The sixth Mission: Impossible film is already regarded as one of the very best: but why does it work so well? A few thoughts right here.
Given the stature and prowess of the Mission Impossible franchise, the sixth movie was never likely to bring the curtain down on this series, but had Mission: Impossible – Fallout been the swansong for Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt, it would quite honestly have worked as a perfect way to bow out.
Everything about Fallout has the sense of an ending. Christopher McQuarrie’s second film as writer/director does numerous things. It fully transforms Mission Impossible, in its twilight years, into his personal baby, on which he stamps his mark in a way not seen since Brian De Palma’s original 1996 adaptation of the 1960s original TV show. Fallout is not just a direct sequel to Rogue Nation, despite being the first Mission Impossible film to pick up where the previous one left off, but it also works to tie together from a storytelling perspective every film from Mission Impossible III onwards, while thematically reaching back to John Woo’s derided Mission Impossible II.
It teaches a film like James Bond movie Spectre, which retroactively attempted to link Daniel Craig’s 007 into a string of continuity, how it’s done.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout might just also boast some of the most intense, robust and powerful sequences of the entire franchise. This is doubly surprising given just how much of it doesn’t even feel like a Mission Impossible film at all, certainly in terms of what we’ve seen before. Fallout is without a doubt the most Christopher Nolan movie you will ever watch that wasn’t directed by Christopher Nolan.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout is a natural evolution of all the ideas McQuarrie was playing with in Rogue Nation. That feels retrospectively having seen Fallout like McQuarrie attempting to make a Mission Impossible film he feels the masses would want, while Fallout feels like a Mission Impossible film he wanted to make, and had the freedom to pursue in the wake of the franchise’s continued success. This could not have been made before Rogue Nation. That film needed to establish numerous concepts, relationships and formative ideas which McQuarrie develops in Fallout and takes to the absolute max. Principally, he continues the deconstruction of both the IMF and Ethan Hunt and their place as legendary pieces of American culture.
McQuarrie talked during promoting Rogue Nation how he sought to bring out a level of villainy and duality akin to what Nolan did with The Joker in The Dark Knight, and he really goes for broke with these comparisons in Fallout. It’s like Nolan ghost-directed the film, for all the ways McQuarrie channels his style of long-form, intense narrative sequences punctuated by moments of dark levity, while draping over a score from Lorne Balfe—a student of Nolan regular Hans Zimmer—which strips away the jaunty Lalo Schifrin derring do Michael Giacchino and Joe Kraemer in particular channelled in the previous three films and replaces it with an ominous, brooding, synthetic storm of sound. It fits Fallout perfectly.
Quite how Mission: Impossible – Fallout gets away with eschewing many of the Mission Impossible tropes is really quite something. You can pitch every previous film in this franchise around a key set piece – De Palma’s original with the Langley break in, MI2 with the Biocyte heist, MI3 the Vatican City/Rome sequence, Ghost Protocol the protracted Dubai set piece, and Rogue Nation perhaps the Vienna Opera House moment. Each one of those films has the ‘impossible mission’ which Ethan and his team, at some stage, have to overcome in order to get them closer to stopping the villain. Fallout has no such sequence because the entire film is the impossible mission. From the very beginning, Ethan and the IMF are facing odds that feel greater and yet oddly more personal than any of the films since MI3. Fallout invites you not to take a breath for two plus hours and largely succeeds.
Rogue Nation established the idea that Ethan and the IMF had a dark reflection in the form of the Syndicate, a ‘nation’ of intelligence operatives left for dead by their governments, who were now working to destroy the world order that created them. If they were the ‘anti-IMF’, then their leader Solomon Lane was the ‘anti-Ethan Hunt’; a British intelligence agent disavowed by MI6, who subsequently became the kind of Machiavellian master spy Ethan over the years has become, except on the side of darkness. Ethan spent the entirety of Rogue Nation proving his virtue as a protector of democracy in the eyes of an American government, in the form of the CIA represented by Alec Baldwin’s hawkish director Hunley, who considered his skills and propensity to solve problems with his own initiative a danger to their rules, regulations and control. It seemed like he had done just that, especially in convincing Hunley he was no threat, but this was just part one of the bigger idea McQuarrie had in play.
