It's been over twenty years since Brian De Palma's original movie, and the series has blossomed into the best action film since Mad Max Fury Road. Christopher McQuarrie comes back from the previous Rogue Nation to direct Cruise in the latest installment of Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and the IMF team who have to recover plutonium cores after a mission goes awry.
It's a deceptively simple plot, but McQuarrie juggles a mindboggling amount of balls in order to make the story as clear and emotionally relevant as it does. First, we have the cast of characters that has grown together over the past few installments. The chemistry between Luther (Ving Rhames), Benji (Simon Pegg), and Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) is believably compelling because it's been built and hard-earned. The trust that they have for each other is therefore a given. A complaint I had about Rogue Nation was the lack of character development because the cast was already established. Here, McQuarrie uses that familiarity to build serious moments and to make us care more for the characters. As Ethan shows over and over again as his ethos, we care for the one just as much as the many. McQuarrie wisely understands the best way to get us emotionally invested in the stakes and the plot is our empathy for this cast.
Second, McQuarrie brings the audience in again with the stunts. There's something beautiful about the verisimilitude of Cruise's stunts. When he tears around on a motorcycle without a helmet, he has to reach out his leg time and time again to keep his balance. It's not a move that James Bond would ever have to make, but it makes it that much more realistic. Cruise constantly shows that he's willing to take a hit. He's like Jackie Chan in that way (just as Tom Cruise is to Daniel Craig as Jackie Chan is to Jet Li) -- when you put Jackie Chan in a room with 20 enemies, you know that he's going to get out, but he's definitely going to get banged up in the process. The similarity to Chan doesn't end there -- McQuarrie and Cruise both understand that to film a proper action scene, we need to see both the hit and the impact of it in one shot. It's the kind of editing that shows that Cruise is actually getting thrown from a collision. It's also the reason why, when Cruise is driving against traffic at one point in the movie, the camera pulls back from his point of view to show him actually doing it. It may not be closer to the action, but it definitely makes more of an impact to see him in the thick of it. Fallout doesn't try to hide any of the action with shaky cameras, dark lighting, and confused or rapid edits. When we're smack in the middle of one of the most exciting car chase scenes in the last decade, there isn't even a soundtrack to influence our emotions. What exists in the scene is just the sound of the engine in an unadulterated, genuinely thrilling chase.
I'm still waiting for the day that Tom Cruise starts including a stunt blooper reel a la Jackie Chan at the end of his films.
Again and again, the team is given impossible scenarios. And each time, Ethan Hunt says "we'll figure it out". And that is the sort of trust that the audience builds for this movie. It's all a little ridiculous -- the set up of a time bomb, or the hijinks that are necessary for every supposedly uncrackable security system -- but it's a conceit that we've come to accept. At this time, we trust that every decision made is made for the good of the movie. And each impossible situation comes with an excited expectation of being dazzled by the solution.
The impossible situation set up by Fallout's conclusion is thus: how will they ever come up with a sequel to top this one? But as always, we'll be eager to see how Hunt and his team figure it out.