To some, Tom Cruise is a god, and really, these Mission: Impossible movies only add fuel to that fire. For over 20 years, and through six straight films, the would-be Messiah of Scientology has defied all sorts of logic and science. He’s conquered canyons, scaled the world’s tallest buildings, become a temporary mermaid, redefined the way one collects SkyMiles, flung himself out of every vehicle imaginable, and sprinted through cities without a single pair of Nikes. In Mission: Impossible – Fallout, he literally falls from space down to Earth, a visual metaphor that is hardly coincidental, because if there’s one takeaway to be had from this chapter in the franchise, it’s that Cruise, or rather Ethan Hunt, is human after all. Kind of.
For the first time ever, it feels like Hunt doesn’t have all the answers, namely because he admits he doesn’t. “I’ll figure it out,” he says multiple times to his bewildered colleagues, which, for this mission, includes Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), Benjamin “Benji” Dunn (Simon Pegg), Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), and Kryptonian CIA assassin August Walker (Henry Cavill). Granted, it’s an admission that’s mostly played for laughs — and one that will certainly have cinephiles recalling Lucasfilm’s most popular archaeologist — but it also speaks to the existential dilemma that this series has instilled in Hunt since J.J. Abrams’ recalibration of the franchise: 2006’s Mission: Impossible III.
If you recall, it was that film which added real-world stakes to Hunt’s globetrotting, instilling some sense of mortality in the guy with the loss of his protege Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell) and hinting at a future outside of the IMF with his engagement to Julia Meade (Michelle Monaghan). By the end, the film suggested he might not need the spy life, that he could be something more than a man on a wire, and while that clearly didn’t pan out, the arc at least proved that Hunt is more than just impossible stunts. Of course, “impossible stunts” are exactly what the series capitalized on with its two followups — 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and 2015’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation — but not without that beating heart.
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In some ways, the Mission: Impossible franchise has paralleled the trajectory of Universal’s Fast and Furious brand, capitalizing on ridiculous action that’s made possible by its charming ensemble chemistry. Looking back, it’s actually kind of funny: Whereas Brian De Palma brazenly killed off his on-screen team (technically twice) in the 1996 original, Abrams and his Bad Robot boys have exhaustively spent four films building their team and keeping them alive — and it’s worked wonders. Because unlike Daniel Craig’s remorseless interpretation of James Bond, which has become needlessly maudlin over the past three entries, Mission: Impossible knows exactly what it needs to be: a fun and chummy thrill ride that’s always self-aware.
Fallout follows that agenda, while also revisiting its more severe roots. It’s a sequel in every sense of the word, reintroducing not only familiar faces, but styles, themes, and motifs of past films. There’s the complex narratives of De Palma’s first installment, the boisterous machismo of John Woo’s second, the sentimentality of Abrams’ third, and the breakneck speed of Brad Bird’s fourth. Once again, director Christopher McQuarrie, who breaks tradition by becoming the first director in the franchise to helm two films, adds a humorous wash to the proceedings. Unlike Rogue Nation, however, there’s this palpable notion that everyone’s feeling their stuff, particularly Hunt, who hardly gets through a single mission without limping away.
But that’s what makes Fallout so compelling … and also incredibly honest. Let’s not forget, Cruise is 56 years old, which is five years older than Wilford Brimley was in Cocoo — oh whatever, you’ve seen the goddamn meme. In the past, that was something this series could easily ignore, especially when Cruise started defying everyone’s expectations (including Paramount’s) by doing every imaginable stunt, but it’s also something this series was always going to have to contend with at some point in time. What Fallout does is acknowledge that age, while also suggesting it’s mostly bullshit, ultimately conceding that these middle-aged heroes are in for the ride so long as the ride will have them — and it will.
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For how long, though, is hard to say. Seeing how Cruise suffered a major injury on this film, stalling production for an extended period of time, it won’t be long before the studio (and any self-respecting insurance company) finally puts the kibosh on his real-life heroics. Even worse, it won’t be long before Hunt not only sounds like Indiana Jones, but starts looking like him too, as in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull-era Dr. Jones, at which point the joke really won’t be funny anymore. Rest assured, we’re a ways off from that point, but that narrative is certainly set in motion, and it’s admittedly comforting. With Hunt being more fallible, the stakes are richly nuanced, making the missions that much more intriguing.
Now, there’s a scrappiness to his actions that’s supremely human, even if what he’s doing is still out of this world. The conclusion, for instance, is as boisterous and insane as the series gets, though it feels grounded because Hunt is clearly jerry-rigging his way through the situation. That’s a recurring element in Fallout, and one that’s rather paramount to the film’s overall tension. Not only does it considerably elevate each action sequence, but it also adds weight to the series’ ensuing supporting cast. We saw this last time around with Ferguson’s athletic Faust, and we see it once again here with Cavill’s seemingly imperfect Walker, whose wide frame and skyscraper height dwarfs Hunt to hilarious results.
Even so, Hunt always finds a way to come out on top, and to its credit, Fallout acknowledges this, leaning hard on Hallmark-esque monologues that do some heavy lifting to emphasize the guy’s slavish dedication to the job, the sacrifices he’s made over the years, and his enduring track record. They’re a tad treacly, but they also fit the film’s balmy themes of commitment and teamwork, the likes of which fall in line with everything Abrams drilled into the series 12 years ago. Having said that, they also feel like spiritual statements for Cruise, whose messianic image should only be further embellished by these eternally gratifying moments, especially when they’re being beamed off screen through omniscient voiceovers.
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Some may scoff, some may roll their eyes, but some may actually tear up. Like last year’s Logan with Hugh Jackman, it’s very rare to see a hero who’s lived this long on screen, and there’s something to be said about seeing Cruise front and center after all this time. These are strange days in Hollywood, an era when stars are riding shotgun to IP, but here’s the thing: Cruise is the brand. Without him, Mission: Impossible is any other spy series, which explains why both Jeremy Renner’s William Brandt and Ferguson’s Faust have both remained sidekicks. Say what you will about the guy — hell, call him Xenu even — but these missions would cease to exist if he didn’t accept them. The only question now is whether he wants to do more.
Odds are he’ll figure it out.