Namely that Ethan is a man at breaking point. This plays into the idea in Rogue Nation that his mental health was a concern, given how relentlessly Ethan throws himself into the jaws of death to take down Lane and the Syndicate, because Mission: Impossible – Fallout posits that he could become Lane unless he is tempered by the CIA, by those larger government forces presented in the granite form of Henry Cavill’s Agent Walker – a moustachioed, monolithic ‘company man’ who only cares, like his boss, Angela Bassett’s CIA Director Sloan, about the ‘bigger picture’. If people die to protect national security and American democracy, so be it. Walker is precisely the kind of agent the US government want Ethan to be, and the kind of agent Ethan would find impossible to become – mainly because he cannot put, to borrow a Star Trek parlance, the needs of the many before the few, or the one.
Much like in Rogue Nation, Ethan’s virtue is never in question with the audience in the way it is to the forces attempting to control him – nor to his loyal IMF friends Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames, who gets the most to do here since MI3). Could Ethan ever become Lane? No, and nor does McQuarrie really spend the film trying to convince us that he might, bar the odd flirtation of Ethan pretending to play the role of the arch villain. If anything, he wants to suggest the CIA are creating their own narrative when it comes to Ethan and the IMF, in the vein of the Trump administration of the time and the intelligence services fully indulging in ‘fake news’ to justify the growing fascism of the American state. They want to believe Ethan is the enemy and will do whatever they can to justify that position. Fallout might end up being the most politically overt Mission Impossible picture in just how angrily Sean Harris’ returning, raspy Lane and the mysterious zealot John Lark, outline their villainous philosophies.
Previously: Revisiting Brian De Palma’s Mission Impossible
Previously: Revisiting John Woo’s Mission Impossible II
Previously: Revisiting J.J. Abrams’ Mission Impossible III
Previously: Revisiting Brad Bird’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Previously: Revisiting Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
One aspect that never felt truly defined in Rogue Nation was quite what Lane wanted from the Syndicate, beyond a vague master plan to attack the ‘system’ which betrayed him. Fallout works to answer those lingering questions as Lane, and the Apostles that have risen out of the ashes of the Syndicate, fully embraces his rationale as an anti-capitalist zealot. Lane believes that the organisations, governments and establishments that Ethan protects with his morality (Lane spits that word at one point) are the real enemy, and that the Syndicate was created to redress the balance. “There cannot be peace without first, a great suffering” becomes a recurring justification by the zealots across Fallout, but it would be wrong to label them as revolutionaries.
If Lane resembled the Joker in Rogue Nation, here he functions more as Bane – trying to upturn the natural order while seething for vengeance. Mission: Impossible – Fallout itself being analogous to The Dark Knight Rises, in how it broadens and mythologises the scope of its series, is equally as apt – not to mention how it plays with the threat of nuclear armageddon, and stopping the countdown of a devastating weapon going off in an act of nihilistic self-sacrifice, come the climax. It again asks the same question that Rogue Nation did – who are the real bad guys? The stooges like Lane who worked to corrupt and decimate the system which created them, or the system itself? Fallout suggests the answer, quite honestly, could be both.
McQuarrie even attempts to sneak some fundamentalism into their rationale, given the pre-credits fake out conducted by Ethan and his team suggests the Apostles use the missing plutonium cores he spends the movie looking to recover to bomb Rome, Jerusalem and Mecca, the heartland of the three major religions still globally active: Christianity, Judaism & Islam. The Apostles as a concept is never really explored beyond this, as they just turn out to be relatively faceless henchmen in the way the Syndicate were, but in suggesting these zealots believe only by attacking all three of these religions will they unite in common purpose against state government control is quite a daring idea to slip into such a mainstream blockbuster. You almost wish Fallout had the guts to go even further with these religious connotations than it does.
