Mission: Impossible – Fallout marks the first time a Mission: Impossible director has returned to direct a follow-up installment, though writer/director Christopher McQuarrie has been a major contributor to this series as far back as Ghost Protocol, on which he served as writer. Recognizing that this film series was originally intended to function as a kind of director showcase, McQuarrie decided to vary his stylistic approach for Fallout. While the preceding two entries were characterized by a kind of bouncy energy, for Fallout, McQuarrie has decided to borrow the aesthetic of Christopher Nolan’s blockbusters.
McQuarrie is a better craftsman on a nuts-and-bolts level than Nolan; McQuarrie’s action sequences have a clarity and meticulousness that has always eluded the latter. Still, Fallout so often lacks the vividness and force of an actual Nolan blockbuster. The script and production design and cinematography and score blatantly evoke the work of Nolan’s collaborators–there are too many nods to the Nolan Batman films to count, including a League of Shadows-y cabal of villains calling themselves “The Apostles,” and a climax set in the icy mountains of Asia that recalls the icy vistas of Batman Begins–without capturing its force and scope, often reducing sequences to a pervasive brownish-grayishness backed by a numbing score. There’s still a sense of proper spectacle here (among other things, Fallout makes better use of prominent world landmarks than any of the recent Bond films), but the imitation-Nolan lacquer deadens the material.
Indeed, the textures and structures of Nolan’s films, messy and frustrating though they often are, extend from conviction. Nolan constructs grandiose, blunt-force expressions of his own secular mysticism, for which humanity’s transcendence (or failure to attain it) is always the greatest concern. The only transcendence with which Fallout is concerned is the transcendence of Tom Cruise.
The series has always been, to one extent or another, about Cruise himself, but it was only two films prior, on Ghost Protocol, that Cruise’s Ethan Hunt character truly found his groove. There, Hunt was formed into a charismatic cipher, a monastic hero driven by sheer will and determination. It’s an effective angle, but it offers little room for development; its sequel, Rogue Nation, didn’t really develop the idea as much as it forcefully reiterated it. Fallout does the same, but misguidedly tries to mine Hunt’s internal life for drama, punctuating the film with Hunt’s bland nightmares and monotonous speeches about why Hunt does what he does. Hunt is a thin avatar, and the character can’t (and shouldn’t be forced to) sustain this kind of inquiry. His headspace will never be as interesting as his feats of strength.
Those feats are certainly impressive, and Fallout‘s most satisfying, focused stretch begins with an all-timer: a breathtaking HALO jump that one-ups the memorable aerial sequence from Moonraker. From there, the film settles into a tense groove, becoming, for the next few scenes, a vicious and taut thriller that echoes the John Wick films while surpassing them in lushness and narrative intrigue. It’s no coincidence that this satisfying stretch of the film foregrounds Henry Cavill and Vanessa Kirby, both of whom have much more vivid and compelling relationships with Cruise’s Hunt than any of the series’ returning ensemble.
As with McQuarrie’s prior Mission: Impossible feature, Rogue Nation, Fallout loses its way the more it tries to integrate narrative tissue and characters from the prior films. This series has never been narratively satisfying enough to merit the construction of a true series mythology, and the more characters are added into the mix, the more it seems that these characters are saddled with uninspiring material while Hunt gets to do the truly showstopping stuff. (This becomes a significant issue during Fallout‘s helicopter climax, which fails to build momentum because of the constant cutting back to the rest of the ensemble, none of whom are doing anything anywhere near as interesting.)
To its credit, Fallout does seem to recognize that it is the conclusion of a certain trajectory, though it naturally leaves the door wide open for more shenanigans. With any luck, whoever directs the next one will bring the frisson of personal vision back to the series; it has been absent since John Woo directed his installment, and I miss it.