• 'Mission: Impossible - Fallout' (2018)

    Another year, another mission. The sixth Mission: Impossible film has been promoted as the biggest yet, with co-producer/star Tom Cruise actually flying a helicopter and undertaking a parachute jump for real, both on camera. But this entry in the series also has – for the first time – continuity of writer/director (Christopher McQuarrie) and supporting characters across consecutive films, which sets up additional expectations. Add in its leading actor incurring an injury that held up shooting for several weeks and apparent use of the IMAX family of formats once again for the filming itself, and the result has a more than usual level of expectation for the viewer.

    Perhaps because of this, a nondescript night-time alley in what the screen captions as Belfast followed by Ethan Hunt (Cruise) receiving a lengthy briefing projected onto the wall of an empty industrial space is a curiously pedestrian starting point given the stunningly dynamic opening of #5, Ghost Nation. The exposition-heavy recording is nominally to prepare Hunt for his mission but its principal purpose is of course to set up the audience, and yet for me its attempts to introduce two main characters and the inevitable terrorist cell felt uncomfortably like stuffing too much into a single plotline even at this very early stage.

    The oddly quotidian mood continues when Hunt and the IMF team of Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) appear in Berlin for an exchange of money and three plutonium bomb cores; despite these high-stakes items, the dull setting (another industrial setting, another night scene) and unambitious action (a shoot-out, and this confusingly presented) frustrate. Yes, the final sequence does link back to the franchise’s televisual origins (though also to a very specific episode of the Gerry Anderson puppet series Terrahawks (1983-86, interestingly) and raise the stakes somewhat, but by the time the latest rearrangement of Lalo Schiffrin’s driving theme tune begins I was already shifting in my seat.

    After the necessary introduction of new character August Walker (Henry Cavill), CIA “hammer” to Hunt’s “scalpel” and already nicely ambiguous in his loyalties, the first of those big action scenes unfolds as Hunt and Walker drop in on Paris’s Grand Palais exhibition venue via a military-style parachute jump. Both suit up and, after the mutual needling that serves as cinematic shorthand for their spiky relationship, leap out of the aircraft and enter a freefall… All very familiar, except that when Hunt, following the bullish Walker who has already jumped, runs toward the camera and both continue into thin air in the same shot, the plane they were in vanishing behind him into a twilight sky, we are actually watching Tom Cruise himself skydiving out of the back of a real C-17 jet transport several thousand feet over the United Arab Emirates, where the sequence was shot. A full-face helmet – the latter an absolute necessity in such circumstances, the former invented especially for this film – allows us to confirm that it’s the actor and not a stuntman (Cruise made over a hundred practice drops in training).

    The mid-air tussles that follow, again not original in themselves, are nevertheless impressively mounted given Cruise’s continuing presence as Hunt (Cavill did not take part) and the contemporary filming techniques used to record them. And yet I couldn’t help feeling that there was something lacking here, some subtle cue that would let my mind accept that that was a genuine improvement on, say, replacing a stunt person’s face with a digital image of the actor as was done a generation ago in Jurassic Park (1993). Churlish I know, but symptomatic of what was to come.

    The encounters that follow within the Grand Palais – itself introducing Paris as one of the major locations for the film – only served to cause more confusion as to the identity, motivation and relationships between the various characters introduced, including Alanna Mitsopolis/the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby). An impressive fight sequence holds the interest, not least thanks to the remarkable skills of stuntman Liang Ying, though once again it is both conceptually and aesthetically similar to an almost identical scene in True Lies (1995)

    One character and actress whose reintroduction is very welcome is that of Ilsa Faust as played by Rebecca Ferguson. The actress stole the previous film and her initial – surprise – appearance here with a snappy fight sequence coming soon after bode well. Similarly Solomon Lane, a disturbingly gimlet-eyed, tangle-bearded Sean Harris, also returns, though the manner of that happening disclose further misjudgements on the part of the makers.

