"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, August 3, 2018

Mission: Impossible - Fallout

With a Mission: Impossible movie you know exactly what you're going to get: plot twists a-go-go, some baddie hell-bent on world domination (or destruction) and Tom Cruise performing a series of insanely dangerous stunts as his Ethan Hunt character and the IMF team save the world. You would think that being disavowed by their government yet again would get old but we expect it as part of the franchise's tried-and-true formula. Let's face it these movies are cinematic delivery systems for masterfully orchestrated action sequences with Cruise upping the ante with every subsequent installment. The latest – Fallout (2018) is no different. Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie returns to orchestrate the mayhem once again and improves on his previous outing, the excellent Rogue Nation (2015).

In the wake of Hunt capturing Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) in the previous movie, his fanatical disciples from the Syndicate have regrouped and renamed themselves The Apostles and are hellbent on obtaining three plutonium cores for their latest client, the mysterious John Lark. Hunt and his team are tasked with finding Lark and intercepting his meeting with the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), an arms dealer who is brokering the deal. Naturally, things don’t go as planned and Hunt is forced to free Lane with the help of untrustworthy CIA operative August Walker (Henry Cavill), charged with babysitting the IMF team, but who clearly has his own agenda. The rest of movie plays out in a series of plot twists and double-crosses as the stakes are increasingly raised.

Freed from the shackles of the dour DC Cinematic Universe movies, Henry Cavill gets to play a hulking brute cum antagonist – “the hammer” to Ethan’s “scalpel” as Angela Bassett’s Director of the CIA puts it so succinctly. The actor is clearly having a blast playing an assassin as evident in a fantastically kinetic fight sequence that takes place in a public bathroom as Walker and Ethan square off against a mysterious terrorist. It is a sober reminder of just how stale the speed-up/slow-down action sequences of the superhero movies Cavill has been involved in have become. Here, McQuarrie allows him to cut loose and play a different role, which he dives into with gusto.

McQuarrie manages to give everyone on the team their moment to shine, putting an emphasis on teamwork – something that was missing from some of the previous installments. In particular, it is great to see Ving Rhames given so much to do where in the past it felt like he was marginalized at times. Simon Pegg even gets in on the action, including a crucial part in the movie’s nerve-shredding three-way finale.

If Paula Patton’s tough IMF agent in Ghost Protocol (2011) marked a significant evolution in how female characters went from damsels in distress to throwing down just as hard as the men, then Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust – introduced in Rogue Nation – was even more advanced. Her character is clearly Ethan’s equal and with her own intriguingly enigmatic agenda. This continues in Fallout as initially we aren’t sure just whose side this MI6 agent is on and then once it becomes clear, her dilemma is just as personal as Ethan’s.

Tom Cruise always comes across as an otherworldly presence in interviews with his forced laugh and vague, stock answers that come from playing the fame game for so long, but in the Mission: Impossible movies, in particular this one, he appears completely comfortable as he’s played Ethan for so long that it has become second nature. This familiarity with the character and his relationships with the IMF team has never felt more natural. As a result, we care about what happens to them, which is crucial to Ethan’s central dilemma in Fallout: saving someone he loves versus saving the world. McQuarrie lets us think that we know more about Ethan’s past by the end of the movie without actually telling us anything that new – instead, shedding light on his inner life, which is summed up best towards the end when a battered Ethan is reunited with his team. The emotions that play over Cruise’s face are surprisingly moving.

With Ghost Protocol, Cruise upped his game on the stunt work with every subsequent installment having us wonder, what crazy stunt is he really going to do next? It is a wonderfully analog element in this digital age chock full of CGI heroics that we pretend happened but know in our hearts were created in a computer somewhere. McQuarrie is his partner in crime, using long takes and full body shots to show Cruise really jumping out of a plane at 25,000 feet and flying down the streets of Paris on a motorcycle at insane speeds only to get knocked off and thrown like a rag doll. How long can he keep this up? Who knows but for now it is a lot of fun to watch.

Is this the best Mission: Impossible movie yet as some claim? I don’t know. I have to see it a few more times and let it sink in before I can rank it up against the rest of the series but it is certainly right up there. McQuarrie has pulled off a deft cinematic trick with Fallout by making a standalone sequel. There is just enough exposition dialogue to clue newbies into who everyone is and their relationship to one another while judiciously sprinkling references to previous movies for fans in the know. He also sets up fascinating possibilities for the next Mission: Impossible movie should he choose to accept it.