The Mission Impossible film franchise has been around longer than some of my friends have been alive. Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has evolved from a run-and-gun spy with generic action tendencies into a complicated spy-guy whose sidekicks fill out a thrilling world with a forever unstable political landscape. But in a time (again, more than 20 years after the first film’s inception and more than 50 years after the TV show’s debut) I suppose the question is “What’s the mission and why is it still so impossible?” This isn’t meant as a quick quip; it’s a genuine question.
1996 gave Brian De Palma his chance to re-invent the series, and by extension Cruise, in his own image. If you haven’t given it a re-watch recently, it is both rewardly and annoyingly the most De Palma thing imaginable. You can see the fingerprints of the guy who made The Untouchables smudged with the prints of the guy who made Scarface — all while trying to give more big chase sequences to that one dude from The Firm.
That film is fine. It did very well at the box office but it is, in retrospect, fine. What happens from here is what makes the franchise an institution.
In 2000, the sequel falls to John Woo, who makes the most 2000 movie imaginable by having Limp Bizkit remake the theme song and making Thandie Newton the love interest. This is, uh… not the best entry, but it did show how little consistency the series required. This is of particular interest, in terms of what it means to the genre itself.
Everything about Mission Impossible and the adventures of the IMF knows that it is indebted to James Bond and his various escapades. But the Bond IP is rigidly maintained by the controlling estate. James Bond cannot deviate more than a few degrees beyond what the namesake has established. By contrast, Ethan Hunt is all over the damn place. High-brow art and some of the greatest stunts ever committed to film exist alongside Ving Rhames wearing various hats while Limp Bizkit plays. Sorry, sometimes it is difficult to get past Fred Durst doin’ raps over a Wes Borland interpretation of a TV show theme from the 60s. Why yes, I did own more than one copy of this soundtrack in high school. Why do you ask?
The ability to hand off the property director by director, and invite the most interesting interpretation of the current cinematic period, is matched only by the whole villain situation. Just as the concept of visualizing action and tension can change drastically over a course of mere years, the concepts that are considered threatening also evolve and adapt. The first film has a very American sense of scale and scope, whereas the second film involves a terrorist whose bio-weapon is meant to threaten the entire world. In 2000, it seemed more important to scare everyone equally than what would come in 2006, when Philip Seymour Hoffman’s brutal arms dealer character would be more reactionary to the policies that America had inflicted on the world post 9/11. And all the movies since have really focused on the evil of American military bureaucracy in forms that only Alec Baldwin’s face could truly manifest.
These aren’t close reads and there isn’t a sweeping thesis on this ebb and flow. It’s meant to highlight that Mission Impossible’s best attribute is often pairing a great villain to a great sense of style, and the freedom that the series has experienced has allowed it to reflect both everything that the world wants to see and everything that the world does not want to see in equal measure.
So then we have Mission Impossible: Fallout. It exists as a departure from a series based on departures, while also hammering home all the elements that MI needs to sell in order to do five more outings.
Fallout begins with Ethan Hunt marrying Julia (Michelle Monaghan) who has been his long-term girlfriend in the series. Then they get blown up by a nuclear bomb. Surprise, y’all just got dream sequenced! This is not the last dream sequence fake-out in the film, but these are absolutely new for the series, and oh wow do I hate it. Trick me with a prosthetic mask or whathaveyou; don’t just lie to me. From here, a solid five minutes of exposition is just read to us, establishing that since Hunt captured the bad guy from the last movie, his terrorist network got bigger and badder and now they have nukes. They want to spring their leader (Sean Harris) and nuke some cities because, and I’m not kidding you, their plan to bring about world peace is the same as Ozymandias’ from Watchmen. A division between the CIA and the IMF means that big dumb American brawler August Walker (Henry Cavill) must join the mission as Hunt’s babysitter.
What follows is an annoyingly standard spy tale, broken up by Mission Impossible’s signature ungodly action sequences. Tom Cruise does all of his own stunts, but almost more impressively Tom Cruise does all of his own distance running. Because he spends the entire film running. Seemingly in an effort to prove that he can outrun even the idea of himself. Sean Harris’ villain aims for Hannibal Lecter and instead comes off as just… quiet, I suppose? Henry Cavill proves he’s not just Superman by punching through walls and men… okay, that’s not as effective as he probably hoped. Maybe that’s a one trick pony.
Anyhowdy, you’ve got Ving Rhames in more hats and Simon Pegg gets in seven or so Simon Peggian lines, and more than one helicopter explodes. It’s fine. It’s not “the next Fury Road” as one terribly misguided film critic was trying to sell it. It’s not even as tense as, well, maybe any of the other films. And I did joke in the theater that the number of unnecessary lens flares would make J.J. Abrams proud — until I saw that J.J. Abrams was indeed the film’s producer. Christopher McQuarrie directs, and after his work on Edge of Tomorrow, this just feels beneath all involved. Not that it is bad by any stretch of the word, but nothing about Fallout speaks to the sum of its many talented parts.
What is fascinating and worth discussing is, surprisingly, the aging of Tom Cruise. Cruise himself finally looks closer to his age here, and it fits the part, because Fallout is also about the fallout of your life choices. The subplot with Michelle Monaghan takes up so little of the film, but it can be felt in every character choice. The gist is that these two characters did get married, but that Ethan Hunt is, truly, a guy who has to be available to save the world, because he’s actively saved the world as an individual, like, a dozen times? So when he was at home trying to be a good husband, they were both actively aware it meant putting the rest of the world in danger.
They separate, but it is impossible for either of them to lead a normal human life, because he cannot forgive himself for letting her down and she is in constant danger of being kidnapped or killed by the sort of super-villains that take on Ethan Hunt. Out of nowhere, Fallout does weird dips into this complicated story of personal development, mistakes, forgiveness, loss, and what it means to grow up when you’re already a grown-up.
I’m way more interested in all of that than in watching Tom Cruise skydive into an art gallery and punch a dude.
So what mission are we trying to resolve at this point in the series? Fallout dares to put forward that Ethan Hunt is responsible for just as much resolution as destruction in the world, but that on an individual scale with the people he loves, there’s a much more complicated series of bombs he must defuse. And that means we’ve entered a shift that started around the third film: the impossible mission is solving Ethan Hunt, and perhaps that is as big a threat to the rest of the world as any nuke or bio-weapon. Any one individual with the amount of power that he has to alter world events should probably know that his heart is in the right place before he blows up another secret bad guy base.