Thursday 2 August 2018

Tom Tom club: "Mission Impossible: Fallout"

Unlike the Fast & Furious franchise, which has powered steadily along in third gear for eight films without ever once threatening to generate great or even especially memorable cinema, the Mission: Impossible movies have given rise to an unusual degree of variation and deviation. The series has so far encompassed auteurist flourishes (Brian De Palma's 1996 original, John Woo's 2000 sequel), heavyweight acting face-offs (Tom Cruise versus Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2006's MI3, an echo of the fact the franchise became a renewed concern for its star after the box-office failures of 1999's Magnolia and Eyes Wide Shut), and a live-action cartoon (Brad Bird's Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, from 2011) in which Cruise scaled tall buildings with his bare hands before comprehensively outrunning a sandstorm. 

Since 2015's Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, the series has been in the care of Christopher McQuarrie, previously best known as the screenwriter of 1995's The Usual Suspects, who's assembled his instalments much as his most celebrated character Keyser Söze did his cover story: as a loose tissue of connections permitting all manner of switchback swerves, thrills and spills. The underlying formula, however, remains unaltered: a core squad of goodies (now standing at Cruise's Ethan Hunt, tech whizz Simon Pegg and comms giant Ving Rhames, with Alec Baldwin carried over from Rogue Nation as Hunt's boss), one or two baddies for them to outwit, a whole prop truck's worth of masks and gadgets, and a spectacular setpiece every twenty-to-thirty minutes, carrying us through to the reprise of Lalo Schifrin's original TV theme, cue for us to vacate Screen One, broadly convinced we've had our money's worth.

The good news with Mission Impossible: Fallout is that McQuarrie has massively improved as an action director since Rogue Nation, a film of expensively grand yet fundamentally hollow gestures. You'll have to sit through a chewy opening twenty minutes as the film gets its narrative cranks and pistons going, but McQuarrie thereafter delivers a parachute jump into stormy skies over Berlin, a colossal, set-trashing two-on-one dust-up in a gents' loos, a car chase through the streets of Paris immediately topped by a motorcycle chase through the streets of Paris, a brisk foot pursuit over the rooftops of London, and a finale involving helicopters duelling over the peaks of Kashmir, because if any man can bring peace to that region, Cruise can.

What's in between is really just there to enable the stunt team - who barrel through these old-school analogue crash-bangs as if the Bourne movies never existed - to go to work again, and to allow the leading man to play exactly the indomitable hero he might have played twenty years ago before he resumed his interest in serious acting. The plot McQuarrie has dug up would have seemed unoriginal in 1998, in the wake of the Clooney/Kidman runaround The Peacemaker - Hunt and team lose three nuclear warheads during a pre-credits prologue, then have to go mildly rogue to retrieve them - but it's worked through as coherently as any Mission: Impossible plot can be. The argument remains, however, that these films are ultimately far less about saving the world than they are about shoring up its star's image.

The M:I franchise has functioned best whenever its leading man has run up against someone who genuinely appeared capable of taking him down a notch or two: Hoffman, you feared or maybe hoped, might have crushed Cruise between his thumb and forefinger, if he'd felt so inclined. Fallout opens promisingly in this respect, bringing Ethan Hunt into contact with man-mountain performers visibly taller than him (bullnecked Henry Cavill as a rival agent assigned to shadow our hero's movements, Frederick Schmidt as a shady British broker) and, all too briefly, with Angela Bassett as a CIA chief striving to rein in the Impossible Missions Force. Yet it very quickly defaults to familiar positions and situations, getting everybody into some perilous corner, only for Ethan to run, jump and punch his way out. Bassett fades wastefully into the background; the excellent Sean Harris, whose Rogue Nation ne'er-do-well Solomon Lane is returned to play here, is no more than a beardy MacGuffin, shuffled around with the warheads as part of the plot's three-card trick.

There's a reason why Cruise has put life and limb on the line for these movies (among its other oohs and aahs, Fallout's final cut appears to preserve the much-reported incident where self-stunting star snapped an ankle while traversing the London skyline), and that's because no other franchise has so dedicated itself to making its now fiftysomething star look youthful, virile, good. (And so enabled him to do the box-office numbers he was doing in his thirties: none of that "I'm too old for this shit" shit for our Tom.) The Fast & Furiouses, with their interminable emphasis on "family", are a team effort; the Mission: Impossibles, by contrast, are more than ever a one-man show, as underlined by those scenes in Fallout where Hunt runs through an office or into a packed-pew church ceremony, and the assembled extras gawp en masse, as if to say "Look, it's Tom Cruise!" I wonder if this is where this franchise's appeal ultimately lies: in the opportunity it presents for us to observe one of the few Eighties/Nineties stars who hasn't yet been reduced to providing direct-to-DVD content at large in the kind of male ego-stroke megaproduction the studios routinely turned out before the comic-book nerds moved out of their bedrooms and into the boardroom. (In this, these films are as nostalgic as any Skyfall or SPECTRE, any Jurassic World.) 

Yet the more McQuarrie gives us of Cruise saving the day, the less space there seems to be for anybody else. It's telling that the wide-reaching ensemble De Palma recruited for that first Mission: Impossible has dwindled to a few loyal sports who don't mind playing second fiddle for these paycheques, nor having to mouth the odd godawful line of dialogue clangingly inserted to underline just what a thoroughly great guy Ethan Hunt is. McQuarrie's fetish for makeweight British actresses doesn't help anybody's cause: it seems an especially precipitous decline from Kristin Scott Thomas and Thandie Newton to Rebecca Ferguson and Vanessa Kirby, though this may also be indicative of how unimportant the female roles have become in Tom Cruise vehicles. (Emily Blunt in 2014's Edge of Tomorrow remains the anomaly in this field.) In a timeline where Eyes Wide Shut got across-the-board raves and Magnolia won Cruise his Oscar, there would be no need for the star to have pursued this calculated, give-'em-what-they-want retreat any further, but here we all are. A star going at full pelt through one setpiece after another is all this series now has; the consolation lies in knowing those setpieces may be the best the business has to offer this summer.   

Mission Impossible: Fallout is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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