It certainly taps once again into mythology, given Ethan is gifted his iconic set of ‘your mission should you choose to accept it…’ instructions inside a copy of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’. Recall how in MI2, the twin bio-weapons Ethan must try and recover were named Chimera and Bellerophon from Homer’s ‘The Iliad’, to which ‘The Odyssey’ is a sequel – like Fallout to MI2. The original poem, concerning Odysseus’ ten year voyage home after the fall of Troy, was obviously a conscious choice by McQuarrie to suggest a similar journey for Ethan. It is interesting how John Woo’s film worked so hard, and largely failed, at framing Ethan in the context of a classical, mythic American hero through connotations to Greek myth, when Fallout—and before it Rogue Nation—manages to make Ethan this heroic figure by virtue of his natural struggle.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout’s ultimate message ends up being the same one, essentially, that Hunley learns at the end of Rogue Nation – that we need Ethan, and the IMF, in a world filled with dangerous extremists looking to tear down society as we know it. Mission Impossible, however, works to keep these villains far more comic-book and hyper-real than intelligence services in our world, so while Fallout may have a Nolan-esque brooding intensity running through its veins, the universe it inhabits remains much more James Bond than Jason Bourne. While some of the humour and much of the colour is stripped away in Fallout, the glamour remains – take Vanessa Kirby’s White Widow and her elegant, dangerous Parisian surroundings. Ethan still operates in a comic-book world and is, in that context, as much as superhero as anyone in a costume or mask from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It’s interesting that McQuarrie also understands he operates in a superheroic context, if he doesn’t consider it in the same terms:
Ethan isn’t a superhero, but he’s imbued with superpower provided by technology. I know I can’t be Thor or Captain Marvel, but if you gave me the invisibility screen I could be Ethan Hunt. In every movie he has a new power – in the first film he levitates, in Brad’s film he’s Spider-Man, in Rogue Nation he’s Aquaman – but in every instance it’s just this side of real. I think that’s a big part of it.
A comparable franchise to an extent is the Fast & Furious series, certainly in terms of how the movies have improved over the years as they have embraced much more of an overt, Mission Impossible-style espionage aesthetic. Characters such as Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto or The Rock’s Agent Hobbs have become superheroes themselves, capable of inhuman feats of strength and endurance often utilising powerful, masculine machinery, but there is a difference. There is something iconic about Tom Cruise and Ethan Hunt in the manner Diesel & Toretto, who operate in similar functional roles as the head of a team (or ‘family’ as Fast & Furious often reminds us), cannot reach. Mission Impossible doesn’t have the intentional showmanship of Fast & Furious, which likes the showboat its superhero theatrics much more. Ethan’s feel more earned over the course of his own, often tortured odyssey across these last two decades.
What Mission: Impossible – Fallout tells us is that the days of superheroes are not over, and that we need people like Ethan to fight for moral decency against the growing forces of darkness. It’s the same message Skyfall and Spectre gave us with Bond (if less about the morality), that Nolan gave us in The Dark Knight trilogy, or in the less successful Jason Bourne revival from 2016. It also taps into why perhaps the superhero genre, and the MCU in particular, has been so successful over the last decade or more. In a world where people no longer believe in the institutions designed to keep them safe and look out for their best interests, where do they turn? They look for heroes. They look for people who can, as Julia says to Ethan here, allow them to sleep soundly at night because they’re out there sacrificing themselves. Ethan becomes by the end of Fallout as mythic, as folkloric an American superhero as Batman, or the British have with Bond. He becomes immortal.
