out surreptitiously, then loses the option of discretion. Eventually Walker and Ilsa are both aiding him with impressive moves of their own, and even the Widow herself joins in, producing a stiletto from her garter. There are no freefalls or crashing aircraft in this encounter, but it remains one of the film's most memorable scenes—and wonderfully emblematic of everything I love about the spy genre at large.
Unlike a lot of modern filmmakers (including the whole Imitation Greengrass contingent), McQuarrie isn’t afraid to let his camera linger. He puts you in the middle of the action, as does Bourne director Paul Greengrass, but in a totally different way. Instead of quick cuts and a camera spinning chaotically out of control, McQuarrie’s action shots are very controlled. He uses plenty of long takes, like when the camera stays on Cruise as he powers his motorcycle through (and against) block after block of Paris traffic. (Again, it helps that it’s clearly really Cruise, even if some of the traffic is probably CGI.) You’re never unsure of the space in any of McQuarrie’s action scenes, which is refreshing in an age when other directors seem to revel in depriving the viewer of spatial relationships (often in an attempt to mask illogical physics).
Speaking of motorcycle chases, yes, there’s another one in this movie. Even though we just had one in the last movie. And that famous (if laughable) one in the second film. But… so what? How many variations have we seen on the car chase? Motorcycles are clearly Ethan Hunt’s favorite mode of transportation, so it seems fitting that he ride them whenever possible. And the bike chases in Rogue Nation and Fallout are distinct from one another. So are the car chases (even if the BMW brand is feeling a tad over familiar thanks to product placement). There was a BMW chase in the last movie, and there’s a BMW chase in this one, and in both of them the Beamer goes down some stairs… but they’re still each unique! The BMW chase in Fallout is improved by what appears to be a late 1980s 5 Series rather than the latest model. (“Was the little car your idea?” Benji asks Walker as they all pile into it.) Not only does this model just feel appropriate for a Parisian street chase; it also feeds my nostalgia by triggering instant flashbacks to Eighties spy movies like Octopussy or The Holcroft Covenant… even if McQuarrie was obviously going for the more highly regarded touchstone of The French Connection with Ilsa piloting her motorcycle beneath an elevated track.
But this movie doesn't peak in the middle like Ghost Protocol. Even after the masterful Paris sequence, McQuarrie still delivers some more thrills along with cons and double-crosses. This movie's version of series staple The Long Run is a spectacular 7-minute foot chase across the streets, roofs, and interiors of London that once again has Benji in Ethan's ear, directing him as he sprints flat-out. Though Ethan doesn't stay on the ground this time. His dash takes him into a service at St. Paul's Cathedral, up a spiral staircase (prompting Benji, following Ethan's tracker on a 2D display, to ask "Why is he running in circles?"), and onto (and off of!) a progression of rooftops of varying heights. This, of course, is the sequence in which Cruise famously broke his ankle, causing production to shut down for six months while the star recovered. The side-on shot from the trailers where you can clearly see his foot impacting the wall of the building isn't actually in the movie, but the stunt is certainly there (from an overhead angle), as is the shot where Cruise completed it, clearly running on a broken ankle. You've got to give the guy credit for his utter dedication to his craft.
The third act, inevitably, finds the team going rogue, once again, without support. When Luther asks,"Shall we inform the CIA?" (I don't know why he bothers!), Ethan replies, "The CIA's been infiltrated. I don't trust anybody outside this room. We'll have to go it alone." Going it alone takes them to Kashmir, where Ethan will have to play "demolition derby" in helicopters, and the rest of the team will have to defuse two strategically placed nuclear bombs. It also takes them, per Solomon Lane's plan, to Ethan's ex-wife, Julia, whom he still loves. But now she's married to someone else—happily, and making a difference in the world as a doctor without borders. It's a reverse Casablanca situation, where we're emotionally connected to her freedom fighter husband (Ethan as Paul Henreid), rather than her Bogie (Wes Bentley). But making matters murkier, there's another woman in Ethan's life now—Ilsa! (Uh-oh! Better forget the Casablanca analogies, because that name really confuses things.) In a stroke of brilliance, McQuarrie has Julia be the one to spot Ethan when they come together this time, not the other way around. Going in from her perspective gives a different slant on ensuing events than a meeting from his perspective would have.
