"Mission: Impossible - Fallout" Forgoes Wit For Overblown Action

In early 2016, swarms of movie fans turned on “Birdman” filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu and star Leonardo DiCaprio. The press was firebombing the internet with tales of how difficult the duo’s thriller “The Revenant” was to film, making it hard to avoid puffed up accounts of subzero temperatures, irate crew members, and a painfully bloated shooting schedule all in service of natural light and quote-unquote realism. The admittedly middle-of-the-road thriller won both men Oscars, but their reputations took a moderate hit. They’ve mostly stayed out of the spotlight since.

Jump to 2018 and some of those same film buffs can’t get enough of 55-year-old Tom Cruise’s ballyhooed derring-do on the set of “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” – how he broke his ankle (a shot that remains in the finished film), completed a HALO jump, learned to fly a helicopter, and on and on. True, Cruise’s insistence on doing his own stunts has been a boon to the series before, no more than when he unforgettably scaled Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper in 2011’s “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.”

But that film was light on its feet and seriously self-effacing. “Fallout” is mostly just serious, its distended running time trailing off into a masturbatory third act that flips the series script from witty fun to movie star fantasy camp. The audience is no longer the thing; it’s Cruise and Cruise alone.

Christopher McQuarrie is the series’ first filmmaker to be invited back (the original design was for each entry to have its own identity), taking advantage of that station by making a direct sequel to predecessor “Rogue Nation.” Unusually for the franchise, nearly the entire main cast of that film returns, including Sean Harris as slithery villain Solomon Lane. Only Jeremy Renner is absent, presumably due to Marvel Studios commitments, his character going unmentioned.

Cruise of course reprises IMF agent Ethan Hunt (the role he originated in Brian De Palma’s terrific “Mission: Impossible”), and his longtime right hand Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and left hand Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) are reliably along for the ride. Alec Baldwin is also back as Alan Hunley, Hunt’s reluctant boss, and Rebecca Ferguson returns as the ping-ponging MI6 operative Ilsa Faust. It’s a strong core made no stronger by the introduction and strained presence of Henry Cavill (“Justice League”) as August Walker, a CIA agent tasked with babysitting Hunt’s team.

As ordered by his boss Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett), Walker is necessarily a narrative hanger-on – until he’s not, when McQuarrie takes the character in an awfully obvious direction. It’s agreeable seeing Cavill free from the constraints of Warner Bros.’ terrible take on Superman, but the 35-year-old actor seems genuinely unsure of how to govern his own charisma. As far as mysterious figures go, Solomon Lane is still a much more interesting one, Harris’ scraggly beard intriguingly belying his appearance in “Rogue Nation.” He remains a true wild card.

As Hunt and his team zig-zag across the globe in pursuit of three plutonium cores about to fall into the wrong hands, McQuarrie plays good soldier, indulging Cruise’s increasingly transparent attempts to burst out of the screen not just a fictional hero but a real-life one. Unlike Paul Greengrass’ Jason Bourne movies, McQuarrie’s action scenes are staged and photographed with much appreciated clarity, and the various car chases and fist fights get the adrenaline pumping. For a while.

After 90 minutes though, fatigue sets in. Where’s the wit? Where’s Hunt’s signature smirk? Nothing here is nearly as elegant as the opera sequence in “Rogue Nation,” nothing as nail-biting as its underwater setpiece. By the two-hour mark it’s perfectly clear where things are going and how they’ll get there. But “Fallout” has another half-hour in store, including a mind-numbingly mechanical helicopter chase that feels like it’s playing out in slo-mo. Memories of a relatively sharp first act are long gone, replaced by a movie star’s mid-life crisis unfolding right in front of us.

The endeavor ends up a professionally made if questionably scripted blockbuster with all the surface-level thrills a moviegoer could ask for. But the film, its final stretch in particular, is screaming out for something akin to the relatively cartoonish “Ghost Protocol.” Oh, to relive the fleetness of its Dean Martin-scored prison break sequence. Alas, it never comes, the series’ sixth entry posturing as a substantial actioner without ever being one. It is a Christopher Nolan-aping, overblown, underwritten thing, fated to slowly shrink in stature as the years go by.

Or maybe the novelty of Tom Cruise fantasy camp will prove eternal – a monument to senseless excess in an era destined to be known for it.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: July 2018, 2018
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Screenwriter: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Henry Cavill, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Kirby, Michelle Monaghan, Alec Baldwin
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violence and intense sequences of action, and for brief strong language)