McQuarrie: Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)
If Christopher McQuarrie revitalised the Mission Impossible franchise with Rogue Nation, then Fallout is his masterpiece – a perfect action film in which the combination of suspense, soulfulness and comedy holds its own against the classics of any action era. Centred on three set pieces that take us from Paris to London to Kashmir, the narrative sees Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt in a more precarious position in the new world order than ever. After letting a precious cargo of plutonium go in the opening set piece for the sake of protecting his crew, he’s forced to track its movement through the Apostles, a shadowy underground organisation that are committed to an apocalyptic reconfiguration of the world as we know it, but in the short term offer terror for hire. At the heart of that privatised terrorism is Hunt’s arch-nemesis, Solomon Lane, played by Sean Harris, who offers the world to come as “the fallout of all your good intentions,” and who functions as a fulcrum for all the competing interests that Hunt has to contend with. More than ever before, that requires Hunt to disguise his own identity, to himself as much as to his targets, especially when it comes to seeking out a terrorist known as John Lark. While Hunt adopts Lark’s persona for the sake of his mission, MI-6, headed by Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) quickly comes to suspect that Hunt is in fact Lark, and that he is adopting his own persona under the guise of serving his country, thanks to some prodding and insinuation from August Walker (Henry Cavill), an assassin and CIA operative assigned to shadow Hunt for the duration of the case.
As the film proceeds, that results in a series of dazzling twists and turns, as Hunt is alternately suspected of being a terrorist, and courted by terrorists. While Hunt’s allegiances are never really in doubt to the audience, the shifting perceptions of him give the film an incredibly slippery and exciting momentum, as well as expanding its palette and ambit more than even Rogue Nation. No doubt, the inky textures, slick surfaces and stealth aesthetic of the earlier films are here, especially whenever Hunt and his team of Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) set themselves a real-time task. Yet there’s a more panoramic romanticism here as well, partly because McQuarrie handles Hunt’s romantic interests more deftly than any previous director in the franchise – both his smouldering, sublimated rapport with his ex-wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan), who is now travelling the world incognito to avoid compromising Hunt’s mission; and his more melancholy and tentative rapport with fellow agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Fergsuon), who punctuates the action and provides the film with its broader emotional arc and momentum. In both cases, McQuarrie builds a genuinely romantic atmosphere that never sentimentalises Hunt, or uses the women in film as a canvas for his self-regard, but situates all the action scenes within a broader and more embodied sense of human relations, both physical and emotive.
It’s not just the romantic element that expands the palette of Fallout, however, but the scale and sweep of the three major set pieces. Even in Rogue Nation, it was clear that McQuarrie was trying to pair a classically cinematic optic with the possibilities of contemporary action cinema. No doubt, that was always the aim of the franchise, especially as elaborated by Brian De Palma in the first film, but no film has quite nailed it like Fallout, which makes even Rogue Nation seem like a dress rehearsal. The benchmark is set with the prologue to the first set piece, in which a single shot follows Hunt and Walker as they prepare to skydive out the back of a plane, and then actually skydive, swirling and spinning in the air above Paris for the most spectacular aerial sequence I’ve seen in a Hollywood film since the third act of Point Break. As the city spins in and out of focus in the background, it’s clear that McQuarre is envisaging something like an urban sublime – a vision of how cities look when they’re viewed from the panoramic vantage point of a high-tech action film – as well as reclaiming the action film itself as a form of urban phenomenology, a way of capturing the collective experience of a cityscape and making it available to the individual.
To that end, McQuarrie treats cities as sculptures for the majority of Fallout, divesting them of any discernible public, and instead setting his action against epic urban topographies in which every element is subsumed into a broader architectural whole. To some extent, that’s the space of the Mission:Impossible franchise more generally, which perhaps explains why Abu Dhabi felt like such an intuitive backdrop in Ghost Protocol, since as a city that was effectively constructed as a single sustained spectacle, it works quite naturally alongside this action aesthetic. In fact, the skydiving scene over Paris was partly short in Abu Dhabi, whose spatial logic pervades not only the Mission: Impossible franchise, but the curiously divested urban spaces of action films more generally, which often feel as if they’re coming to terms with precisely this kind of intensified neoliberal cityscape, albeit in an American guise. What makes McQuarrie’s film so different, however, is that it isn’t simply content to evoke this anonymous, globalised urban texture, as occurs, say in the Marvel films. Instead, Fallout is prescient that if you capture a city wholistically and energetically enough, then its classical and historical substrate will reveal itself in the process, resulting in vast panoramas in which both the neoliberal and ancient elements of Paris and London are simultaneously present.
