Fallout presents Cruise condensed to the essence of the latter stage of his career, that of a figure always in motion, a purely kinetic being who moves so fast that the twists and turns of this spy movie almost seem an effort to keep up.
For all the elaborate stunts and action sequences of Mission: Impossible films, the plots have largely remained the same. Impossible Mission Force agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), is invariably tasked with preventing some form of global catastrophe, and is just as quickly placed under scrutiny by either his own superiors or another government agency who question either his methods or those of the IMF writ large. That the villains of these movies tend to be turncoat, rogue agents lends a validity to that argument that has only ever been truly examined in Brian De Palma’s franchise-launching first film, which made the hero of the original 1960s TV show the villain, explicitly driven to rage and betrayal by the thought of a post-Cold War world where he was accountable for his actions.
Christopher McQuarrie, returning as writer and director from the fifth film in the series, Rogue Nation, attempts to return to that legacy somewhat with Fallout, the latest and possibly greatest of the franchise. Not merely bringing back characters but explicitly building on the previous film’s story, Fallout presents a scenario in which a threat is not simply neutralized but instead lingers on past the end of a mission, fermenting until it produces an arguably worse situation. The film posits that Rogue Nation’s antagonists, the renegade spy collective known as the Syndicate, did not just disband upon the capture of their leader, Solomon Kane (Sean Harris) but instead reconfigured and doubled down on their terrorist activities, and when a group of them manages to get the best of Ethan in an opening sting and make off with active plutonium, suddenly the franchise weighs the actual consequences of the hero’s globetrotting treks.
Wracked with guilt over his failure and desperate to reclaim the plutonium before it can be used, Ethan, along with his team of Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames), sets out with added oversight from the CIA, whose head, Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett, radiating disgust), dispatches enforcer August Walker (Henry Cavill) to keep an eye on the agent. The mingling of agencies leaves the gate wide open for various double-crosses, all the more so when MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) crops up later in the movie. Despite the two-and-a-half-hour running time, the film sets up these potential sources of internal conflict with streamlined speed, with McQuarrie deftly setting up pieces for future squabbles.
McQuarrie’s gift for concise structure and punchy narrative inertia leaves plenty of space to devote to the action sequences, which are among the most impressive in the series. De Palma’s elegance has been an outlier in this franchise, his careful execution of the first film’s set pieces replaced by sheer scale, but McQuarrie comes closest to squaring that original tone with the epic grandeur of its successors. A bathroom brawl involving Ethan, Walker and an unfortunate target is downright nasty in its staging, lucidly edited but nonetheless whipping through the endless counters employed by three highly trained professionals. McQuarrie’s ducking and weaving camera then informs much larger sequences, the chief one being a jaw-dropping chase through Paris to steal Solomon Kane in the middle of a prisoner transfer that moves with such kinetic force that every new wrinkle of the abduction feels less like a narrative convolution than a new piece of organically reactive action. As Ethan deals first with grabbing the terrorist, then fleeing law enforcement, the scene just keeps escalating, moving laterally every time it seems to be slowing down until you get the feeling you’ve zigzagged the entire length of the city three times. It’s a marvel of a sequence, gargantuan in its overall scale but intimate in the way the camera blurs as it chases along with motorcycles or catches glimpses of escape routes in the quarter-second it takes Ethan to spot them and reorient his movement. McQuarrie may lack the élan of De Palma and the sheer brio of Brad Bird, but his keen eye for motion perfectly fits this series and results in an instant genre classic, the rare film in today’s bloated blockbuster scene where not a single element feels out of place or superfluous.
As ever, the action offers a glimpse into Cruise’s death wish in performing as many stunts as possible himself. Nearing 60, Cruise nonetheless spends a significant chunk of the film in a dead sprint, and he even executes a number of harrowing leaps and tumbles, one of which snapped his ankle during production. The climactic sequence involves Ethan giving chase to someone in a commandeered helicopter, and Cruise learned how to pilot the aircraft to get the film’s shots of various dive-bombs and desperate climbs. At first blush, this behavior comes off as vain and irresponsible, but in an era where most action filmmaking is now a matter of computer animation more than performer skill or crew choreography, the knowledge that Cruise is the one doing nearly all of this is viscerally gripping, a throwback to a lost era in which action stars were actually called upon to perform actions.
Fallout presents Cruise condensed to the essence of the latter stage of his career, that of a figure always in motion, a purely kinetic being who moves so fast that the twists and turns of this spy movie almost seem an effort to keep up with his momentum rather than a means to their own end. It has been far, far too long since Cruise put in the kind of multivalent performances that characterized his work in films like Magnolia or Minority Report, but McQuarrie fills the film’s last act with confrontations with Ethan’s past that force Cruise to slow down for a moment to convey Ethan’s growing sense of self-doubt and sadness. De Palma’s film remains the thematic high-water mark of this franchise for actually examining the horrific implications of a world run by poorly regulated, egomaniacal intelligence agencies, but Fallout makes an impression by dwelling on how Ethan’s devotion to a job that has harmed him physically and reputationally at every turn has also destroyed his personal life. Mission: Impossible films end with the villains vanquished and a haggard but relieved Ethan commiserating with his team, but Fallout solemnly suggests that Ethan loses something every time he wins.