A Fandor “Fallout” Over “Mission: Impossible”

Mission: Impossible – Fallout is the sixth movie in the vaunted film franchise centered on Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team of international spies. If the critics and advanced audiences are any indications, this is shaping up to be perhaps the best in a sequence of already-great summer blockbuster films. But no critical roundtable is complete until Fandor’s team of movie fanatics weighs in! Read on as staffers Levi Hill and Joaquin Lowe debate the strengths and weaknesses of this latest Mission: Impossible installment, and answer the age-old question: Who’s the bigger beefcake—Tom Cruise, or a mustachioed Henry Cavill?

Joaquin Lowe: Mission: Impossible: Fallout was, far and away, the blockbuster movie of 2018 I had most looked forward to. To my mind, it’s the best franchise Hollywood has gone right now. But watching Hunt and co. saving the world yet again, I couldn’t help but feel let down. Is it just me, or is this Tom cruise vehicle starting to feel a little long in the tooth after a couple of decades?

Levi Hill: I actually walked out feeling the exact opposite. As someone who has so sparingly enjoyed this decade’s blockbusters (with Mad Max: Fury Road, Skyfall, The Last Jedi, Dunkirk, and the Mission: Impossible saga as notable exceptions), I think Fallout might just set the bar. With the jaw-dropping practical effects Cruise, McQuarrie, and company were able to pull off, there’s an incredible sense of craftsmanship to the whole project. In fact given the carefully orchestrated and blocked set pieces, the precision of the editing and cinematography, and Cruise’s willingness to risk his own life for our entertainment, I would go so far as to argue that Fallout, more than any other franchise film, shows its audience tremendous respect.

JL: Well, Skyfall and Dunkirk are both pretty bad…but that aside, I wholeheartedly agree with you about the set pieces. They are, in a word, fantastic. But brilliant set pieces do not a great movie make. Beyond McQuarrie absolutely mailing in the screenplay and abandoning (like so many blockbusters these days) the idea of narrative structure, what this movie really lacked was a sense of joy.

Cruise’s physicality is undeniable, but he looks exhausted. Hunt no longer loves saving the world; there’s a sense now that he’s trapped, that he can’t save the world, or even take a weekend off, without another nuclear threat interrupting his vacation. In past installments there seemed to be almost a twinkle in Hunt’s eye as he catapults off of buildings and hangs from planes, which is part of the reason why he’s so often compared to James Bond. Now, he seems almost to be saying, “Oh god, this again.”

LH: I think most would disagree with you about Skyfall and Dunkirk, considering that both received excellent reviews from critics and audiences alike. Be that as it may, I actually think that the Tom Cruise twinkle was more pronounced here than in past films. Sure, there’s yet another major threat to world peace (also known as the “we’ve all seen this before” narrative crutch) but there’s also some actual development of Ethan Hunt’s character. Now we know why he gives a damn. In fact, that scene midway through with the French police officer is the exact moment where you see the heart of the film: One life is as important as millions, as long as someone cares enough to do something about it. That sense of nobility drives the whole globetrotting plot. I would argue this was lacking from the other films in the series. In Fallout, we only care about the sheer magnitude of the practical stunts (italicized out of sheer respect) because we care about the character of Ethan Hunt and his intentions. I will admit that the plot gets convoluted (which MI film doesn’t?), but for once it’s in service of character development, not an attempt to trick us with plot structure or misdirection like some Bond movies or past Mission: Impossible installments have relied on. There’s no secret villain (careful listeners will recognize that the “American” agent used his actual British voice in the opening showdown, purposefully telegraphing a later reveal), or gadgets that save the world, deus ex machina-style. Instead, it’s quite simply Ethan’s (and Cruise’s) respect for the world (and the audience) that’s at stake. If this is to be the last Mission: Impossible, which it may well be, then an ending doesn’t get nobler than this.

