The persistence of the big-screen Mission: Impossible franchise is a testament to Tom Cruise’s habit of never giving up. Back in the 1990s, hyperactive, star-powered reduxes for vintage TV franchises weren’t in short supply – and Mission: Impossible, one of Brian DePalma’s most impersonal films, wasn’t even the biggest box office and critical hit of the pack. That was The Fugitive. Harrison Ford isn’t jogging through the sixth episode of that saga – he even sat out the throwaway sequel – and similarly your multiplex this summer isn’t screening a Saint movie starring Val Kilmer or a Maverick with Mel Gibson. Henry Cavill is hulk-shouldering his way through this because no greenlight flickers for another Man From UNCLE and Steve Carrell has more pressing business than showing up in Get Smarter.
It seemed that the M:I films had run their course after three entries, and Cruise’s stature (ahem) in the industry took a hit thanks to couch-jumping, Xenu and underperformers like Knight and Day, Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow. But, ditching the numerals for sub-titles, Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol was a soft relaunch for the franchise and Mission Impossible Rogue Nation a solid follow-up – bringing back some of the intricate plotting of the TV show (the early Mission: Impossible films were sadly short of impossible missions), finally tumbling to the fact that the combo of Lalo Schifrin music and mosaic editing works as well now as it did when Peter Graves was choosing to accept, and foregrounding the still-athletic, determined-to-keep-in-the-game star’s fondness for death-defying practical stuntwork. Cruise is actually still in a shaky career state – his last stab at actual acting in American Made didn’t click, his decent-enough Jack Reacher films haven’t formed a lasting franchise, and his equally stunt-heavy Mummy was a disaster – but the M:I films are in rude health. And Fallout isn’t going to change that.
A hook at the end of Ghost Protocol introduced the Syndicate – who were often mentioned in the TV show – as the shadowy villains of Rogue Nation. Fallout is the first M:I to be a direct sequel to an earlier entry, bringing back villain Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), captured in the last film, and love interest/rival Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who is still disposed to stick her oar in. It opens in Belfast (for no particular reason) with Ethan Hunt (Cruise) getting a package which contains a nostalgic reel-to-reel tape recorder hidden in a book (though it has to be activated by a pinprick thumb-reader) and landed with a high-stakes mission involving three missing plutonium cores suitable for powering nuclear weapons. Austin Powers made a joke about rehashing the plot of Thunderball in every spy movie, but Fallout – the most Bondian M:I to date – unashamedly trots it out again, though writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (the first to handle more than one M:I movie) has less interest in the story engine than in the many, many impressive action, fight, chase, stunt and peril scenes.
A dangling plot strand from Mission Impossible III about Hunt’s gone-to-ground wife (Michelle Monaghan) keeps popping up in dream sequences that attempt to give Ethan, the thinnest avatar of Cruisiness ever to sustain a series, an inner life. Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg are still on board, and are starting – after all this time – to act more like the ensemble of the classic IMF, though Hunt is still an exponent of just winging it as opposed to careful long-range planning. It’s notable that this series gets tired of its toys quickly – Ferguson and Harris were well-liked in Rogue Nation, and so get to return, but Blofeld-cum-Lecter Lane and shady operative Ilsa Faust are rather one-note here … making room for moustached Henry Cavill as CIA ally-cum-antagonist-cum-sparring partner August Walker, and (in a splendid, too-brief turn) Vanessa Kirby as an ambiguous international fixer called ‘the White Widow’ who gets to do scary flirting the way Ferguson did last time round.
What’s actually going on involves a Syndicate offshoot called the Apostles, rivalry between IMF ‘Secretary’ (Alec Baldwin) and off-the-shelf CIA boss Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett, reprising her Green Lantern turn), and a terrorist plan to seriously inconvenience one-third of the world’s population. But the focus is on scene-by-scene entertainment … mixing old school M:I scams on befuddled bad guys (with that great bit of the scenery being taken down and the masks coming off as the perplexed boob realises they’ve been taken) with sustained set-piece spectacle in Paris, London and Kashmir involving boat chases, parkour and hanging off helicopters. The reason Cavill – let’s face it, Superman – is on board is that Cruise needs to have someone who looks as if he could conceivably be a threat to the star. The plot finds reasons for the allies to fall out (hah!) and either compete (freefall sky-diving into an electrical storm over Paris, a chase over London rooftops) or combat (several brutal punch-ups, one head to head and one with a kung fu bad guy in the mix). To take the edge off feats of inhuman endurance, Cruise’s Hunt makes it look like hard work – he’s always collapsing out of breath after his triumphs – but in contrast with the never-remotely-plausible dangling-from-a-burning-building stuff Dwayne Johnson does in the week’s other big action release (Skyscraper) the big scenes here take place in broad daylight with nary a greenscreen in evidence and Cruise’s IMAX-filling face in sharp detail on the head of the meat puppet taking a spill off a motorbike or clinging to a Kashmiri cliff with his fingertips. Movie magic is doubtless involved, but it’s invisible.
So, the franchise is still in the game – as long as Cruise is willing to waive the reckless endangerment clause in his contract, it seems unlikely that the IMF will be disavowed any time soon. And Lorne Balfe’s arrangement of Schifrin is excellent – not just the classic Mission Impossible theme but the equally memorable ‘The Plot’.