Monday, July 30, 2018

"Mission: Impossible—Fallout": review

[NB: very minimal spoilers.]

With the advent of 2018's "Mission: Impossible—Fallout," I now have a theory about Mustachegate, the debacle that occurred last year when "Justice League" came out. You'll recall that, in "Justice League," Henry Cavill's scenes showed him with a very fake-looking upper lip, which turned out to have been entirely CGI. It came to light that Cavill had been filming the sixth Mission: Impossible film at around the same time, and he was contractually obligated not to shave the 'stache he had grown for his role as August Walker, the CIA's "hammer," an assassin whose job is to shadow Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) on a mission to secure some loose plutonium. My theory is that Cavill basically gave DC Comics the middle finger by choosing to accept such a contract from Skydance/Bad Robot. Perhaps following his instincts, Cavill knew that "Mission" was going to prove to be a much better film than "Justice," and that's what made him prioritize the 'stache. If that's how Cavill was betting, then I think he made the right call. "Mission" is indeed the better film.

"Fallout," directed by Chris McQuarrie (lovingly nicknamed "McQ" by an adoring cast), is the sixth film in the Mission: Impossible franchise, and the first Mission film to be directed by the same director twice. McQuarrie has partnered with Cruise on several other projects, including "Edge of Tomorrow" and "Jack Reacher." The two are good friends. "Fallout" stars Cruise, Simon Pegg, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames (in a much larger role this time around), Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris (looking less freakish thanks to a beard), Alec Baldwin, Michelle Monaghan, Vanessa Kirby, and Angela Bassett.

The basic story begins with the IMF team failing to secure three plutonium cores meant to be installed inside easily portable nuclear bombs. The failure is the result of a judgment call by Ethan Hunt (Cruise), who chooses to save the life of Luther (Rhames) while letting a group known as the Apostles—formerly the Syndicate—get away with the radioactive material. The rest of the film is devoted to the recovery of the cores, and to the uncovering of a massive plot by a still-active Solomon Lane (Harris, reprising his role from the previous film) who, despite being a prisoner transferred from government to government to answer for various crimes committed all over the world, is somehow pulling the strings. In the meantime, the movie tells us a bit about what happened between Hunt and his now-ex wife Julia (Monaghan), even as Hunt's relationship with MI6 super-agent Ilsa Faust (Ferguson) warms up.

"Fallout" brings the action hard. There are, per our spoiled-viewer expectations, plenty of amazing set pieces filmed in a manner that stays away from Bourne-style shaky-cam. Unlike the previous movie, there's a return to an explicit ticking-clock dynamic that helps to ratchet up the tension, especially as the movie reaches its final half hour. And while we're on the subject of time: I can echo the praise of several critics who said that, despite its long running time (almost two-and-a-half hours), "Fallout" goes by fairly quickly, even with several scenes of quiet dialogue to change up the story's pace. McQuarrie has a keen eye for how to frame an action scene; the already-famous "restroom fight"—much promoted in the preview trailers—is memorable for just this reason. (Korean audiences will appreciate that the Asian bad guy in that fight can't be taken down by the two highly trained Western good guys.)

The movie also supplies us with familiar tropes that act as a connective tissue preserving continuity with previous Mission: Impossible films. There is, of course, the Tom Cruise On a Motorcycle trope, but there's also a rock-climbing scene toward the end that serves to remind us of the beginning of John Woo's "Mission: Impossible II." There are the ever-present masks, as well as equipment failures reminiscent of the snafus from "Ghost Protocol." Bringing back Michelle Monaghan for a minor role was a good idea, and a sign that McQuarrie and Cruise wanted to tease out the implications of a possible Julia-Ethan-Ilsa triangle. (By the end of "Fallout," this relationship is resolved to everyone's satisfaction.) Ving Rhames's expanded role as techie Luther Stickell—which includes one surprisingly sentimental monologue that reminded me of Mickey Rourke's otherworldly monologue in "The Expendables"—was also a welcome tribute to that character, who has been around since the beginning of the series. At this point, the action franchise has settled on a cast of characters that I like a lot, and I hope to see a few more films from them.

