By Liam Lacey
Let’s start with the good. A bedtime story for adrenaline junkies, a Jack-In-The-Box of predictable surprises, the latest Mission Impossible movie, Mission: Impossible - Fallout, rattles through its two-and-a-half hour running time like a runaway train.
Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s ensemble of action sequences, coupled together by bits of plot, is all momentum, putting star Tom Cruise, in an accelerating spiral of death-defying, if always escapable, predicaments.
For devotees of the 22-year-old franchise, Mission: Impossible 6 serves as a kind of all-star episode, bringing together cast members stretching back two decades.
These include: Simon Pegg as jittery tech expert Benji, Ving Rhames as loyal computer hacker Luther, Ethan’s former wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan) and Ethan’s boss, Alec Baldwin. Returning from the fifth film, Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation, we have Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) and the Rasputin-bearded bearded anarchist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris).
Added to the mix are Angela Bassett as a CIA director of uncertain loyalties, Henry Cavill as a CIA mole, and Vanessa Kirby (Princess Margaret in Netflix series, The Crown) as a slinky duplicitous arms-dealer/philanthropist known as White Widow. Kirby is a lot of fun (a kind of Lady Gaga villainess) but the performances are mostly deliberated, delivered in shots of exposition-heavy dialogue or panicky shouts.
There’s a plot that’s almost as baffling as the punctuation of the movie’s title. It has something to do with the acquisition of three blobs of plutonium by a cult of apocalypse-minded villains called The Apostles. But there are so many double-crosses, disguises and dream sequences, the story is a collapsing frame for the fight-and-chase set-pieces and timely stabs of the Lalo Schifrin musical theme.
Given all the on-screen risk-taking, Mission: Impossible - Fallout plays it pretty safe. What you get is essentially an action movies greatest hits package. The most impressive sequence is a fight, involving Chinese martial artist, Liang Yang, Cruise and Cavill, that sees the destruction of a bright white men’s washroom. It’s not especially original: Bathroom fights are such a staple of action movies that you can find “bathroom fights” scenes ranked on the internet.
Also familiar are the chase across rooftops, the escape from a woman assassin in a form-fitting suit, the battle in a helicopter cockpit, the late-opening parachute dive and the battle on a mountainous precipice.
In the moment, the scenes are impressive but as the train of stunt sequences rolls on, the machine-tooled “escapism” feels increasingly predictable. Mission: Impossible plays at being risky while playing it safe. Each time Ethan Hunt (Cruise) drives, runs, speed-boats or helicopters around London, Paris or central Asia to save someone, tumble into a boat, or elude an enemy at precisely the right instant, you feel the fix is in. The character’s improvisational skills and improbable luck always prevail; the gears crunch and the cuckoo pops up from the clock at the right moment.
In a comic-book hero age, Ethan Hunt is not supposed to have super-powers, though his achievements are consistently super-heroic. What are his powers? They’re certainly not cerebral. Though Ethan can memorize massive amounts of instructions quickly, he rarely has a plan - to the humorous dismay of Simon Pegg’s ever-nervous Benji.
Nor, is he a dandyish alpha-male showman like James Bond. Ethan/Tom, in this episode, is monastic. Though there are three women circling around him in the movie, romance must be held at arm’s length. There’s a long speech near the film’s end, by Ethan’s devoted sidekick, Luther, who explains that Ethan can’t have a successful relationship with a woman because he’s too committed to saving the world - which, frankly, sounds like a bit of an excuse.
I don’t mean to confuse the actor with the role, though it’s clear the film’s creators (Cruise is also a producer) would like me to. Every Mission: Impossible advance story nowadays mentions Cruise’s dedication, his age-defying athleticism and enthusiasm (he just turned 56) and that he does his own stunt work. There’s a perverse highlight in the movie when he leaps between two Paris buildings and cracks his leg against a wall, pulls himself up and hobbles onward, because we know, in real life, Cruise broke his ankle on that stunt, putting the movie on hiatus and driving up the budget until he recovered.
Like the wrestler, Mick “Mankind” Foley, Ethan/Tom suffers for our pleasure. Or, perhaps, since the audience is expected to go through vicarious agonies while he gets well-paid, we suffer for his pleasure. In either case, I wish the character were a little less sincere and self-sacrificing and a little more complex.
Also, for once, could the Mission: Impossible squad please defuse a bomb with more than a few seconds to spare? I’m beginning to suspect they’re dawdling on purpose.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Starring Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, Michelle Monaghan and Alec Baldwin. Mission Impossible: Fallout shows at the Cineplex Varsity, Cineplex Yorkdale, Cineplex Yonge-Eglinton and Cineplex Yonge-Dundas.