    The violent armed rescue of Lane from a prison convoy is seen in soft focus and with muted sound, something also evident in earlier shots and used throughout to represent a memory, dream or other work of the imagination. It is employed here to reinforce one of the film’s many sub-plots, this one about Cruise’s empathy being a weakness rather than a strength. But given clips of this sequence without blurring (which was presumably applied in post) appear in the trailer and given the actual rescue that takes place in the story is rather different, it feels as though McQuarrie is having his cake and eating it, cramming in two action scenes for the price of one. In addition that definitive rescue involves yet another ‘loan’ from someone else’s work, since the manner in which Hunt places Lane’s prison van at the IMF’s disposal is taken directly from the Robbie Williams short film Rob By Nature (2001), effectively the music video for the single The Road To Mandalay.

    Admittedly this sequence debuts on film one of Paris’s most striking buildings highly impressively; the helicopter that carried Lane into the city earlier lands on the rooftop helipad of the Ministère de l’Economie et des Finances, which rises from the Seine itself, and the convoy that takes him into the streets from there accurately exits the ministry via its ceremonial doors. It is here, though, also that the mystery over the format used to shoot and exhibit Fallout comes to the surface.

    Aerial photography of that helicopter cries out for the 15 perf/70mm IMAX treatment (as indeed did the parachute drop, where it would have really helped sell Cruise as performer), and indeed various action scenes in Paris and London show clear differences in the framing, direction and stock used from those in the remainder of the film, but no information source confirms its use and in Britain at least the only IMAX presentations are – irritatingly – in 3D digital format. It is clear that more needs to come out about this, which is perhaps one other aspect of a slightly troubled production.

    Cruise once more does his own stunts in the car and bike chase that ensues, but the choice of locations now feels like a tourist board decision rather than an artistic one. There are, too, many incidents where both the geography and sense of a scene are less than transparent, including when Lane is clearly hit by bullets yet immediately afterward appears entirely unharmed and during a firefight in (yet another) dark underground vault that is hopelessly confused.

    In London, this same baffling obsession with anonymous, generic studio interiors poorly intercut with obvious, glamourous locations continues, with the very first shot in that city taking place in Paternoster Square, the next in one of those brick studio sets, and the rest across the rooftops of St Paul’s, Blackfriars station and Tate Modern including an admittedly breath-taking jump by Cruise that led to his accident (it is this shot that is kept in the film).

    The final act moves to Kashmir, and involves a hunt (pun intended) for twinned nuclear devices that must be defused simultaneously (this yet another rip-off, this time from an episode of the TV series Strike Back) and the inevitable countdown set piece. It is this that leads to the helicopter chase for which Cruise sent months learning to fly. It may seem churlish to criticise this too as unnecessary but despite many shots from interior cameras prominently and pointedly showing Cruise alone in the cockpit I barely noticed, thanks to the frenetic cutting, the absurdity of his being able to escape continuous machine gun fire from his adversary and the fact that whilst Cruise the actor may know how to fly, Hunt the character does not, as is made clear in the script, which renders the entire scene unbelievable and perversely detracts from the actor’s obvious achievement personally.

    In parallel, a different confrontation takes place on the ground which involves a level and type of violence – slow throttling, hanging – that left a very unpleasant taste in the mouth. Earlier another character stabs someone to death with a butterfly knife, and the tonal variances of these scenes compared to the remainder of the film sat uncomfortably with me.

    I’ve not even mentioned the return of Hunt’s former wife, the marginalisation of Ilsa Faust as a result and the casual treatment of her own storyline, all of which seem like unneeded complication in context.

    This film was a huge disappointment. Its plot is overly complex, individual beats do not form a coherent whole and there are too many steals from other works. Cavil is good, but many of the supporting characters – Lane, Faust – waste those parts and the actors inhabiting them. The direction and editing are choppy and there are evident mismatches in style and aesthetic between the grand statement scenes, the action done for real and the awkward interiors. The formulaic excess of the finale especially is simply absurd, and it is surely significant that McQuarrie has publicly admitted cutting at least one entire action scene from the film after preview audiences complained of too much action.

    A calmer, leaner story with far less going on would have foregrounded what are actually worthwhile plot points, such as a notorious villain whom no-one has seen, consideration of whether a wrong done for the right reason is justifiable and inter-agency conflict, whilst letting those real-life action scenes shine. Perhaps a fitting conclusion is the irony of a film that is all about illusion and misdirection suffering from the fact that the pervasive use of CGI across the entertainment industry has made it almost impossible to convince an audience that what they are seeing is actually real.

    Mission: Impossible - Fallout remains on general release

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own full-colour, collage-style spread.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443

£14.99

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