“Stop overthinking James Bond,” shouts Bob Chipman, aka film critic/YouTube personality Movie Bob, as he opens his review for 2015’s Spectre with the sort of frustrated tonal vocal register indicative of personified all-caps typing with periods between each word. As he colorfully illustrates throughout his piece with, to borrow a quote of his from another of his entertaining, informative reviews, “creative vulgarity and pinpoint plot dissection,” each Bond film, and Bond himself, doesn’t need much beyond basic character motivation and the usual narrative tropes and structure instilled since the days of Sean Connery. 007 films can immediately kickstart themselves with set-pieces before jumping into the plot “because it’s his job,” and therefore Bond doesn’t need ulterior motives for stopping the baddies outside of a devotion to his country – and all that has geopolitically entailed.
Whether the Bond franchise bears significantly higher blockbuster quality than, say, the Mission: Impossible series is debatable, though after six films and 22 years, it’s clear enough that the collective of filmmakers and other creative talents responsible for the latter collection of properties have never had any intention in striving for equal footing in terms of thematic consideration. Start with a set-piece and/or grift, steal a thing from bad people, travel to all sorts of exotic locales hunting them down and eventually end their master plan – from de Palma’s original to Christopher McQuarrie’s latest two entries, no Mission: Impossible film has strayed far from this open template barring some Hitchcockian double crosses and vague looks into Ethan Hunt’s character that hardly amount to much in the broader context of each individual narrative.
And yet, for the most part, it has worked, not just from a financial perspective, but also a qualitative one. With little in the way in terms of character, theme and sometimes plot, for good or for ill, the Mission: Impossible franchise is uniquely set for each film with their different directors – of course, Rogue Nation’s McQuarrie returned for Fallout, though – to accomplish the same plot structure goals through varying styles, aesthetics and tone without each subsequent entry feeling like it has to answer one way or another to the approach that preceded it. Even more remarkable is that in the broader context of action cinema, the Mission: Impossible films are still all relatively indistinguishable spy thrillers aside from Tom Cruise and the iconic theme music, and yet their presence in the collective pop culture consciousness remains undeniable through box office numbers.
Suffice it to say, Fallout keeps the party going with little evidence to suggest Cruise’s aging physique and increasing persistence toward deathwish-like stunts will call off the whole endeavor anytime soon. Picking up after Rogue Nation, it continues Ethan Hunt and the IMF’s struggle against Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) and his treasure trove of anarchist disciples, with one particular anonymous follower the subject of further intrigue. Where this expedition through arguably recycled spy movie pablum differs from previous incarnations may not be style, but rather an overall darker tone partially supported by one question: what if Hunt were forced into circumstances where he’d have to compromise firmly maintained morality and ethics? Unbelievably, perhaps the best part is that much of the material descends toward emotional gravity without clear purpose beyond the superficial and that the latter question isn’t sufficiently answered for greater dramatic heft, and yet Fallout still kicks plenty of ass.
Now, that isn’t to say that had the opposite been true in both cases Fallout would have been a better film; they’d have still been nice, refreshing knick-knacks adorning what constitutes the cinematic form, in terms of each individual film in the franchise, of a DIY weekend interior decoration project. They’re additions, however shallow they may be, that are charming enough by themselves in their differentiating this film with previous franchise adventures, but they don’t explain why it’s any good; only facets like the cast’s fun chemistry, the arresting storytelling and McQuarrie’s increasingly measured, yet conscious-of-its-limitations direction can do that. It’s wonderful what creative minds can accomplish when they aren’t ashamed of what they’re making, and I’d challenge anyone to look through Fallout’s many frames and find a face hiding a tinge of regret.
Cruise, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Rebecca Ferguson and Alec Baldwin all return with the mustachioed Henry Cavill and Angela Bassett joining in on the fun, and they all perform the same reflexive seriousness that respects the material despite each character, including Cruise’s Hunt, not being given much motivation outside of basic duty with little by way of an emotional backdrop. Potential plot and thematic undercurrents are briefly paid lip service to, whether it be Hunt’s love life or Ferguson’s Ilsa potentially working against the IMF for her own revenge purposes, but they prove less and less consequential in the grander scheme with the continued focus being on the franchise-ingrained plethora of twists (one in particular admittedly being too obvious), cool gadgets entwined with said fake-outs and Hunt putting his body on the line.
For the better part of two and half hours – no, seriously – Fallout, like most of its predecessors, can get away with not being about much, if anything, aside from the usual intrigue, motor vehicle chases and patented Tom Cruise foot races not just because of each set piece’s increasing scale both confined to their respective narratives and in relation to the franchise as a whole, but also because of the character relationships sustained so effectively by the cast as well as whatever flavor of the week the director and his team decide to inject for atmospheric purposes. Addressing the latter, on the other side, it’s the technical competence from each filmmaker – once again, McQuarrie in this case – behind each set piece as an integral method of story propulsion that partially justifies the intended tone. As long as the story doesn’t come to a standstill, audiences will consciously ingest just about anything on those terms and make it work for themselves.
And not only is it difficult to pinpoint a moment where McQuarrie’s pacing slows down without necessity, though there are moments that justifiably pump the brakes without hindering momentum, it’s equally hard trying to find a single flaw in each badass set-piece’s unabashed justification for the argument of film as spectacle. Not only can McQuarrie block the living hell out of an action scene, it’s more evidently clear he can devise them just as well – especially with Cruise ready to approve any stunts should they toe the line of realism and insanity just the right amount. From well-choreographed fisticuffs to a stunning helicopter chase sequence, each set-piece carries its own curious significance without harboring much of an implicit or symptomatic through-line, yet remaining individually significant in their resonance resulting from the confluence of all factors previously stated and their proof that unblinking, unashamed action without pandering is among the best spectacles.
Will we eventually still remember key plot details about this particular Mission: Impossible film further down the road? For most of us, very likely not, as our method for differentiating these films merely consists of which outrageous stunt belongs to which film – the helicopter fight especially helps in this regard. We can’t deny, however, when a film we think ought to be relatively disposable has a firm grip on our attention, whether it be in the moment or weeks afterwards, with the utmost skill and craftsmanship without cynicism – exactly what Fallout has in its favor. It’s fun that doesn’t stop, and fun that doesn’t over-complicate proceedings with unnecessary character filler. Accomplishing impossible missions is Ethan Hunt’s job, and the fact that he and the franchise he supports can sustain themselves without much else than that is their own death-defying feat.
(I can’t really decide what to give this film, so until I can, let’s just call it a high 3.5 to low 4 out of 5)