In spite of all the high-minded cinema fare I profess to care for so deeply, the movies I get most excited about are usually popcorn action thrillers. That explains why, if I’m honest, “Mission: Impossible—Fallout” was probably the movie I’ve looked most forward to all year. Its predecessor, “Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation” pulled off the unthinkable feat of being both the fifth and most interesting installment in an already excellent franchise. When I learned that its director, Christopher McQuarrie—one of the best filmmakers working today—would return and that “Fallout” would be a direct sequel, I started getting very, very excited.
For my money, this is a series that has only gotten better with each new installment. No one asked me to rank them from least to most favorite, but I will now anyway, as the ordering is actually quite elegant: I, II, III, IV (“Ghost Protocol”), and then V (“Rogue Nation”). In fact, I re-watched them all in July in anticipation of “Fallout” which, as it turns out, completes the progression by being the best one yet. We’re all well aware by now of star Tom Cruise’s almost disturbing obsession with risking his own life for our entertainment, but in this outing he and McQuarrie achieve an almost sublime synthesis of character development and action. What’s communicated through stunts, body blows and explosions here is as meaningful as what’s expressed through dialogue. It’s as close as a large-scale Hollywood action has ever come to an auteurist psychological drama.
One of the unintended consequences of having banked a string of six highly successful, generally well-reviewed films in a row is that the series has also created an unmistakable snapshot of popular contemporary thinking. Beyond the cracking good action, after watching the complete series it became clear to me that at heart these movies are about the tension between physicality and technology.
This has been true from the start. The very first installment also happened to produce the series’ most lasting image: that of Tom Cruise dangling from wires as he attempts to extract data from a highly secure computer terminal. Since then, a similar act of extraction has figured intrinsically into the plot of all of these films. Over and over again they posit that human movement and physical action is the only reliable way to render some crucial value required by people from the intractable grip of technology, whether what must be breached is a data center at a CIA compound, a nonsensically located server room on a forbiddingly high floor of the Burj Khalifa, or any number of situations made fraught by technology’s uncannily accurate ability to subvert the truth (read: the countless masks that are a hallmark of the franchise).
It’s also no accident that Tom Cruise is commonly referred to as today’s “last movie star.” As a conceptual whole, “Mission: Impossible” tries to make sense of how a classic, cinematic idea of masculinity can overcome technology’s encumbrances. Sure, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt character is always abetted by his technologically incisive colleagues Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), but these are strictly secondary characters—comic relief, even. Ultimately the resolution of the plot falls to the alpha male, Cruise himself. This series is a reflection of society’s struggle to reconcile heroism and hacking.
And that’s all I have to say about “Mission: Impossible” for now—unless you want to subscribe to my newsletter, where I’ll have some more totally unnecessary thoughts for subscribers only. Meanwhile, here is the full list of all fifteen movies I watched last month, only seven of which starred Tom Cruise!