In other words, Fallout doesn’t just capture the spatial sweep of the cities it traverses, but also the temporal sweep, imbuing the action sequences with an extraordinary dynamism that seems to invoke the lived history of the city as much as its edificies. While people may not be present, these cities are nevertheless subsumed into their transit corridors and conduits to such an extent that they exude a lived human momentum that goes beyond the human contingencies of the present, suspending Hunt, in turn, within a precipitous space in which his actions, and the very idea of action, has an almost unbearable spatial and temporal import. For that reason, Fallout is also more alive to human error than any other film in the franchise, let alone any film in contemporary action cinema, where the fixation of digital effects tends to remove just this sense of embodied contingency. By contrast, McQuarrie’s most sublime action sequences typically start off seamless, and then gradually devolve under the pressure of some small human error, or unexpected datum, until they play more like deconstructed action sequences – visions of finely controlled chaos in which the chaos becomes just that little more pronounced and present with each new iteration.
While the kinetic intensity of Fallout couldn’t exist without special effects, then, it’s perpetually offset by the visceral sense of actual bodies performing actual actions and – perhaps most importantly – being surrounded by or suspended in actual space. The point is made quite comically during the London sequence, as Benji directs Hunt where to go during a sustained chase scene, only for him to suddenly realise that the digital map he’s examining only has one dimension, and that his directives (“right two metres, left thirty metres”) are forcing Hunt to traverse one awkward and ungainly threshold after another. Within that kind of space, no fight or encounter ever feels like a foregone conclusion, partly because McQuarrie allows Cruise to look more disheveled and aged than in any of his films to date – or, maybe, because Cruise allows himself to look disheveled and aged within this working relationship that has proven so remunerative and restorative to his later action sensibility.
One of the beautiful paradoxes of that scenario is that the more embodied the action becomes, the more abstracted the cities around it grow, until it’s more like witnessing the broad brushstrokes and patterns that comprise cities rather than cities per se. In that respect, Fallout often comes very close in its aesthetic to Hitchcock, who had an uncanny knack for condensing a city, or a film – or a city and a film – to a single camera movement, or a single motif. That’s especially clear here in the London set piece, whose scenes on St. Paul’s and in Tate Modern echo the ending to Blackmail, but both the Paris and the London sequences achieve this abstraction and apotheosis of their respective cityscapes by way of the helicopters that prove more crucial to Fallout than any other film in the franchise. While it doesn’t quite make sense to say that the helicopters “anchor” the action sequences, they are their driving force, swiveling around buildings, obstructions and landmarks so vertiginously that the same careening sense of space gradually takes hold on the ground as well, eventually dissolving all distinction between ground and sky into a sublime action flux.
That paves the way for the most audacious and spectacular conclusion in the franchise, as McQuarrie removes this abstracted urban texture from urban space entirely, taking the action to remote Kashmir where two distinct action strands play out. In the first, Benji and Luther try to dispose of Lane and diffuse a bomb at the same time, with the help of Julia and Ilsa. In the second, Hunt attempts to retrieve the detonator for the bomb by climbing onto a boulder being trailed by a helicopter, climbing up the rope to the helicopter, disposing of the helicopter pilot, and then chasing down the accompanying helicopter – all of which amounts to arguably the most ambitious helicopter scene committed to film, Apocalypse Now included. As the action on the ground grows more minutely and anxiously embodied, the helicopter chase unfolds one sublime landscape after another, as the fluid, careening space of the Mission: Impossible city is removed from any one city and turned into a self-contained spectacle of its own, in a sequence so breathless it has to be seen to be believed.
Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be true to the spirit of the film to separate its aesthetic into a disembodied air and an embodied ground, since part of what makes Fallout so spectacular is the way it resists that division of labour, often recalling David Fincher’s Zodiac in its refusal to stage any clearcut distinction between analog and digital visuality. Instead, both the aerial and terrestrial sequences converge, as the helicopter chase becomes more physical and plosive, and the bomb dismantling produces an otherworldly and ethereal temporality of its own. More specifically, both sequences converge on moments of unbearable brinksmanship, in which the characters – and the actors – are tested and challenged to find new reservoirs of will and ingenuity, epitomised by a scene in which Ilsa has to choose between strangling Lane and saving Benji from being strangled. In these moments, the characters and actors have to make their own time, turn time to their will, which is presumably why they all look so exhausted in the final sequence, barely leaving us time for a conclusion – just a cursory “Don’t make me laugh” from Hunt as he’s bent over in relief – before the final credits roll. And that’s just how a perfect action film should be – it should feel as if both the actors and characters have strained and trained themselves to the very precipice of their physical and intellectual capacities, wresting time back into their hands, embodying time itself in their struggle to shape it as sublimely and urgently as they do here.
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