Luther once again gets to play his role as Ethan's romantic conscience, like he did in Mission: Impossible 3 when he warned Ethan not to get married. He fills in Ilsa (and the audience, who may not recall the relevant tag scene at the end of Ghost Protocol) on Ethan's status with Julia, saying that in all the years he's known Ethan, he's only been serious about two women. (Sorry, Nyah!) One was his wife. (The other, implicitly, is her... which is kind of a new development.) "They were happy for a while, but every time something bad would happen in the world, Ethan would think, 'I should have been there.'" He explains that Julia's a ghost now ("Good at it, too."), occasionally sending up a signal to let Ethan know she's alright... "and that keeps him going." This is a bit of a retcon, but it clarifies the somewhat confusing ending to Brad Bird's movie, in which it appeared that Ethan was creepily stalking his ghost ex. Personally, I appreciate the clarification!
There's a really great dynamic between Ethan and all of the women in this movie. It isn't a Bond thing, where they all fall at his feet, but unique connections with each one. With Julia, the shared connections between two exes who still care about one another is clear. With Ilsa, as he explains it to the inquisitive White Widow, "We have a past. Let's just say it's complicated." To which Kirby's character replies, "Well, I'm going to make it more complicated. The price just went up. Bring her to me... I'd hate for her to come between us." She punctuates this demand with an impulsive, unsolicited kiss. Not because she can't resist him, but because Kirby pulses with the Widow's curiosity and thirst for knowledge. She's testing.
But if these relationships aren't enough of a powderkeg, McQuarrie has concocted an excellent impossible puzzle bomb for the characters to unlock. It consists of two plutonium cores connected to two bombs, in separate locations. "Any attempt to defuse one bomb automatically triggers the other," Luther explains.
Benji even admits at one point, "If there's a way to defuse these bombs, I can't find it." Of course he does find it, but it involves another great little MacGuffin. Not only do he, Luther, Ilsa, and Julia have to locate and defuse both bombs after the countdown has started (a complicated task that involves cutting wires in a certain order and unscrewing things at the same time)... but Ethan needs to deactivate a trigger mechanism before they can do so. This gimmick sets a great clock for the final act, where the characters are out of communication but must rely on one another to do their respective jobs, or else any action they take will result in catastrophe. Of course it's a 15-minute ticking clock that plays out over 23 minutes... but that's easily chalked up to us seeing action that's unfolding simultaneously separately.
Ethan's part requires him to shimmy up a rope and board a helicopter midair, and then figure out a way to get the trigger from the bad guy in another helicopter. This leads to the movie's final major stunt sequence, in which actor Cruise (of course!) pilots the chopper himself for real. The aerial battle runs a bit long, honestly, but it does showcase the extreme (even preposterous) lengths to which Ethan will go to accomplish the impossible. The villain in the other helicopter can't even believe it when he exclaims, "This crazy son of a bitch is trying to ram us!" Who would ever attempt to ram a helicopter from another helicopter—an action bound to result in both craft plummeting to the earth?? Ethan Hunt, that's who.
As much as I liked how this stunt defines and serves the character (and vice-versa), it's sort of shame that McQuarrie couldn't leave it as the film's final stunt. Instead, we have to go through an even more preposterous sequence where the two wrecks fall off of cliff after cliff (three times!) with hero and villain trapped inside, and then an anticlimactic fist fight reminiscent of the one on the beach at the end of M:I-2. I wish they'd stop ending Mission: Impossible movies with fist fights. It's never satisfactory. I much preferred the sleight of hand trickery that unexpectedly concluded Rogue Nation, subverting expectations. Fallout, ultimately, plays into them instead.
