How much spectacle is too much? The question comes to mind often during the 147-minute sixth entry in the Mission: Impossible series, subtitled Fallout and starring, as ever, Xenu’s favorite son, Tom Cruise, as unflappable and mostly unbreakable I.M.F. (Impossible Missions Force) secret agent Ethan Hunt. Behind-the-scenes devotees will know that Cruise fractured his ankle while performing a between-buildings leap during the film’s production. Though it might have made more sense if he tore his Achilles’ tendon, given that writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, overseer of the prior Rogue Nation, begins this arduous blockbuster with the “mission…should you choose to accept it” tape hidden in a copy of Homer’s Odyssey.
“No man aforetime was more blessed, nor shall ever be hereafter” is how Odysseus, the wandering protagonist of that ancient Greek epic, describes Achilles, confined to the underworld after his fateful demise by arrow on the Trojan battlefield. Fallout follows through on at least the first part of Odysseus’s sentiment, missing no opportunity to prop up Cruise’s indomitable earthly ego while his character runs, jumps, falls, fist-fights, sky-dives, and clambers up rope and cliff in service of…what exactly?
McQuarrie’s screenplay posits Hunt as a selfless warrior who believes one innocent person killed is too many. It’s this staunch dogma that leads the secret agent, in Fallout’s pre-credits action sequence, to choose the life of loyal partner Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) over the suitcase of plutonium that a shadowy cabal of terrorists and their shadowier, Dr. Mabuse-like leader require for a nuclear attack on the holy cities of Rome, Jerusalem, and Mecca. At least, that’s the initial objective. The particulars of the big, bad master plan begin to shift after a certain cable news anchor makes a clever cameo and a false report. The outcome of this ruse sends the I.M.F. team, which also includes tech nerd Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and gruff, ostensibly by-the-book C.I.A. operative August Walker (Henry Cavill), on a nations-traversing expedition to keep the threatened mushroom clouds at bay.
Much of the film’s action, though, is confined to France and England, all the better to allow Cruise to drive the wrong way through traffic around the Arc de Triomphe or to ascend, monkey-like, the tower of the Tate Modern so he can strike a power pose against the London skyline. “I’ll figure it out” is Hunt’s oft-repeated mantra in the face of all the purportedly impossible odds. To which the members of his I.M.F. team can only throw up their arms and heave weary sighs as if submissively muttering under their collective breaths, “That’s our Ethan!” A little of this reverent compliance goes a very long way in Fallout, but it gets especially irritating in a late scene in which Stickell delivers a fawning monologue about how unimpeachably wonderful his partner is, as if any doubts to the contrary were equivalent to blasphemy.
Stickell is speaking, at that particular moment, to MI6 operative Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who has her own parallel mission to I.M.F. involving the previous film’s villain, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). Faust was an indelible foil for Hunt in Rogue Nation, with her sensuously steely demeanor and gravity-flouting legs of doom. Yet here she’s demoted to a neutered cheerleader for his—and, by extension, Cruise’s—reckless abandon. Yet unlike do-their-own-stunt exemplars such as Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan, there’s nothing generous or uplifting about Cruise’s jaw-dropping exploits. Beneath each potentially bone-crunching feat you sense desperation, a need to prove his physical and mental agility so as to keep doubt, a dimming star, and death at bay. It’s an unseemly display, and it’s why Cruise tends to work best in films like War of the Worlds and Eyes Wide Shut, where his vanity is utilized against him, where he exists primarily to be put through a torturous wringer, where he effectively becomes the unwitting butt of a seemingly infinite cosmic joke.
You catch a glimmer of that frailty in a close-quarters, bathroom-set fight scene in which Hunt and Walker face off against a roundhouse-kicking, karate-chopping antagonist (Liang Yang). Every time Cruise gets knocked to the floor or through a white-tiled wall, he stumbles to his feet and shoots a what-the-hell-am-I-doing? glance to the ether—or maybe the stunt coordinator. It’s the only time the actor betrays anything close to human fallibility, perhaps because the poker-faced Cavill, cocking his super-sized biceps like a pair of double-barreled shotguns, is a stilted cyborg by comparison.
As in Rogue Nation, Fallout’s action scenes are cleanly composed and easy to follow, and so abundant as to become monotonous. There’s barely a second to breathe in between the Halo jumping, the motorcycle crashing, the helicopter ramming, and, in the tedious countdown-clock climax, the frenetic frame-toggling between widescreen 2.39 and IMAX 1.90 aspect ratios. (What Christopher Nolan hath wrought.) It would help if there was a single character worth caring about, though an unintended effect of reducing everyone on screen to a dewy-eyed Tom Cruise booster is that it no longer leaves poor Michelle Monaghan, returning as the incognito Mrs. Ethan Hunt, in the lone thankless role. The real fallout here is that everyone’s a zero.