The Most Stunning Mission: Impossible Movie Reveals How the Franchise Can be Saved
Don’t take yourself too seriously, even when you’re saving the world.
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1 just suffered the worst second-weekend drop in franchise history, despite stellar reviews, incredible stunts, and increasing evidence that Tom Cruise would rather shatter his body into tiny pieces than make a subpar action film. Maybe it’s franchise fatigue, maybe it’s competition from Barbenheimer … but maybe audiences were scared away by the commitment that ugly lump of a title demands.
Not only do you know going in that you won’t get closure, but the movie expects you to remember characters and relationships introduced in Fallout, Rogue Nation, and even the original Mission: Impossible, a 27-year-old film. Throw in vague allusions to Ethan Hunt’s shadowy backstory Part 2 will presumably explore when it’s not busy resolving its convoluted cliffhangers, and M:I-DRP1, for all its thrills, feels as bloated as its acronym.
The franchise’s shift from tight, self-contained stories to meandering, self-referential tales began with 2018’s Fallout, a pseudo-sequel to Rogue Nation. Fallout is a stunning action movie, arguably the best of the century. But it’s also a frustrating movie, one that feels like it was made on the assumption that every viewer is obsessed with the minutia of M:I lore.
In short, Fallout is about Cruise’s Ethan Hunt trying to stop a very big, very bad explosion. In long, it contains so many twists and turns you begin to anticipate the appearance of a minotaur. The pseudonymous John Lark and returning villain Solomon Kane are extremists who want to kill millions because they believe the tragedy will ensure a lasting world peace, and also because they really, really want to make Ethan Hunt sad. Hunt has a chance to stop them in the opening scene, but chooses to save the life of longtime sidekick Luther (Ving Rhames) instead. What follows is a battle of wits between a man who refuses to sacrifice anyone and men willing to dispose of everyone.
That sounds straightforward enough, but so many factions and motivations are thrown at you that it becomes numbing. No one is demanding airtight storytelling from a franchise that trademarked the dramatic removal of rubber masks, but at a certain point, plotting becomes overplotting. There’s a reason viewers got confused about why the villains seemed to be so intent on trying to buy nuclear bombs from themselves. In one scene, anonymous hitmen try to kill Hunt despite every faction in the movie needing him alive. They and their motives are never identified; it was simply time for a cool action sequence.
These issues would sink a lesser movie, but Fallout is not a lesser movie. The action, including a HALO jump onto a Parisian rooftop, a brutal bathroom brawl, and a thrilling convoy ambush, are the epitome of good stunt work. Every moment is coherent, every setting is visually intriguing, and just when you think you know what’s going to happen, a twist or a joke upends the scene. Your mouth will dangle open for much of Fallout, which will conveniently keep you from asking questions like, “Why does Crossfit Ted Kaczynski have so many followers, anyway?”
Cruise’s long dash across London makes this his sprinting-est mission yet, but Henry Cavill steals the show as CIA agent August Walker. His arrogance and brutality are a compelling foil to Hunt’s boy scout, and while his inevitable betrayal is less interesting, he certainly speaks for the audience when he asks Kane, “Why do you have to make everything so fucking complicated?” He’s a Fast & Furious villain in a Mission: Impossible world, incensed that he has to deal with goofy masks when the guns are sitting right there.
Cavill co-stars in Fallout’s climatic helicopter chase, which is one of the best sequences the series has produced, and not just because it makes you forget how nonsensical much of the film that led to it was. It works, in part, because Hunt is teaching himself how to control his helicopter as he flies it, and his carefully restrained panic feels real. Then his sheer brazenness makes his enemies panic instead, and Walker’s cold fury is remarkably effective coming from a man best known for playing unimpeachable heroes. A stunt is pointless if the characters involved aren’t credible, and the entire time Hunt takes the chase to further extremes you sense that he just wants to slip into a warm bath.
Fallout completes Ethan Hunt’s transformation from mere mortal to espionage Superman, with Luther and his ex-wife lavishing praise on him for being the only man capable of keeping the world from sliding into Armageddon again, and again, and again. It’s a sign the franchise is too in love with itself, but every time Fallout threatens to drift into exhausting self-seriousness, a bit of levity pulls it back. A solid joke, some clever slapstick, a silly Wolf Blitzer cameo. Those moments remind you that you’re watching an action movie and should cut it a little slack.
That’s a strategy Dead Reckoning Part 2 needs to remember, because for as gripping as much of Part 1’s action was, its box office results prove that Hunt isn’t as invincible as his creators think. M:I movies succeed by balancing breathtaking stunts with a slight sense of goofiness, a formula that makes Fallout a sublime experience despite holes large enough for Hunt to fly his helicopter through. Hopefully it’s not remembered as the high watermark of a fading franchise.