Sunday, July 29, 2018

I'm jumping out a window!


Parts of it are every bit as world-class as everyone's saying, but Fallout is, in the end, only a good M:I movie.  That means it's great by regular movie standards, and it does amazing things the series has never done before (which itself is in the best tradition of its best forebears); but it's also a Mission: Impossible that sometimes almost drops down to "boring," and that's a sin this franchise has never committed.

Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie
With Tom Cruise (Ethan Hunt), Rebecca Ferguson (Ilsa Faust), Simon Pegg (Benji Dunn), Ving Rhames (Luther Stickell), Alec Baldwin (Sec. Alan Hunley), Angela Bassett (Director Erica Sloane), Henry Cavill (August Walker), Vanessa Kirby (White Widow), and Sean Harris (Solomon Lane)

Spoiler alert: moderate

If Mission: Impossible—Fallout had never come out at all, and no one had ever seen it, it still would've left us with one of 2018's better action films on the basis of its first trailer alone, an essentially-flawless montage of impressionistic shots set so well to an animating musical rhythm that you'd probably still be able to hear that Imagine Dragons riff on Lalo Schifrin's iconic theme even if you had the sound off (indeed, also even if you never had any intention of praising any Imagine Dragons song, but here we are).  Of course, the downside is that Fallout's first trailer, though faithful to the complexion of the final product (to something like a fault), is a better film than the film is; and for everything praiseworthy about what we got this weekend, it might've been easier to love if the critical establishment could have stopped prostrating themselves before it, for even a few seconds, just long enough to acknowledge that it has weaknesses that tend to define it as much as its strengths, instead of doing what they actually did, which was hype it beyond all repair, comparing it to Fury Road (an insanity), calling it The Dark Knight of the franchise (which checks out, but, unfortunately, almost exclusively in the ways that The Dark Knight was bad), and anointing it the newest savior of the dying (?) action genre (you know, the first since whatever they think the last one was, probably a film that came out less than a year ago, as if genuinely great stunt-based action movies have ever grown on trees).  No, it isn't the best action movie since ______.  Nor is it the best Mission: Impossible—that's still the first, followed closely by the fourth—yet there's a perverse quality to Fallout, in that it routinely seems like it ought to be.

The better news is that it is something like a return to form, or a return to formalism, for my favorite ongoing film series.  It's a series that has, in years past, served two purposes: a practical effects-driven showcase for its star-producer-stuntman Tom Cruise (and Cruise's death drive) as well as a breathtaking exhibition of utterly different directorial sensibilities, from De Palma to Woo to Abrams to Bird.  And so the weird part is that it's managed this return in spite of the fact that the sixth and most recent film in the series is also the very first to feature a director's reprise; and that when Christopher McQuarrie picked up the franchise for Rogue Nation he was either instructed by Cruise, or else simply had no better idea of his own, than to merely do his very best Brad Bird impression (Bird's Ghost Protocol being, by far, the most commercially successful of the series at that point).  McQuarrie proved to be workmanlike at being Brad Bird, if not any great deal more.

Still: I suppose I do have some tiny little regrets about the incredibly pissy tone of my Rogue Nation review; though substantively the main thing I regret is calling it "mid-tier Bond," which was unfair for a number of reasons, not least of them being that "mid-tier Bond" is only barely acceptable cinema.  Rogue Nation is certainly not unworthy, and the horrible irony of it all is that, having had the opportunity to sit with Rogue Nation for a few years, and come to terms with its derivative charms, I came to actually appreciate its earnest (and mostly rather good) attempts at being Ghost Protocol Lite.  Hence, when Fallout came, I was finally prepared to judge the follow-up by the standard I thought it wanted to be judged by.  And that's when Chris McQuarrie decided to make an actual, recognizable Chris McQuarrie movie after all, and now it turns out I'm kind of pissy about that.  Who knows: maybe in a couple of years I'll catch up to where everybody else is right now and regret this, too, but at the very least we're once again seeing somebody take on the franchise and make their own new mistakes with it, while achieving their own new successes, and even if nothing else was worthwhile about Fallout, that would remain refreshing.

Fallout, befitting its writer-director in a way that Rogue Nation didn't, is ultimately a very plotty tale; it is not hard to follow along, in the sense that you are never unsure who's good and who's bad, but it is absolutely easy to get lost in the details, especially the supplied motivations that don't matter much, even, apparently, to the characters themselves.  It begins, anyway, with Ethan Hunt and his Impossible Missions Force team—Luther Stickell and Benji Dunn—attempting to recover a trio of stolen plutonium spheres, and failing when Hunt makes a decision to save the life of one of his partners, rather than recover the essential ingredients to a small arsenal of nuclear weapons.  Displeased by this, and seemingly not the least bit ashamed by their own massive intelligence failure in the last film, the CIA once again intervenes in IMF's counter-supervillain operations, giving Hunt a new partner who answers to them, a hulk with an infamous mustache named August Walker.

