Discussing the evolution of a blockbuster franchise series can sometimes be a difficult venture (that is, when it is worth dissecting). With some, it seems patently obvious: for example, Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil series developed over the course of its thirteen-year existence from straightforward, video-game inflected horror to totally artificial, digital constructions. Others are tied explicitly to commercial interests: the Marvel Cinematic Universe has remained resolutely within its narrative and formal wheelhouse even while it aims to present the veneer of change.
In this context, the Mission: Impossible films present a fairly unusual case. On the surface, it would seem to lack a single unifying creative voice, having switched out directors every single installment until the most recent two, with the motley crew of helmers counting in its club Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, and Brad Bird. One could then turn to the man at its center: Tom Cruise, whose continual acceleration of his tendencies towards potential self-destruction in order to achieve maximum visceral thrills is unparalleled in the modern Hollywood cinema. But that still doesn’t account for the overall series, which has rarely (if ever) veered outside of excellence, a continuity of quality. Furthermore, the specific manifestation of this quality varies from film to film, and up to this point from director to director.
Thus, what is perhaps most surprising about the latest installment in the series, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, is that it has maintained the same level of greatness while undertaking a radical change in the series’s style. Where the films up until this point were above all spy films, willing to sacrifice action sequences in favor of thrills delivered in a less overt – but just as flashy – manner, Fallout is an action film, delivering moment after moment after moment of truly astonishing, full-blown mayhem.
What makes this even more fascinating is that Christopher McQuarrie, director of both this and the previous Rogue Nation (itself perhaps the platonic ideal of the Mission: Impossible series to date), manages to accomplish this feat while welding it firmly to the sleekness and genuinely fun spirit of the movie’s predecessors. Thus, extravagantly extended motorcycle chases flow seamlessly into taut scenes of plotting and bathroom brawls seem of a piece with plot reversals (which come in tandem with the series’s trademark face mask pulls).
To complicate things further, the plot of Fallout is the one most closely tied to the previous films yet. Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is summoned to intercept a cache of plutonium intended for the terrorist group known as the Apostles, a cabal formed of former international secret agents that belonged to the Syndicate, whose leader Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) was captured by Ethan at the end of the previous film. When Ethan loses the radioactive material in the process of saving his crew’s life, he is tasked with recovering it, an operation which finds him numerous friends and foes, both old and new, including MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson, returning from the previous film) and CIA operative August Walker (Henry Cavill).
One of the many enormous benefits that Fallout has over its contemporaries in American blockbuster filmmaking is that it puts equal care into more or less every single aspect of its production. To name just one example, the twists – and there are many – land with a genuine sense of pleasure because they interface so well with expectations set forth by both generic and series standards, coming at just the right moment in order to feel both a little surprising and thoroughly logical. Similarly, the emotional beats derive power from an astute attention to the actors as they function in their quieter moments, allowing these scenes as much space as the fine-tuned chaos that surrounds them.
And of course, those action setpieces. The series has always done a stellar job of marketing Cruise’s death-defying gambits, and this time is no different. What has changed is the pacing of these enormous moments: the film quite literally goes directly from a HALO jump (conveyed in less than five shots) to a three-way fist fight in a bathroom to a melee among numerous assailants in the crowd. By the time Fallout reaches its extended helicopter climax, one would normally be gasping for air. Yet the Mission: Impossible series sense of elegance, of taking pleasure and genuine interest in its heroes and villains, is always paramount, and this delight is transferred so lovingly towards its audience. Fallout may very well be as great, as utterly anomalously spectacular, as its reputation already suggests.