30 July 2018

Mission: Impossible - Fallout review

Do me a favour, will you? Take yourself back a decade or so, to the summer of 2008. It's been a full 2 years since the release of JJ Abrams' Mission: Impossible 3 (which, let's not forget, disappointed at the box office), and Brad Bird's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol hasn't even been announced, let alone started to pique the public's interest. You've just seen the release of both Iron Man and The Dark Knight, two highly successful films that have gone on to become hugely iconic and influential in their own right. Now imagine that I appear in front of you through some kind of time hole, and tell you not just that there will be more Mission: Impossible films, but that they'll go on to become one of the very best action franchises in all of Hollywood.

No-one would believe what I had to say, right? And yet here we are in the year of our Lord 2018, and the Mission: Impossible franchise has a strong claim - virtually uncontested, in fact - towards being just that. There isn't another series of films out there even attempting to match the kind of visceral action or practical stunt work that the Mission: Impossible series has become incredibly good at providing, and in a cinematic landscape otherwise ruled by CGI? Well, that's simply hugely refreshing, quite rightly marking the series out as something very special indeed. It may have taken four films and a full 15 years to truly find its footing, but if Mission: Impossible - Fallout is anything to go by, this franchise shows no sign of slipping up now.

If anything it's on firmer ground than it ever has been, with returning writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (the first person to direct more than one of these films) continuing the story of Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation and making Mission: Impossible - Fallout arguably the first true sequel in the franchise. We pick up with Ethan Hunt and his team a few years after the arrest of Solomon Lane in the previous film, as The syndicate - now renamed The Apostles, and working for a man named John Lark - threaten to build 3 nuclear weapons using stolen plutonium cores. It's up to the IMF to get the plutonium back, but the only way they can do that is by breaking Solomon Lane out of captivity with the help of the CIA.

Naturally, there's a lot of twists and turns and betrayals and back-stabs that happen before, during and after that plot synopsis, and if I'm being perfectly honest, it means that the overall story of Mission: Impossible - Fallout can be a bit difficult to follow, especially from moment to moment. But while that's usually something I'd hold against a film, it's pretty much par for the course when it comes to these movies, and more importantly, actually does very little (if anything at all) to hinder your enjoyment of what's happening in front of you at any time. No, you might not understand exactly what the bigger picture was come the end of the movie, but McQuarrie's smart writing and superb direction means that you're never in any doubt about what Ethan and his team are attempting to do or what the stakes of the moment are, and that's more than enough to keep you engaged in the film throughout.

Which is important because without that sense of engagement, Mission: Impossible - Fallout's many set-pieces and action scenes just wouldn't land with half as much impact as they do, and that would be a real shame considering not just how good they are, but also the sheer amount of effort behind them. It's something of a tradition that each new Mission: Impossible film attempts to one-up its predecessor it in the stunt department, but Mission: Impossible - Fallout really seems to go above and beyond, littering its running time with the kind of surely impossible stunts and thrilling action scenes that each could've been the main attraction in any other movie all on their own. You've got the long take HALO jump that Tom Cruise and the crew actually performed over 100 times to get right; the already infamous bathroom brawl, which is exactly as brutal and viscerally satisfying as you've been led to believe; a vehicular heist that feels as if it were heavily inspired by Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, followed by a car chase through Paris that invokes William Friedkin's The French Connection; a rooftop chase that saw Cruise literally break a leg; and a stunning helicopter duel/three-way fight scene that serves as the grand finale. Even if Mission: Impossible - Fallout isn't the best Mission: Impossible film to date (and the jury's still out on that one), it almost inarguably sets a new high bar for action for not just the franchise but maybe Hollywood as a whole, to the point where it's hard not to see Christopher McQuarrie just out of shot, mouthing the words "your move" to everyone else making action films in Hollywood today.

That comparison I made to The Dark Knight earlier, by the way, is one that broadly speaking applies to Mission: Impossible - Fallout as a whole, and I don't think that's an accident. McQuarrie has been quite honest about wanting this film to feel as if were directed by a different person to Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, and I think his method of doing that was to take inspiration from Christopher Nolan, and The Dark Knight specifically. For a start you've got the tone, which feels very Nolan-esque and positions this a much more serious affair than any previous Mission: Impossible film. Then you've got the decision to have a returning villain in the form of Solomon Lane, giving Ethan Hunt his very own Joker to battle, a force of anarchy that cares just as much - maybe even more - about beating Ethan as he does ensuring his plans will come to fruition. You've got the thematics of the film, a musing on how actions have consequences regardless of how well they're intended that can definitely be compared to The Dark Knight's thoughts on escalation and how Gotham ends up paying the price for Batman's existence. And finally, you've got a few maybe not so subtle nods towards The Dark Knight in terms of visuals and story that I'm convinced must've been deliberate. I'm convinced that this is McQuarrie's take on what a Christopher Nolan helmed Mission: Impossible film might look like, only with significantly better fight scenes than Nolan has ever proven himself capable of (sorry not sorry).

My only complaint - well, more of a comment, really - is that in taking itself more seriously, Mission: Impossible - Fallout has lost some of the levity, some of the playfulness that has helped define the franchise since Brad Bird shook things up with Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, and that can't help but feel like a little bit of a shame. Both Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol and Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation got a lot of mileage out of stuff as simple as Ethan being scared before a mission or getting injured when something went wrong, and while Mission: Impossible - Fallout does do that a little, it certainly isn't given as much attention as it was in the previous two films, and I have to admit that I came away from the cinema having missed it. There's no over-the-top "manifest destiny speech", very few moments in which Ethan feels as genuinely vulnerable or relatable as he has in the two previous films, and while that suits the darker nature of the story to a tee, it does mean that Ethan simply isn't as fun to be around as he has been in the past, not wasting but certainly under-utilising Cruise's natural, easy going charm in favour of something more brooding and intense.

Still, that small tonal grievance is literally the very worst thing I can find to say about Mission: Impossible - Fallout, and let's face it, that's no real grievance at all. It is, simply put, a very good movie that I enjoyed a great deal, and that's without even having found the time to talk about how Henry Cavill has launched himself into my number one spot for who should be the next James Bond thanks to his performance as CIA Agent Walker, or how this is the first film not to waste Rebecca Ferguson's unique screen presence since... well, the previous Mission: Impossible film. I'm not as convinced that it's the best film in the franchise as other people seem to be (that particular title might still belong to Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation as far as I'm concerned), but it's definitely in the top three, a hugely impressive, spectacular and downright thrilling movie that blows most other Hollywood action films out of the water - and I already can't wait to see it again.

4 stars

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