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Toward the end of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the director of the CIA says the following about superspy Ethan Hunt: “[He] is the living manifestation of destiny.” It is an absurd thing to say, and not just because it makes zero sense. Alec Baldwin plays the CIA director, and his famous delivery (half ironic, half dead- pan) cannot save the line. But if you pause and think for a moment, then the line works as subtext. As the CIA director, Baldwin is not really talking about Ethan Hunt. He is talking about Tom Cruise.
Over the past 20 years and change, the Mission: Impossible franchise has shifted its purpose, while preserving the same spy thriller skeleton. The first few films reflected the sensibilities of their directors: the first two were directed by Brian De Palma and John Woo, respectively, and longtime fans could instantly recognize the staples of their work. In recent years, however, the films have favored outright spectacle. As Hunt, Cruise performs mind-boggling stunts, with each film looking more dangerous than the last. This is an actor who internalizes the idea that he is the manifestation of destiny. His films are now about getting the audience to agree with him.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout is the latest film in the franchise, and reunites Cruise with Christopher McQuarrie, who directed Cruise in Rogue Nation and Jack Reacher. Hunt’s objective—the one he always chooses to accept—is to recover some stolen plutonium from a deadly organization of terrorists. His mission takes him all over Europe, before Hunt and his team head into the Kashmir Mountains. There are the usual faces: Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Rebecca Ferguson, and Alec Baldwin follow the whims of an action star who is pushing 60. Henry Cavill is the most important new face, a mustached brute whose preferred method of overcoming an obstacle is to punch through it.
It is strange, and ultimately refreshing, how unimportant the plot is to this film. It amounts to a series of action sequences—chases, fights, shootouts—peppered with breathless dialogue about who betrayed whom, and why. The actors are all convincing and forceful, while individual scenes barely withstand scrutiny: McQuarrie wrote The Usual Suspects, so he understands the specifics of betrayal. All these transitional moments, however, are in service of Tom Cruise’s next stunt. Like North by Northwest, McQuarrie and Cruise know what they want Hunt to do, and construct a movie around it.
The first big chase happens in Paris. You may have seen action films like To Live and Die In L.A. or Ronin, where the hero has no choice but to drive into oncoming traffic. Cruise does that in Fallout, except on a motorcycle (without a helmet, naturally), and along the tight avenues of Paris. At every turn, even when Cruise goes the wrong way around the Arc de Triomphe, it’s always clear Cruise is driving. McQuarrie’s style is in service of Cruise, whose desire to thrill and entertain the audience is manic. This is an action film where the action star, not the director, is the true auteur. Cruise produced this film, and while he is not behind the camera, you can bet he approved every cut, every shot, and every transition.
All this builds toward the climax in the Kashmir Mountains. It must be seen to be believed, preferably on the largest screen available. Cruise chases down the bad guy, who is escaping on a helicopter, and his only option is to hi-jack a second helicopter (there is a rope dangling beneath it). This means we watch Cruise climb the rope, pull himself into the cockpit, kill the men inside, and then begin the chase. All of this is completely convincing, and apparently Cruise learned how to fly just for this sequence. Combined with a ticking clock and the imposing mountainside, Fallout reaches absurd heights of suspense and entertainment.
At a key point in the film, characters gather to heap praise unto Hunt. They say how he makes them feel safe, and how he is a credit to the world because he simultaneously thinks about the masses, as well as the individual. Once again, this fawning admiration is more for Cruise than it is for Hunt.
In an age where the facsimile of spectacle can be produced via green screen, Cruise realizes there is no replacement for stunning vistas and genuine danger. You cannot begrudge Cruise for wanting every character to gush about how awesome he is. So many actors have an inflated sense of self-worth. In Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Tom Cruise is batshit crazy enough to earn it.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout opens Friday in theaters everywhere.