I suppose I should comment on a running joke among critics these days: the conspicuous absence of Agent Brandt, played by the affable and capable Jeremy Renner. The reason there's a running joke is that Renner was also absent from this year's "Avengers: Infinity War": in that filmic universe, he plays Hawkeye, who appears not once in "Infinity War." 2018 is, for Renner at least, a kind of gap year, and to add insult to injury, the character of Brandt isn't mentioned a single time in "Fallout." Does no one miss this guy, who was around for two movies? Perhaps Brandt will make an appearance in the next film.

I came away liking "Fallout" a lot, but I'm not as gaga over it as other critics are. Many are hailing this as the new action movie to beat, or as one of the greatest action movies of all time. Go ahead, watch the movie, and come to your own conclusions, but as much as I liked the action sequences on screen (and I loved the restroom fight which, alas, comes to a disappointingly sudden conclusion), I thought there were better sequences in previous films, such as the Burj Khalifa break-in sequence from "Ghost Protocol" and the exquisitely choreographed opera-house scene from "Rogue Nation" (not to mention the airplane stunt at the beginning of that movie, and the amazing underwater sequence in the movie's middle, which was done in a single take). Henry Cavill manages to be a fairly hulking presence in much of "Fallout," but I'm not sure his facial hair did him any favors. If anything, the mustache made him look a bit comical in some scenes.

And since we're moving into the topic of dislikes, I'd like to mention that Tom Cruise's French is horrible. He speaks some fragments of French during the Paris sequence, and it's obvious he's not even trying for anything other than heavily American-accented French. (He did a somewhat better job with German in the opening scenes of "Valkyrie.") Another negative was some positively cheesy dialogue uttered early on by Cavill's character, August Walker. That was the one part of the movie that truly fell down for me, and there was nothing Cavill could do to repair what was fundamentally a failure in screenwriting.

I couldn't help comparing Ethan Hunt, in this movie, to Jack Bauer from the series "24," which also dealt with nukes and terrorism.* "Fallout" hints at the use of torture at least twice—once in a scene in which Hunt apparently loses his temper while interrogating a suspect, and once later on when rendition and waterboarding are mentioned. "24" often went there when it came to torture; by contrast, "Fallout" pulls its punches, if you'll pardon the pun. Hunt is a softie compared to Jack Bauer; in Season 6 of "24," Bauer shoots his best friend Curtis to save the life of a terrorist that both he and Curtis hate, all because the terrorist has crucial information while Curtis simply wants to kill the man who killed the troops who had been under Curtis's command years ago. Faced with a vaguely similar dilemma in "Fallout," Hunt chooses to save the life of his friend Luther. This choice leads to the loss of the plutonium cores, but Luther proves his worth later in the film, possibly saving millions of lives. Had Hunt let Luther die, this would have been a very different film. There's also another callback to "24" later in the film: it occurs when Ilsa Faust is tied to a chair and figures out a clever way of releasing herself. Bauer used the same method years earlier on "24," so when I saw Ilsa gearing up to do something big, I knew exactly what she was going to do.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was seeing Alec Baldwin, reprising his role as IMF Secretary Alan Hunley, getting involved in physical combat. Hunley is a fairly hands-on guy, as it turns out, so he appears in hot zones and doesn't flinch from danger. The fight choreography involving Hunley is brief, but we quickly see that the secretary still remembers his combat training and isn't a total slouch when things get real.

All in all, I think you'll be thoroughly entertained by this latest addition to the Mission: Impossible franchise. Whether you'll come away thinking it's the best of the six movies is another thing, but I'm fairly sure it will rank, for you, among the top three. Chris McQuarrie's direction is assured, the acting is fine, the set-piece cinematography is soaring and brilliant (that helicopter chase!), the characters have a good rapport, and the plot moves along slickly and coherently. Like me, you might want to watch the movie again to catch the details you missed the first time around. Not a bad way to spend 147 minutes.

Oh, one last comment: the women in this movie are all unfailingly gorgeous. I've had a crush on Rebecca Ferguson since I saw her in the previous film; Michelle Monaghan, with her lopsided smile, has always been appealing to me; Vanessa Kirby, whom I've never seen before, is simply a knockout, despite looking a bit like Lady Gaga from certain angles.

*At one point in the film, Solomon Lane explicitly disavows having terrorist goals and using terror tactics. Like the villain Kurt Hendricks from "Ghost Protocol," Lane thinks the entire world simply needs to be purged as a sort of massive reset to get all of humanity back on track. I think Lane is delusional and in denial: his plan, in "Fallout," would result in a globe-spanning wave of terror.

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