In the last three decades, the Mission: Impossible franchise has become the most consistent action series, and that’s thanks mostly to Tom Cruise. With these six films, Cruise has cemented himself as one of the last true Hollywood stars. Cruise isn’t just content with making a great action franchise, he’s determined to make an everlasting piece of entertainment. Cruise never half-asses a single moment in this franchise, risking life and limb for the sake of keeping the audience in awe, the lengths of which haven’t been seen since the silent films stars like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.
While this franchise has always maintained an almost serialized quality, under McQuarrie’s direction, Mission: Impossible – Fallout also feels like the culmination and payoff of the five films that came before it. McQuarrie – who also wrote Fallout – utilizes Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and M:I’s particular set of skills in a way that feels grounded in what we already know of Hunt, and taking advantage of details gleamed from the past films. For example, McQuarrie plays with the way the IMF gathered information from prisoners in Mission: Impossible, reintegrates Hunt’s ex-wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) as a key part of Hunt’s story, and follows up on the newer characters and Syndicate story that were introduced in the last two films. Even Hunt’s penchant for rock climbing in M:I II serves a purpose here. McQuarrie mines these past five films in a way that doesn’t feel like he’s borrowing for his own film, but rather paying off the last 22 years of information we’ve gathered from this series.
As the first person to direct two films in this series, McQuarrie’s Fallout wastes no time continuing the threads he started in Rogue Nation. When we last saw Hunt and his IMF team, they had captured Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the head of an anarchist terrorist group, which in Fallout have renamed themselves The Apostles. Their mission is to bring the world together through chaos, which they plan on doing by obtaining plutonium and setting off multiple nuclear attacks around the world.
In a mission gone wrong, Hunt decides to save the life of Luther (Ving Rhames), which allows The Apostles to get their hands on the plutonium. As IMF director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) puts it, Hunt’s desire to save the individual causes him to forget the larger stakes at hand. While Hunley sees this as what makes Hunt a unique hero, the CIA sees it differently. Agent Walker (Henry Cavill) has been placed with Hunt’s crew to make sure their mission to retrieve the plutonium goes as planned. CIA leader Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett) states that if Hunt is a scalpel when it comes to operations, Walker is a hammer. Hunt’s mission is to recapture the plutonium, make sure Walker doesn’t interrupt IMF’s way of doing things, and also make sure MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) doesn’t get in the way with her own mission.
Returning to the franchise, McQuarrie has certainly grown behind the camera. With Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, he almost seemed content to piggyback on what Brad Bird had already set up with Ghost Protocol. Yet in his second M:I, McQuarrie brings a blunt brutality that he achieved in Jack Reacher that makes this far more dangerous that any other film in the series, and as a writer, creates a stronger arc for Hunt than any previous M:I. Every action sequence has a sense of fear unlike this franchise has seen before, and McQuarrie’s intensity in these sequences creates an uncertainty as to the safety of these characters. The instantly meme-able bathroom fight involving Walker and Hunt makes the audience feel the painful impact of every punch and every time a body destroys another bathroom fixture.
In this sequence, McQuarrie shows Hunt’s weaknesses as well. He’s not as fast or strong as he once was. But in seeing where Hunt’s faults lie, we also see his strengths, the way he can act on his feet or think three steps ahead of his enemies. McQuarrie also knows how to find the strengths of all these characters and the actors portraying them to make them pop in a way they haven’t before. The aforementioned bathroom sequence proves Cavill is an action star in a way that DC has tried and failed for years. But everyone in the cast feels improved from how we’ve seen them before. Simon Pegg’s Benji is funnier, Luther’s bond with Ethan has more resonance, and Lane is far more dastardly than in the previous film. Everyone is at the top of their game – even if just a slight improvement from the past – and it shows.
McQuarrie leaves a sense of unease in every sequence of Fallout, whether it’s a tough decision that Hunt has to make on the fly, or a particularly tense action scene that seems, well, impossible. In Mission: Impossible’s past, Hunt has always worn the white hat, but in Fallout, Hunt often has to play in the gray for the first time. One of Fallout’s major through lines is asking whether or not Hunt is willing to sacrifice others for the greater good, and considering this series has always put Hunt in the path of the righteous, it can be a difficult line to watch Hunt play. This fear and dread is especially in play in Fallout’s final action sequence – the finest action set piece in a serious full of phenomenal action. The way McQuarrie builds tension onto existing tension is masterful and cements himself as one of the great action directors.
It’s no wonder that Cruise has liberally thrown in references to other great films throughout the M:I series. Hunt has been seen wearing Cary Grant’s North By Northwest, and Rogue Nation introduced Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa – named after Ingrid Bergman’s character in Casablanca – before the IMF team actually went to Casablanca. Even in Fallout, the entire second act seems structured as an elaborate homage to the France of Carol Reed’s The Third Man. It’s as if Cruise has been trying to make his own masterpiece, and paying homage to the greats that influenced M:I. With Fallout, Cruise and McQuarrie have made an action masterpiece, an instant classic in the genre that is nonstop exciting and staggering in its execution.