Even someone like me, who seems to subsist solely on pop culture, can have strange blind-spots in my knowledge of movies. And, one of the biggest of those blind-spots, up until very recently was the Mission: Impossible movies. I’m a huge James Bond fan, as you can see from my month-long series of Bond reviews last summer, but for whatever reason I’d never really connected with this other long-running spy series. In fact, up until about a month ago I’d never even seen one of the films. When I was a kid and they were first coming out they just weren’t that interesting to me, and when the last couple movies started coming out and people began singing their praises, I just never bothered to jump onto the bandwagon. But, as July rapidly approached this year, and the looming presence of the latest impossible mission began to show itself, I figured I’d give the series a shot. And, my general opinion is that it’s a fascinating, if not wildly uneven, franchise. The films are all so incredibly different, they basically act like a cinematic litmus test, a weird little bit of insight into a person depending on which one is their favorite. The first one is fine, just a series of all of Brian de Palma’s cinematic tricks. The second is a travesty, and a reminder of all that’s wrong about late-nineties action flicks. The third is decent, just very forgettable. And then the newer films began, giving us the blessed gift that is Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. I loved that film. It was Brad Bird channeling his love of spy movies, Bond in particular, and giving us one of the most delightful action movies I’ve ever seen. Things then took somewhat of a down turn for me personally with Rogue Nation, a movie that’s still much better than the first three, just unable to capture the magic of Ghost Protocol. Which made me a tad concerned about the newest entry to the series, Fallout. Because, for the first time in the series’ history, they brought a director back. Christopher McQuarrie came back with Fallout, and it seemed like he’d bring more of the same thing he accomplished with Rogue Nation. Which, wouldn’t necessarily be bad, it just wouldn’t be able to match up with Ghost Protocol in my estimations. And, I think I was mostly wrong. It still didn’t top Ghost Protocol for me, but it ended up becoming a wonderful film in its own right.
The film follows the adventures of expert spy Ethan Hunt, one of the leaders of the Impossible Mission Force, as he continues to track down a shadowy criminal organization known as the Syndicate. In the previous film he took down the leader of the Syndicate, a former British spy named Solomon Lane, and now the organization is taking any job it can, including helping a genocidal extremist known as John Lark construct some nuclear bombs. Ethan and his team, Benji and Luther, attempt to retrieve some stolen plutonium that is intended to be used by the terrorists, but in the process Ethan has to make a choice, and chooses to save his friends, losing the plutonium. Which doesn’t make the CIA, who sit somewhat above the IMF, happy. Erica Sloane, the director of the CIA, insists that if Ethan is going to be tasked with getting the plutonium back from the Syndicate, he’s going to have to be paired up with one of her agents, a man named August Walker. Ethan doesn’t much like it, but it’s what he needs to do, so he accepts. Ethan and Walker then are sent to Paris to meet with an arms dealer known as the White Widow who is supposed to be selling the plutonium to Lark. The pair enter a ritzy party, and get in a fight with a man who is supposedly Lark, which ends with the man being killed by an old friend of Ethan’s, British secret agent Ilsa Faust. Ethan then decides to impersonate Lark, and meets with the White Widow, getting into her graces, and setting up a deal for the plutonium. There’s just one catch.
The Syndicate doesn’t want money for the plutonium, they want “Lark” to break Solomon Lane out of custody to install him back as the leader of the Syndicate. And, because they need the plutonium, Ethan accepts. He, Walker, Benji, and Luther then work to come up with a plan to steal Lane away from the police when he’s transferred to Paris. The plan runs into a lot of problems, especially when Ilsa shows up to kill Lane, as was demanded of her from MI6, but they pull it off. They abduct Lane, and bring him to London where the White Widow needs him. Unfortunately, things then start to fall apart. Because it turns out that Walker has convinced the CIA that Ethan is actually John Lark, and that he’s snapped. This proves to be problematic, but it gets worse when it’s revealed that Walker is actually Lark. He kills the secretary of the IMF, takes Lane, and then vanishes with the plutonium. But, they were able to put a tracker into Lane, which eventually tells the group, including Ilsa, that Walker and Lane have reached Kashmir, where they plan to detonate the two nuclear bombs on a glacier that provides drinking water to Pakistan, India, and China, killing millions. And, as added torment, it turns out that Walker has led Ethan’s ex-wife Julia to Kashmir, giving him a distraction when he arrives. But, the group gets to work, and end up splitting up. Luther and Julia take care of one of the bombs, while Benji and Ilsa fight Lane and take care of the second bomb, leaving Ethan to chase down Walker and get the detonator. It’s a close call, but Ethan manages to kill Walker, stop the bombs, and save the day.
Yeah, I still like Ghost Protocol the best. But this film probably comes in at number two for me. It managed to take everything interesting about Rogue Nation and distill it down to a thoroughly entertaining, masterfully designed, and satisfyingly entertaining little flick. It’s more serious and dour than I would have preferred, but it’s got enough great ideas to keep it afloat. And the film is bolstered by two major factors that make it the delight that it is. The bottomless charisma of Tom Cruise and the maddeningly perfect action that Christopher McQuarrie excels at. In general I’ve never been the biggest fan of Tom Cruise, usually unable to remove his real-life oddness from his performances, but there’s something about the character of Ethan Hunt that’s able to let me appreciate what he does. And words cannot describe how Christopher McQuarrie is able to translate action to the screen. The ideas in the film are certainly more grounded and realistic than in Ghost Protocol, for an action movie at least, and McQuarrie is able to direct that action in a way that’s absolutely mind-blowing. It’s fluid, beautifully shot, doesn’t rely on the blisteringly quick editing that so many action movies use, letting the shots breathe and show you the full scope of everything going on. Tom Crusie is a madman, willing to risk injury while accomplishing some of the most impressive stunts that modern cinema have to offer, and McQuarrie is a master at letting us actually see and appreciate the stunts.
But it’s not all about the stunt. It’s mostly about the stunts, but not all. Because one of the things that most struck me about this film, and really the entire franchise as a whole, is the realization of the character Ethan Hunt. He’s certainly similar to James Bond, a worldclass spy who will do anything to protect his country, but there’s something very interesting about Ethan. He’s an impeccably decent person. James Bond is a blunt instrument, a man who is licensed to kill and will do so freely. Whatever needs to be done to complete his mission as quickly as possible will be done. But Ethan is different. There’s a part of this film when Ethan is tasked with rescuing Solomon Lane where he’s given a simple mission, but one that requires a lot of police casualties. And, instead of doing that, he comes up with an elaborate plan that keeps casualties to a minimum, and solely on the criminal side. Because despite the fact that Ethan Hunt’s job is to look at the evils of the world, he hasn’t let them corrupt him. More often than not James Bond is shown to be a broken man, beat down by the horrors of the world. But Ethan Hunt is somehow an eternal optimist. He isn’t just saving the world out of duty, he’s doing it because he legitimately doesn’t want a single person to die if they don’t have to. He’s altruistic, and a genuinely good man, which we don’t get to see that often. Cynicism is more cool than decency, but Ethan Hunt gives that idea a run for its money.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie and released by Paramount Pictures, 2018.
Categories: Reel Talk