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The sixth film in the Mission: Impossible series, stars Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt, a spy who is given an impossible choice – save the life of a friend or risk the lives of millions. Hunt’s choice has ramifications for the entire world, as he chases a shipment of plutonium around the globe, attempting to intercept it before it reaches the hands of Solomon Lane, leader of the deadly Syndicate, captured by Hunt in the last film, but now free to wreak havoc once more.
There was a time, (some of you older readers may remember it), a time when if you were a film-maker who wanted to put something really spectacular on screen you had to just go do it. You want to see Gene Hackman chasing down some French dude and 80mph in the middle of New York City? Fine. Go do it (and they did). Want to see helicopters, flying at 150mph through Century City so they can attack a skyscraper full of European terrorists and Bruce Willis? Fine. Go do it. They laughably called this ‘shooting things practically’. That there was nothing practical to the average person about flying helicopters through a business district at night and that most of these things took nerves of steel and a shocking amount of inventiveness on the part of their stunt and effects teams should be noted.
Then, sometime around 1992, roughly as Alien 3 was hitting cinemas, things changed. Bluescreen was out as was practical shooting, it seemed. The age of CGI was upon us. You want spaceships hovering over every major city in the world? Fine. Six months of programming and software engineering and we can have that two minutes of film for you sir. You want a planet of blue bipedal aliens going to war against a corporate funded army of men in robot suits? 2 YEARS of programming and software engineering and we’ll have that movie for you sir.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s some amazing CGI out there. Lord of The Rings, The Matrix… Fight Club is still probably the best use of CGI to help tell a story that you will ever see and that was released in 1999. Envelopes have not just been pushed but torn up and burned. But somewhere we started to lose something, reaching it’s nadir with Avatar. To quote Simulacra and Simulation Baudrillard’s book that was one of the key influences on the theories behind the story of the Matrix), we were now living in the map, not the territory. We had supplicated the 3-D CGI version of spectacle for the truly immersive nature of movies that know how to put you inside their experience, to use the tools that were already there: Light, sound, camera, acting, direction. We know longer had film-makers and actors who were willing to just go DO IT.
But then, also in the mid-90’s, something else was happening. The actor, Tom Cruise had found a franchise in waiting called Mission: Impossible, based on a successful TV show that had ben a hit in the 60’s but was now largely forgotten. He had been instrumental in hiring Brian De Palma the modern master of suspense, to helm this fledgling franchise’s first outing and it had been a hit, a neat bridge to the 60’s cold-war trappings that had spawned it and the sci-fi tech that would litter the spy-movie genre for the next few decades. It featured one sequence of truly dangerous suspense that people still remember today, even if they can’t remember the movie it came from. It was a hit. It was followed up a couple of years later by a second movie, this one helmed by John Woo, and featured some frankly nonsensical slides into overblown melodrama, some great if thoroughly implausible motorbike stunts and one sequence of truly dangerous suspense (at the start of the movie!) and was hit but not critically adored. And you know what happened after that? Nothing. For six years. And for a while, it looked like Tom Cruise’s new franchise had pretty much met it’s own impossible mission: getting a third film into cinemas.
Then a strange thing happened. Instead of hiring a seasoned director who knew his way inside and out of movies, Cruise and his producers hired a man who had previously been involved a couple of successful TV shows and written a few movies, most notably Regarding Henry, a film where Harrison Ford learns to talk and love again after being shot in the head. That director was J.J. Abrams and the film he made with Cruise was Mission: Impossible III. This would mark a tuning point in the series. for one thing, it would take a leaf out of Bond’s book and hop all over the globe, from the States, to Italy to China. And this was the movie where Cruise’s ‘I’m gonna do the stunt’ thing started to hit a whole new level. We were finally going to get film-makers back who were willing to just go do it.
Two more films followed in the series, no longer willing to be just numbers on a list, they were known as Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation, titles that seem silly and somewhat 90’s but that immediately put you firmly in the arena of the TV episode, no bad thing as the movies plots themselves begun to rely on incidental details and recurring characters, just like a TV show. Simon Pegg for example had a couple of scenes in in M.I.: III and is now integral to the plot and action. And the stunts just got bigger. M:I III bounced Cruise of the side of a car and had him leaping a hole made by a explosive device, in the middle of a bridge and treated us to a helicopter shoot-out through a field of wind-turbines. Ghost Protocol (directed by Brad Bird, one the best story-tellers working in film today), blew up the Kremlin, featured a huge prison punch-up / escape sequence, oh and hung it’s leading man of the world’s tallest building and made him run around the outside of that building and then throw himself through a window, then followed it up by having him outrun a sandstorm. And then we hit Rogue Nation, a movie that started with a sequence where Cruise hung onto the side of an A400 military transport plane. The OUTSIDE of a military transport plane. As it took off. Again, I can only point out to you that’s how the movie began.
Which brings us to the latest in the series. Mission: Impossible – Fallout. This is series that from it’s third incarnation has only got better and better so it’s easy to think that by number six, it’s star might be beginning to wane a little. Luckily, this isn’t the case. The plot itself is fairly inconsequential. You’re never really interested in why they’re doing something, just how they’re going to do it. Suffice it to say that Hunt and his team are sent to retrieve a shipment of Plutonium that is then stolen by third party and put up for sale, leaving the M:I team to face the potential of world-changing terror on the open market and the prospect of the CIA sweeping in and taking over their operation, in the form of Angela Bassett and the wonderfully ‘tached, fist cocking Henry Cavill, here free of the moral weight of Superman and clearly loving every opportunity he gets to be a shit.
