Film & TV

Mission: Impossible — Fallout Turns Cliché into Spectacle

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible — Fallout (Paramount Pictures)
Cruise turns out another episode in the violence-is-cool franchise.

By now the entire world knows that Mission: Impossible — Fallout purports to be the most action-packed, breath-baiting movie ever made — or so advises film authorities who have unanimously given in to Hollywood’s hard sell and given up on artistic standards. Every new blockbuster must be recognized as the acme of a genre — until the next one is hyped. A popular film series is now sacrosanct, especially when it is so clearly devised according to proven formula.

Back in 1996, when the first Mission: Impossible movie was nearing completion, I lucked upon the opportunity to ask director Brian De Palma how the production was going. “Oh, you mean, Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible!” the demoralized maestro joked. Today, critics are not joking when they praise Fallout as “the reason we go to the movies” (an actual repeat of reviews for Peter Jackson’s forgettable King Kong remake).

Fallout fits into that peculiar niche where lovers of both spy fiction and action fantasy are mutually satisfied with shameless appeals to their most banal interests. Only a media panderer could expect viewers to go along with yet another plot in which fearless agents foil an attempt to exterminate civilization while they also contend with the cautious, if not untrustworthy, bureaucracy that employs them. As expected, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt motivates his team (Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, and Henry Cavill) to go beyond the dictates of their officials, Angela Bassett and Alec Baldwin. Problem is, this stock storyline has already been enhanced — vivified and deepened — in Luc Besson’s Transporter movies and Zack Snyder’s production of Suicide Squad. The standards of those films surpass the Mission: Impossible quasi-political, pseudo-kinetic brand.

***

We may think we know all about Tom Cruise, including his religion, but do we know his politics? Is he just a super capitalist? Or is he merely a cagey pop star with a hit-and-miss record? He has turned the Mission: Impossible movie franchise into such a heartless machine (coproduced by the juvenile J. J. Abrams) that Fallout’s big, elaborate set-pieces conflate perpetual motion with religious ritual, and overstimulation comes across as the politics of a capitalist who fools himself — and his consumers — into thinking that violence is creativity,

It’s not a sign of good culture or good politics that there’s complete media consent on Fallout’s, relentless, can-you-top-this? action scenes, even praising Cruise’s risky, ping-pong ball existentialism. Eyes wide open, minds shut.

What does this installment’s doomsday plot say about our culture (obsessed with paramilitary and civilian violence) and our politics (obsessed with controlling government oversight)? The fawning media never bothers to ask Cruise whether his intentions are apolitical. Besides, the movies say more than he could explain or justify about peddling a globally addicting drug.

Conservative or liberal, we all should have a problem with Fallout’s pandering to our insensitivity — and confusing emotional numbness with cartoon aesthetics. The old James Bond movies used to open with spectacular stunt sequences that now are just regular fodder in the Mission: Impossible franchise. The director Christopher McQuarrie flaunts his perverse sadistic technique, spawn from the Tarantino principle that violence is cool.

Schlockmeister McQuarrie lacks the moral sense to make Fallout’s nonstop violence meaningful. Every fight and chase sequence ends with moral deflation.

De Palma’s Mission: Impossible elevated generic TV into visually sumptuous and kinetic cinema 22 years ago. Why should we accept a film that is nothing more than action-movie diversion? McQuarrie’s hell-bent style even diverges from the ingenuity that distinguished the franchise’s best film, Ghost Protocol, which went beyond spy fiction to feature palpable pangs of love and revenge, especially as acted by former teammate Paula Patton, who infused the narrative with sensuality and a grieving woman’s passion. In Fallout, McQuarrie treats Hunt’s encounter with his wife (Michelle Monaghan) as no more than a footnote.

After Cruise worked with De Palma and Ghost Protocol’s Brad Bird, it’s alarming to see partnership with the much less talented McQuarrie on four films so far. When reviewing McQuarrie’s unpromising 2000 directorial debut The Way of the Gun, I had major qualms:

McQuarrie’s characters don’t represent any social anxiety, just the adolescent fantasy of fun violence. Ignoring the [story’s] sting of death and loss, McQuarrie has the temerity to treat it simply as thrill.

This venality is essentially all McQuarrie contributes to the Mission: Impossible franchise. It has become the basis of Cruise’s triumph over a vicious and vindictive industry and its media acolytes who hate him yet worship the money he can bring in.

All the Mission: Impossible films are too long, and none have the cultural essence of last year’s quasi-political Cruise epic American Made. Schlockmeister McQuarrie lacks the moral sense to make Fallout’s nonstop violence meaningful. Every fight and chase sequence ends with moral deflation, not the abstract, surrealist humor and magic of Buster Keaton or James Bond vintage. The film’s physical and emotional peak — featuring Cruise and Henry Cavill’s two-on-one brawl with a foreign agent (Liang Yang), which demolishes a gleaming white lavatory — fails to rouse the story’s issues or inspire reflection, even though Cavill’s hypermasculine jacket-toss and shoulder flex briefly startles the senses. An action scene is not outstanding if that’s all it is. Have we learned nothing from Eisenstein, Ford, Kurosawa, Peckinpah, Spielberg, Hill, Megaton, Bay, and the Chinese masters, who, lately, have been kicking Hollywood’s butt?

Each successive Mission: Impossible movie takes us further away from understanding the politics and morality of espionage. Cruise’s determination to conquer Hollywood through his own pyrrhic command of formula teaches a lesson that this sequel glides by. But it was articulated in last year’s Rogue Nation: “There are no allies in statecraft, just common interests.” That line sums up Fallout’s pop culture and political commitment.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been emended since its initial publication.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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