It's also marred by a serious villain problem. The two best villains were Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mission: Impossible III, and Sean Harris, in Rogue Nation. (Hoffman featured in the one final fist fight that actually worked.) Harris, of course, is back for more in this movie, but he is seriously underserved. McQuarrie makes the same mistake that Mendes & Co. made in SPECTRE when they decided that Blofeld's motivations should be all about personal revenge rather than financial gain. So Solomon Lane is now so hung up on revenge against Ethan Hunt that he's incapable of the utterly emotionless, cold logic that drove him to frequently out-think Ethan in Rogue Nation. The other main villain, the inevitable turncoat who turns out to be John Lark, fails to convince in the latter role. I had trouble believing that that character had written the anarchic Lark manifesto so frequently quoted in the film. He comes off as a Jaws, not a Drax.
While the villains were ultimately unsatisfying, I did find the resolution of Ethan's marriage storyline fully satisfying. I hadn't really realized before what a burden J.J. Abrams had created for the series in saddling Ethan with a wife, but I appreciate how McQuarrie ultimately concludes it. (Though it does involve some more convenient retconning. I can't imagine the Julia of Mission: Impossible III, so happy among her large family and friend group, really being as happy as this one claims to be to live off the grid, presumably without access to her nieces and nephews. But that's all wisely ignored.) There is a scene between Julia and Ilsa where they share a whisper we're not privy to. But it's Ilsa who does the whispering, when it seems to me that it would have made more sense the other way around, as it's basically a "He likes his tea stirred anti-clockwise" moment, to use an Avengers reference.
For the most part, Mission: Impossible - Fallout is pretty great. But it's got some faults. Balfe's unimaginative score is a real liability, especially compared to Joe Kraemer's wonderfully inventive take on Mission music in the last film. (I sure hope Kraemer gets another shot at this series in the future!) The film, like this review, goes on a bit too long. And the script, in some ways, is actually too twisty—even for a franchise known for twists! This is the opposite script problem of M:I-2. Instead of not trying to con the audience, the filmmakers try to con the audience in essentially every scene. Which plays fine in the course of watching the film once. But as soon as you start to think about it, some things don't stand up to scrutiny. Like, for example, the supposed meeting the White Widow brokered in London where Ethan (believed to be Lark) and Walker were supposed to trade Lane to the Apostles for the nuclear devices. No party (not the IMF, the CIA, the Apostles, or the Widow) was going into that meeting in good faith. In fact, from the point of view of some of the groups, the very existence of the meeting was counterproductive. So why would they have even shown up? Well, that doesn't need to be addressed, because things don't go according to plan and the meeting doesn't happen. But what if it had? Nobody's plot would have worked out. It's a Schrödinger's Cat-like scenario. (And it would fascinate two characters in this series who are fascinated by paradoxes!) Yet it's crucial that all the parties do get themselves to London, behaving as if a meeting was going to occur. Why? The whole house of cards falls apart given too much thought, and hurts the brain. And that's only one example. This is one of those spy movies that tries to get too clever for its own good. But... thankfully, as with the unnecessary HALO jump, McQuarrie keeps the plot moving fast enough that we don't question anything in the course of the movie! Because despite being long, it's so fast-paced, and it's so damn fun. And the action is so damn good. The paradigm of this series may have shifted with a returning director, but Christopher McQuarrie has proven himself the ideal director to return.
TV Moments: A favorite TV con is used pretty much right off the bat.
Dangling: While Ethan does indeed dangle from a helicopter, it's all upright dangling, and there is no instance of his patented horizontal dangling. I think the series has realized it's moved beyond that, and that's a good thing.
Rogue Agents: Yep, there's definitely a rogue amidst the Good Guy intelligence apparatus.
Rogue Ethan: You bet! As usual, he's rogue through most of the second half of the film.
The Long Run: Through London, once again with Benji talking him through it, though McQuarrie adds some humorous twists to this scenario established in Mission: Impossible III.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible III (2006) here.
Read my review of M:I-2 (2000) here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible (1996) here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Seventh TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Sixth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Fourth TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Third TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The Second TV Season here.
Read my review of Mission: Impossible: The First TV Season here.