Here’s where it gets interesting, because the CIA has it’s own agenda, one they’re willing to sacrifice the M:I team to achieve, with Cavill’s August Walker sabotaging Hunt’s suit during a HALO jump over Paris. During a lighting storm. This reinforces the central theme of the film: Hunt’s inability to chose one life over millions and vice-versa, a theme that’s played out through nearly every action sequence in the film. I can’t overstate the importance of this a film-fan. I’ve seen nearly 3,000 movies, including a fair amount of action cinema and having the central themes of the movie be reinforced and re-stated by their action sequences is simply something you don’t see often. In this sequence, arguably one of the best stunts in the series, Cruise has to leap out of the plane (catching up to the unlucky cameraman whose already gone out the door), passing him, then catch up to Walker, whose been unlucky enough to get struck by lightning on the way down…
I won’t reveal the end of the sequence, because you don’t care about what happens, remember, just HOW it happens. We’re then moved into a more traditional spy-sequence of disguise and infiltration, something that longtime M:I fans will know never goes according to plan and sure enough, using elements we’ve seen in this series before, the technology the team are relying on to help them meet a broker who can get them the plutonium fails and they have to risk it sans rubber masks. This is put into perspective by Bassett’s CIA bigwig who describes the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) as Halloween early in the movie. It is Halloween. It is ludicrous. It’s theatre.
But theatre requires drama and so we move on to a sequence that reinforces the movie’s second theme. It’s suggested, though never clearly stated, that The White Widow (played for fun by The Crown’s Vanessa Kirby) is the child of Max, the arms dealer Cruise captured way back in the first movie. The past isn’t the past in these movies… It’s an ever-present, vaporous apparition, looming just out reach. This is something we’re reminded of again and again, most notably with the dream sequences that pepper the film (a first for the series!) and through the appearance of Michelle Monaghan’s Julie, Hunt’s wife in M:I – III.
Which brings us to Solomon Lane. Played with a realistic amount of whispy-voiced menace by the Sean Harris (one of the best UK actors working today in this reviewer’s opinion), Lane returns, a ghost from the past to haunt Ethan Hunt and with any luck, kill him. That millions will die in the process is just gravy to Lane, captured by the IMF in Rogue Nation and now seeking revenge and a new-world order to boot. Aided by the wonderfully named Ilsa Faust (also a Rogue Nation rerun once again brilliantly played by Rebecca Ferguson), Hunt finds himself in the unique position of having to aid the escape of a man he captured and who wants to kill him in order to get the plutonium. Again, this gives us a sequence that highlights the the film’s central theme and question: will Hunt sacrifice one life to save millions or better still, can engineer a plan with the rest of his team that will require no sacrifice of life at all?
Except perhaps, his own. You have to admire the sheer testicular fortitude of it all, a point proven when we get to the rooftop leap that broke Cruise’s ankle. With the footage captured on the day left in, we see that leap and in the screening I was at, the audience audibly gasped. You can’t blame them. Especially since that shot is followed up by one of Cruise limping away (another genuine moment) and then intercut with him limping slightly for the rest of the sequence (faked). The unreal feeds the real.
When we get to the finale, it’s also a clash of realities for Ethan. He meets Julie, his estranged wife, face to face for the first time in about a year and we can see Hunt having to entangle and disentangle his realities: The super-spy and the man who just wants to be with wife. There’s emotion packed into these scenes, especially since the other woman in his life, Faust, is looking on. Not that you have time to think about it. Before you know it, Ving Rhames’ excellent Luther is defusing a nuclear weapon as Simon Pegg’s entertaining Benji searches for Lane and a second nuclear device with Faust. Oh, and Hunt dangles off the bottom of a net that’s hanging from a helicopter as it takes off.
What’s great about the film’s finale is it puts everyone in danger and keeps you invested in all three points of action at all times, again never an easy feat in modern event cinema. It also takes a leaf out of the last movie’s brilliant decision to focus the final action down to much smaller level than you might expect. There’s genuine peril. You can feel it because you’re not being overwhelmed by visual effects or giant vehicles. The small moments matter, especially since sleight-of-hand plays such a part of the series and this film especially. You’re constantly being presented with the worst-case scenario, only to be given something else entirely. The film is a magic show of possibilities. I have to admit, I was expecting a sense of finality to proceedings but luckily, the film is open-ended enough to leave you wanting another, though I suspect Cruise might want to hang it up after a seventh movie especially as he’ll edging towards sixty years old by then.
It’s also worth mentioning that all of this is only Mission: Possible(!) because of the robust direction of Christopher McQuarrie, who in another series first makes a return after directing Rogue Nation and goes to great pains to make this film seem like it’s made by a completely new director, right down to hiring an entirely different main crew than that of the earlier film. His compositions and shot choices remain definitive and his sense of space and use of the sets is fantastic, as seen in the mirrored corridor scene. Also worth talking about is the superb score by Lorne Balfe, a protege of Hans Zimmer, who scored the second Mission: Impossible. The series is nothing without that wonderful main title! Tonally, this is a more emotionally solid Mission film that we’ve seen previously and is all the better for it. I’d even go so far as to say this is the best blockbuster of the summer, and that we need more like this. All it needs are movie-makers willing to go out there and do it.
I saw Mission: Impossible – Fallout at the Cineworld Imax Leicester Square, where Orbital will also be in attendance with it’s Ant Man & the Wasp pop-up shop, 3rd & 4th August. You can book tickets M:I – Fallout here or tickets for Ant-man here. The ticket was courtesy of Rich Johnson at Bleeding Cool. And if you love spy thrillers or action-orientated thrills, you may want to pick up comics like Global Frequency, Velvet, Queen & country and Atomic Blonde from Orbital now!