Yet at the same time, McQuarrie flashes a grin toward the burgeoning trend for brooding action stars and characters which imbue pictures that are decidedly mythic in structure, such as the Cold War-introspection of Atomic Blonde or, particularly, the cultured vengeance saga of John Wick. You can’t tell me that ‘John Lark’ isn’t a direct nod and a wink toward Keanu Reeves’ already legendary assassin, whose name people speak in hushed terms. The Parisian club scene, as Ethan is besieged by random assassins while trying to protect the White Widow, very much suggests the kind of wanton, nihilistic fury we see in the John Wick series, and certainly the same intensity. McQ is clearly of the mind Wick and his particular brand of anti-heroism is the way forward for action cinema, as opposed to the skyrocketing excess of Fast & Furious. The fact Fallout strips away a lot of its own cartoonish theatrics only adds to that.
That’s not to say it doesn’t indulge in aspects of Mission Impossible we know and love. Benji at one point, almost in a nod to Tomorrow Never Dies, produces a remote-control driven car. There are also numerous call backs to the film McQuarrie has consistently been looking to try and recapture – De Palma’s 1996 original. The opening scene, in which Ethan tricks a scientist by bringing him into a studio environment, is extremely similar to the staged theatrics De Palma opens his original movie with, the only difference being that we’re not immediately in on the dupe as we were in de Palma’s movie. The White Widow being the daughter of Max, the playful arms dealer from the original movie, is also a subtle but fun call back, which gives Kirby the chance to deploy a spectacularly good voice imitation of Vanessa Redgrave. Fallout is acutely aware of its own history and works to embrace it while pushing into new territory.
As I said at the beginning, Mission: Impossible – Fallout could have served as a natural conclusion to this era of Mission Impossible, if everyone had chosen to down tools and hand the baton over. McQuarrie works hard to stitch together everything from the previous films and allow for aspects of closure – chiefly in Ethan’s relationship with his wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan), who after MI3 offered Ethan a happy ending sailing off into the sunset, only briefly appeared in Ghost Protocol and didn’t even warrant a mention, strangely, in Rogue Nation. McQ rectifies that by placing Julia front and centre inside Ethan’s psychology because she is precisely the reason he cannot put one life ahead of the greater good – ever since he sacrificed his happiness to protect Julia, by not having a life with her, Ethan has worked to both save the world and protect the people in his life he cares about.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout more concisely offers up Rebecca Ferguson’s returning Ilsa Faust as, potentially, the like-minded woman who understands the same kind of mythic sacrifice Ethan has devoted his life towards. Ferguson doesn’t quite break out as Ilsa in quite as magnetic a fashion in Fallout, simply because she serves as much more of a broader ensemble while remaining key to Ethan’s psychology, but she is an important representation of that duality in the female which McQuarrie draws. If Ilsa is the darkness, a woman corrupted by her Faustian pact with either Lane or British intelligence, then Julia is very much the angelic, pure virtuous figure in contrast; she’s even a humanitarian now in devastated foreign climes, married to a horrendously smug do-gooder of a doctor (sorry, Wes Bentley), and in essence serves as less of a character and more a holy aspect. It does, at least, allow Ethan the chance to move on by the end.
The question now to consider really is where Mission Impossible moves on to. Though time will bear out whether Fallout is the zenith of the franchise, as some are suggesting, there is no question Fallout represents some level of a storytelling bar in terms of scope and intensity. It represents probably the most significant reimagining of what Mission Impossible can be since MI3 picked up the baton from MI2, which itself transformed the concept for its own ends. Fallout and Rogue Nation, as a pairing, serve as an evolution and deconstruction of the original de Palma movie, and of the concept itself, before reconstructing Mission Impossible as a franchise with the kind of powerful heft and gravitas that belies its pulpy, 60’s roots. You wonder how they could go back to the kind of pictures they were making before after this. By all accounts, Dead Reckoning Part One looks to be following strongly in its footsteps.
Whatever the case, Mission Impossible has constructed its own legend as perhaps the most durable and consistently entertaining action franchise in modern cinema precisely because it is unafraid to challenge perceptions of what it can be, and Tom Cruise likely will remain instrumental in whatever shape it takes beyond the next two pictures. Ethan Hunt is immortal now, after all. What would we do without him?
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