* * * *
In 1996, auteur Brian De Palma and superstar Tom Cruise teemed to deliver a franchise-birthing action movie that seems even more ripe, strange, bold and unlikely twenty-two years on. Featuring a screenplay from powerhouses Robert Towne – yes, Chinatown’s Towne – and David Koepp, Mission: Impossible, based on the 1966-1973 TV series, featured idiosyncratic, at times excellent, dialogue; Bond-like Europe-trotting; and superb set-pieces. It was also unmistakably a Brian De Palma joint, featuring many of his themes and obsessions and jam-packed, as is his wont, with cinematic references; indeed, the film’s classic set-piece, the “Langley heist”, was a direct homage to a similar scene in Jules Dassin’s 1954 French heist thriller Rififi.
Perhaps it was precisely because the film was such a ‘director’s piece’ that Cruise decided to embark, for the next four installments, on a bold and admirable experiment. He hired different directors for each, and told them not to make their franchise entries in the style of the first film, but to actively depart from it, to make their episodes in their own styles. This flew radically against the entire history of sequels and franchises; continuity had always ruled in television and film series, so that Irvin Kershner’s Empire Strikes Back felt like George Lucas’ Star Wars and Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky II felt like John G. Avildsen’s Rocky. John Woo’s Mission: Impossible 2 (2000) felt nothing like a Brian De Palma film nor a J.J. Abrams film; he contributed Mission: Impossible 3 in 2006. The Incredibles director Brad Bird’s 2011 entry dropped the numerical tally in the title – it was called Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, and then in 2015 Christopher McQuarrie, best known and admired for writing The Usual Suspects, kind of re-booted the franchise with Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation. It was the best entry since De Palma’s original, primarily because it introduced a female character, Ilsa Faust, played impeccably by Rebecca Ferguson, who was a rich, intriguing character, vital to the plot and, increasingly, to Cruise’s character Ethan Hunt. The series had always featured high-stakes stunts, but with Faust, we finally got stakes of the heart. The series had a human scale again, and felt fresh.
McQuarrie’s success with Rogue Nation has caused Cruise to break his own rule; he gave McQuarrie another go, and the result is Fallout, which continues to utilize Faust – and why wouldn’t you? – as well as its villain, Solomon Lane, played by gaunt, evil-eyed Brit Sean Harris. We’re still stuck with Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames, a kind of Statler and Waldorf at this point, along with Alec Baldwin, and there are two major new characters of note, played by Henry Cavill and Vanessa Kirby. They’re both almost supernaturally attractive, and each delivers a one-note, almost comically bad performance; next to Ferguson and Harris, they feel like amateurs, or, worse, models given lines to say. It’s a shame, too, because it is the jovial ensemble of these films that is their primary distinction; that, and great action.
And this film has great action. The final act, in particular, is mind-blowing. I long ago gave up letting action sequences make me tense, so why was I clutching my armrest? McQuarrie’s massive tornadoes of bodies, steel and space are visceral, energetic, exhilarating, and at least give the very convincing impression of being entirely ‘practical’ – that is, utilizing stunt work and props rather than digital effects. (Of course, the sequences use both techniques, but the digital effects are so well hidden as to be generally undetectable). As an action movie, it is remarkable, up there with the very best.
As a spy movie, it’s lightweight, but very, very fun, and the established ensemble, Ferguson, Baldwin and Harris included, are comfy to be around. Indeed, it’s strange, to me, what a warm and fuzzy feeling this franchise – or at least these last two installments of it – gives me. The humor, delivered entirely by Pegg and Rhames, doesn’t work, but it doesn’t seem to matter; the very fact these two not-very-fit-looking aging codgers are at least trying to crack wise is enough. And they’ve got Cruise, fit as ever (though very puffy of face – Botox?), to gee them up. He isn’t the centre of the vortex, he is the vortex, but he’s generous with screentime, lines and energy. He doesn’t need to prove that he’s the star, because he is is so the star.
Rogue Nation’s strongest asset – Ferguson – doesn’t get enough to do; the complexity of Faust’s relationship with Cruise’s Hunt is jettisoned for a similarly complicated one between Hunt and Cavill’s August Walker, which is hindered by Cavill’s unroadworthy performance. Thus that spark of magic – an old-fashioned European untrustworthy romance, in the fine tradition of Casablanca – isn’t present. But action is, and this movie, more than any in the series, maybe more than any in history, is all action. And, like Hunt, like Cruise, it is very good at the single thing it does best.