Tasked with getting those cores back before somebody can blow up holy sites, or blow up glaciers, or blow up something (it depends on which act we're in, in this effectively-actless screenplay), Hunt and Walker and everybody run immediately afoul of the dastardly Solomon Lane's newest plan for world destabilization, and (in the process) fly smack into Ilsa Faust's crusade to kill Lane, too.  In other words, it's also the first M:I that operates as a direct sequel.

But as any film in this series, Fallout's far more "a collection of impossible setpieces supported by hopefully-amusing exposition scenes and, if we're lucky, some good twists" than it is "a story."  This is more along the lines of an observation; the criticism is that it's never been more transparent in the execution than it is here.  That's probably because Fallout thinks it is a story, laying down some heavy themes (heavy, in the sense they were once tackled, with greater maturity, in a pair of Star Trek movies) onto the usual "hey gang, let's save the world!" scenario.  In the most basic terms, it's about the time that Ethan Hunt made a mistake and had to go through a gauntlet of obstacles in order to fix it. Actually, this only puts it square in the middle of the series formula; but Fallout, its metaphor title dropped portenously and clumsily right into a line of dialogue by the masterminding villain, also wants to (or, wants to pretend that it wants to) grapple with the magnitude and morality of Ethan's many mistakes.  The result is the glummest movie in the franchise, even taking M:I3 into consideration, which was about Ethan's wife Julia getting tied to railroad tracks.

Inevitably, the Glummest Mission: Impossible returns precisely to this idea (which I doubt is much of a spoiler, considering Michelle Monaghan is in the first scene); and though Fallout desperately wants to redeem the inhumanly-chipper ending of M:I3, twelve full years later it only succeeds in repeating its error, only in an obnoxiously mawkish register, that still refuses to let this woman feel the first negative emotion toward the man who lied to her and ruined her life.  There is a conversation around Fallout, regarding the inherent value of Ilsa Faust—and I'll give Faust this, Rebecca Ferguson has improved so dramatically she almost feels like a different character here, a genuine equal and organic to the storytelling-through-stuntwork in a way she never managed, however game she was, back in Rogue Nation.  But in a movie that effectively resurrects a character Ghost Protocol already gracefully retired, in order to have her talk about how necessary and good Ethan Hunt is, and by extension Leader Cruise is, it almost doesn't matter how much agency the other female lead has.  (Which is a questionable amount anyway, given the way they play Ilsa and Ethan's coy-to-the-point-of-madness "colleagues? or more?" relationship-shaped interactions.)

That alludes to the other big problem with Fallout, and it doubtless shares the same root causes; for it is also where all those Dark Knight nods start to make sense.  Though I imagine folks are mainly talking about the Trolley Problem Plot and the villain with no reason to exist other than to challenge the hero, I bet what they're actually responding to is Fallout's immense and smothering feeling of self-importanceThe Dark Knight put a great deal more care into its Trolley Problems and Jokers, clearly; but Fallout is every bit its equal when it comes to pomposity.  It almost works, or rather, it even sometimes works: the several callbacks to previous entries; the attempt at deepening Ethan's moral universe by plunging directly into his psyche; the sheer beauty of Cruise sprinting into what seems like a hopeless forever; and above all the quick-fade to white that swallows up all three threads of a solidly cross-cut climax that feels like both an apocalypse and a culmination, even though it (obviously) is likely to be neither.  In these moments, Fallout fully achieves its goals of summing up the franchise (less a Paula Patton or Jeremy Renner, perhaps, and in the only franchise the latter was ever likeable in, too) and of re-empahsizing Ethan Hunt's place in his world.  And then there are all the other moments, like when Luther tearfully explains Ethan's feelings because Ethan's too cool to do so, or the way Solomon Lane degenerates from the world-conqueror of Rogue Nation to merely one man's nemesis.  These moments go too far for the hard-sell.  And they do not work.

A lot of Fallout doesn't work, and its gloomy attitude makes it easily the least "fun" Mission: Impossible, which in turn transforms the "we're going to do it this way!" planning that never survives the briefest of contacts with the enemy (and which are usually delightful) into slogs, overwritten and underwritten simultaneously, loaded with so much baldly-functional and oddly-weighted dialogue that when it's Simon Pegg's time to be funny, it's funny, sure, but it clashes badly with the the film's attitude toward its interstitial material, which varies from "depressed" to "bereft of humanity entirely."  Other than Ferguson, there's only so much the main cast can do with this, and that even includes Cruise.  A terrific stuntman in this film, he has not been worse at acting in literal decades.  His only really choice moment as an actor is a tiny little half-second reaction shot—admittedly the funniest thing in the film, and I don't mean that as the backhanded compliment it sounds like—in which he says, with his face, "I think I am getting tired of jumping out of windows for your amusement... but, I shall do my duty."