JL: Okay, let’s break this down, point-by-point. One, I’ve asked you before never to mention Christopher Nolan‘s name or movies in my presence again. You know that this offense means banishment to the Fandor-branded punishment cube, where you will be forced to watch The Emoji Movie like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. I hope it was worth it.

As for all of these new facets that are revealed about Hunt’s character: They aren’t new, and to make them the focus of the movie instead of layering them into his persona like one might when creating character development conscientiously, is just sloppy. It hits us in the face over, and over, and over again.

To both Cruise and McQuarrie’s credit, they had the opportunity to make Ethan Hunt go “full-brood,” and they resisted it.

LH: At least I am willing to admit when a blockbuster is attempting to do something new. At least I’m able to feel some satisfaction when a big-budget director endeavors to make us care about his characters, instead of simply cashing in on a big IP.

The reality is that in the past, Mission: Impossible movies have always possessed thinly written characters that were made more interesting by the camaraderie and charisma of the actors. Can you tell me the backstory of any of the characters, including Hunt, from your memory of the other five films? Oh, you can’t? Cool, neither can I.

Fallout, by contrast, does the heavy lifting of making every episode that came before, even the unfortunate Mission: Impossible 2 (Rock climbing, anyone?) matter. With not one, but two strong roles for women (Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa and Michelle Monaghan’s Julia), a group of villains that are actually memorable (whereas the only bad guy I cared about in the past was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s brooding Owen Davian in the messy MI:3), plus a protagonist who finally reveals why he commits so strongly to keep his loved ones and the world safe, I am more than convinced that this Mission: Impossible is the first in the franchise with more on its mind than just entertainment. And because of that, it felt like the strongest film in the series.

JL: Yes, the women in this movie have agency…insofar as how they choose to react to Ethan Hunt’s decisions. That’s an incredibly low bar. Not to take away from their performances! Rebecca Ferguson is great, and Monaghan does a lot with her three to five minutes of screen time. The faults in this movie are really down to McQuarrie’s writing. As much passion and dedication as the actors had, his lifeless script torpedoed this movie.

The HALO jump is amazing, but Cavill’s motivations make no sense and he comes off as a “spy bro.” And not that it’s by any means the only measure of a movie’s inclusiveness or overall quality, but Fallout doesn’t even come close to passing the Bechdel test. Because Hunt is so chivalrous and because Ilsa Faust’s personal motivations happen to align with Hunt’s, it gives her character the illusion of agency— but it’s not real agency.

LH: I’ll concede that the script isn’t the strongest, but once again, we’re talking about a summer blockbuster intended to entertain the masses. As for the women, please name another film with a leading lady as compelling as Ilsa Faust? Not since maybe Charlize Theron‘s Furiosa have we had an action heroine lead that kicks this much ass. And Cavill’s spy bro act is also partially a “performance” within a performance, but to say any more would be getting too far into spoiler territory.

Nonetheless, what makes this film truly stand out is Cruise’s dedication to making Hunt feel real and relatable, and giving the audience something to chew on in terms of why he continues to risk his life. Along with that, incredible feats of filmmaking like the HALO jump scene, a tightly-choreographed bathroom fight scene accompanied only by diegetic sound, and a chase through the busy streets of Paris with Tom Cruise actually on the motorcycle, not to mention the threat of a ticking-clock nuclear explosion that would wipe out a third of humanity, are all going to have folks flocking to the box office for Fallout, and its successor as well, if it ever arrives. To me, that’s not an impossible mission, but rather a mission accomplished.

JL: Pointing out how bad Hollywood does at its characterizations of women doesn’t make Fallout’s depictions “good” it just makes them “better.” If that’s a mission accomplished, as you put it, then that’s pretty disappointing.

Wow, that was some scintillating debate. If you can’t get enough of it when two Fandor staffers get into the steel-cage deathmatch of critical debate then check out our other editions of Point/Counterpoint, where we argue the merits of Skyscraper, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and Godard Mon Amour
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