Just as James Brown was once known as the hardest working man in show business, Mission Impossible: Fallout, written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, feels like the hardest working blockbuster in Hollywood. It’s simply the most. It has the biggest stunts, the most extravagant sets, the most glamorous movie stars, and the twistiest twists; you really feel like you’re getting your money’s worth. If Tom Cruise ever dies (yes, “if”), you imagine it would be on set, in the middle of some stunt atop the Petronas Towers, his lil’ heart finally unable to match his lil’ legs’ commitment. Giving his life to this franchise would be the only fitting end to his career.
Cruise is the perfect star for this film, a guy whose battles with alien spirits in his mind seem to give him the confidence to dangle from helicopters in real life. You kind of have to hand it to him. Likewise, Fallout is so perfectly “blockbuster” that you can’t help but chuckle in admiration. Based on sheer laugh volume, it might be the best comedy of the Summer. It’s not that you’re laughing at the movie, in fact it’s almost the opposite. You go in with a fairly accurate pre-conceived notion of what it’s going to be like, and it turns out to be so perfectly that that it’s somehow surprising. You’re not giggling because it breaks character, you’re giggling because it’s so insanely in character.
Cruise plays agent Ethan Hunt of the IMF (Impossible Missions Force). Hunt keeps having flashbacks of his wedding to his estranged wife (Michelle Monaghan) in some preposterously picturesque lake in the Alps, that quickly turn into nightmares about the global anarchist (!) he put away (“Solomon Lane,” played by Sean Harris, the gay assassin from The Borgias) who apparently wants to kill her. But Hunt had better stay focused on the present, because he’s also trying to stop Lane’s group of anarchists, The Apostles, from acquiring plutonium cores from a shadowy broker named “John Lark,” who, with the help of a sexy arms merchant named White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), are going to spring Lane, employ a rogue Norwegian rocket scientist, infiltrate global governments, and blow things up with nuclear weapons or something. Phew!
In order to stop this, Ethan Hunt has to jump out of a plane; drive a motorcycle, a BMW, a European moving truck, a boat, and a helicopter; and run, jump, fall, shoot, tumble, climb, and parkour, all while bantering with his sidekicks (Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg), fending off a rival agent (a burly CIA man played by hunky Henry Cavill) and being the love ideal of three different beautiful women (Monaghan, Kirby, and MI 6 agent Ilsa Faust, played by Rebecca Ferguson).
Is that a lot for one movie? Oh God yes. Does it take too long to resolve it all? Indubitably. But you don’t really need to understand who everyone is or why they’re double-crossing each other (or triple, or quadruple), because it’s excess itself that’s the point. Fallout doesn’t have a coherent story so much as an impeccable sense of comedic timing. Just when you think the action is the most death-defying it could possibly be, in the most exotic locale, it goes three levels more. There’s a Kashmir-set helicopter duel sequence near the end that’s basically the Baba Booey of action sequences. It’s funny, then it’s silly, then it’s dumb, and then it comes all the way back to being amazing again. You kind of have to hand it to them.
Of course, none of this would work nearly so well if the action wasn’t well-staged, and Fallout is legitimately one of the best combinations of choreography, stunts, FX, and cinematography I’ve ever seen. There’s a fight in a bathroom that had me giggling so hard I had to cover my mouth. Not because it was silly, but because it was so over-the-top brutal. Everything looked like it would really hurt, and not because it was “gritty,” or even especially realistic. My rational brain knows porcelain doesn’t really shatter like that, but the point isn’t literal realism. McQuarrie’s action isn’t the best because it’s the fastest or the thumpiest (though it’s certainly fast and thumpy), it’s the best because he never forgets he’s telling a story. The actors always have a motivation, as clear in a cacophonous fight as it is in a quiet love scene.
Likewise, it’s not all excess and great hair that make Fallout work (though everyone’s hair does looks incredible). It also has a genuine moral center. In the midst of a nearly incomprehensibly convoluted plot, it drives home one idea above all: that Ethan Hunt is the hero because he cares about collateral damage. He’s the hero because he refuses to sacrifice one or two lives for the good of the many.
I know, it’s not exactly a revolutionary thought, that a hero should care about every life. In a different time and place it would already be hopelessly cliché. But for a long time the trend has gone in the opposite direction. Towards heroes who were “tough” because they had precisely the emotional detachment that could allow lesser people to die for a greater good. Starting in the Bush years, this was an aspect of almost every action protagonist, from Jack Bauer in 24 to superheroes who threw each other through buildings without apparent thought as to who was inside. Josh Brolin’s character in Sicario 2 kills a “terrorist’s” entire family in one of the first scenes — though in that case the filmmakers’ defense would surely be that they weren’t trying to glorify his character (which I don’t believe for a second).
Pop culture is more a reflection of political trends than a driver, but it’s never fun to watch the most unexamined aspects of the zeitgeist simply regurgitated with flashy effects. And this trend in television and movies mirrors policy. A recent piece in Rolling Stone notes that US drones killed 1,147 people while targeting 41 terrorists. In other attacks on 14 men, they killed 142 children. That civilian casualties are acceptable in the service of killing “bad guys” is something so take for granted, both onscreen and in life, that it hardly warrants debate anymore. Just two days ago the LAPD killed an innocent bystander firing into a crowd. These ideas are far from the only thing that matter, but they do matter.
Ethan Hunt caring about killing a cop or a kid isn’t going to change any of that, but it’s nice to see art that offers hope, that doesn’t treat indiscriminate murder with a shrug. And the palpable earnestness of this sentiment is a nice complement to a big, ridiculous, hilarious bubblegum action movie. We always want the “good guy” to win, but it’s refreshing when someone puts a little thought into what being a good guy actually means. Mission Impossible: Fallout is not a triumph of literal realism, orderly plotting, or restraint, but it’s proof that thoughtful execution, comedic timing, and a true moral center count for much more.