The secondary cast manages to get something out of it: Sean Harris is still doing mighty creepy things with Lane; Vanessa Kirby is at least being recklessly odd as the inheritor of Vanessa Redgrave's empire from the first film; and Henry Cavill proves again that while he cannot be wholly relied upon to deliver dialogue, he is an enormously effective silent actor, not solely for his towering physique (a nice contrast with Cruise), but by the way he uses it to build Walker as a character who's described (in some more of that lovely, lovely dialogue) as "a hammer."  But Cavill's body certainly is an object that he can swing with enormous power when called upon; and it is one that he leaves to sit, almost physically crumpling his surroundings with his weight, when he's not.

Meanwhile, the film makes such good use of so many of the series' tricks (especially its exceptional homage to the opening of BDP's original—and, of course, the show) that it seems cruel to call it only an intermittently good thriller; yet a sick IMF PowerPoint presentation does not a thriller make, and Fallout is hobbled by McQuarrie's unaccountable inability to find a pace that doesn't awkwardly lurch around.  Thus does this two and a half hour, occasionally-motionless picture feel every second of its runtime, and possibly more, thanks to a structure that mimics the "setpiece/decompression" rhythm of a great action movie but doesn't actually get there.

Yet while the writer of The Usual Suspects and the director of Way of the Gun and Jack Reacher has made some truly bad strategic missteps here, you don't need to squint to see why he made them, and here's the part where I finally discuss the action spectacle as action spectacle, and the McQuarrie movie as a McQuarrie movie: it can be awfully damned good at being both, even when trying to be both is probably the thing that fucks it up.  Fallout is big as hell, but winds up with the most grounded "bigness" a Mission: Impossible movie has ever had.  It is, notably, the first Mission: Impossible that doesn't feel production designed in the usual sense of the term, designer Peter Wenham leaning instead upon the physicality of real locations, or sets that look and feel exactly like real locations, and never once resorting to the likes of a CIA Black Vault or an underwater computer server or even the real-life cartoonishness of a Burj Khalifa; the most-designed thing in the entire film is a bathroom.  (Though what a bathroom! a gleaming future bathroom of perfect white surfaces which turn out to be terribly interesting to peel away and reveal the black masonry underneath, by way of the martial arts.)

McQuarrie has actively denied Bird this time, except in the sense of the film's hugeness; in its extraordinary chase sequences, all running battles against either assassins or against the clock, often with many moving parts, it relies upon a borderline-impressionistic bombardment of texture and movement and sound (maybe too much sound in the deafening IMAX mix, though both the insistent, unnerving, Zimmeresque noise-score by Lorne Balfe and the overpowering sound design by James Mather and Paul Munro are gloriously commendable things).  It goes back to the laconic violence of McQuarrie's pre-Rogue Nation filmography, and I suppose with Fallout you can at last say he does have a style (though I've been saying that all along), and in fact Fallout is more McQuarrie than ever.  With the help of Eddie Hamilton's flowing cutting and Rob Hardy's often-handheld cinematography (which feels like what you'd get from a 70s car chase movie if cinematographers in the 70s had modern color correction techniques), Fallout can achieve an elegiac mood through its imagery alone.  As it passes through a kaleidoscope of Europe's most recognizable cityscapes and India's most imposing mountainsides, it even reaches a state of (unusually loud) contemplation, rather than what you'd tend to expect from an action-thriller series that has, heretofore, always borne a much more pronounced wink while doing its work.  Running with that 70s theme, perhaps imagine what might happen if Terrence Malick liked car chases or watching guys dangle off cliffs.  It's a beautiful film, and knows it.

Now, that approach exposes every last one of Fallout's vulnerabilities—its smudgy plot, its wearying insistence upon itself, its unsound structure, its positively arrogant runtime—and it even creates a major vulnerability of its own—for it is somehow both consistently riveting yet not always exciting (though this also has something to do with the setpieces being complicated but not very sophisticated, and only occasionally, like at the Arc de Triomphe, providing that kick of clever desperation upon which Mission: Impossible has always relied, rather than mere death-defying luck)—but it's absolutely something else, anyway.  It's a shame that such greatness rests inside a movie that is trying to do too many other things, and flailing about in the process, but even though I probably got more specific joy out of every other Mission: Impossible movie (maybe even II!), I admire what this one's doing a lot when it's doing it well, and I am dead certain my appreciation for Mission: Impossible—Fallout will only grow as I become more accustomed to its difference.  Hey, it's what I asked for, after all.

Score:  8/10

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