New Ways to Kill Yourself

At one point, watching Cruise skitter through Paris on a motorcycle, I realized I didn’t know who was chasing him or where he was going. I didn’t care; I could see Cruise’s face, and it told me he was on the run from something, while trying to get somewhere else, quickly. The threat of the bomb always looms, and Hunt never wavers in either his love for his friends or his will to do his job well. He is thus spared from making any ethical compromises—he really can have it all.

Tom Cruise keeps moving

Still from Mission: Impossible – Fallout.

Christopher McQuarrie. Mission: Impossible – Fallout. 2018.

On September 11, 2015, a twin-engine plane crashed into the mountains of Colombia, killing two pilots. They were working on the set of the film American Made, in which Tom Cruise plays a CIA informant who infiltrates the Medellín cartel. The pilots’ families sued the film’s producers; their lawsuit argues that Cruise’s obsession with real-life acrobatics contributed to the crash and cites comments from an executive producer, who complained the shoot had become “the most insane shit I’ve ever dealt with.” In an email reportedly sent before his death, one of the pilots echoed the producer: the film was “the most dangerous project I’ve ever encountered.”

This kind of thing is far more likely to happen to a Tom Cruise collaborator than, say, a stunt driver on a Jason Statham movie. But Cruise also pushes himself much further than other action stars. As demanding of himself as he is of his colleagues, he famously serves as his own stuntman, subjecting himself to ludicrous danger. His newest film, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, revealed that he is, among other things, an experienced pilot. For its final sequence he learned in a crash program how to maneuver an Airbus H125 helicopter at insanely low altitudes through the mountains of New Zealand, a stand-in for Himalayan Kashmir.

Did Cruise insist on flying the craft himself out of macho vanity? Maybe. But he also knew that in the climax of this film, which as the Mission: Impossible series’ sixth entry is really the climax of them all, his face needed to be visible in the cockpit. This impulse, to fully sell that he is his own stuntman, to map himself onto his character Ethan Hunt, is presumably why he wears a glass-front helmet to reveal his face during a separate, high-altitude skydiving sequence—and why he eschews a helmet while filming a motorcycle chase through Paris.

These acts of human daring enliven complex set-piece sequences. Ensuring they unfold with an emotional weight commensurate with their stagecraft obsesses Cruise as much as it does director Christopher McQuarrie, who keenly understands the actor’s strengths, and his boundaries. Having eroded any claim to public empathy through his ties to Scientology, his 2005 television meltdowns, and the predicament of Katie Holmes—and too old to be a credible Hollywood sex symbol—Cruise in this era is liberated, stripped to a core of hyper-competence exercised with a peculiar physical appeal. He needs little else. If Fallout has any pretension, it’s to exalt in its own excellence.

Fallout opens with Hunt, a veteran of the fictional US intelligence agency IMF, or “Impossible Missions Force,” reluctantly accepting another one: keep three nuclear bombs away from a band of spies-turned-anarchists who believe the devices’ detonations will, in accelerationist logic, make space for a new, peaceful world order. The villains are led by bearded, monk-like MI6 traitor Solomon Lane, also the antagonist of the series’ fifth film, Rogue Nation, played by Sean Harris. To stop him Hunt first tries to buy the bombs, but bungles the pickup. So he must chase the fissile material and the anarchists across Europe and into South Asia, tangling with miscalculations and deceptions: a flirtation with an arms dealer, hassles from the CIA; running into his ex-wife and her new husband, both blissful NGO doctors. (The ex, played by Michelle Monaghan, lives in hiding because of her past with Hunt, a predicament so like Holmes’s it feels like an intentional blending of Cruise and Hunt—poker-faced metacommentary on Cruise’s reputational baggage.)

Hunt and his comrades, played by Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, and Rebecca Ferguson, are less a team than a surrogate family. Hunt fails to collect the nukes in the first place because he chooses instead to rescue Rhames. The plot this choice sets up is fixed, but the loyalties and identities of the characters inhabiting it rotate constantly. It’s convoluted, but that doesn’t matter; the point is to efficiently tee up three acts of extended, complex action sequences.

That events and people are often not as they seem is one of a few through-lines in the series, which has at times leaned too strongly on the plot device of characters wearing lifelike masks for purposes of deception. Events are falsely staged for audience and characters alike: CNN reports on the annihilation of Rome, Mecca, and Jerusalem; Hunt is engulfed in a nuclear explosion; a platoon of French police is slaughtered by masked gunmen. After each of these catastrophes is depicted, they are revealed as hypotheticals; like Baudrillard’s Gulf War, they have not actually taken place. This is doubly effective: it sets up high stakes for resolution in the action sequences; and because the film so often deceives its own characters alongside us, we identify with them in a way we do not with James Bond, or Thor.

At one point, watching Cruise skitter through Paris on a motorcycle, I realized I didn’t know who was chasing him or where he was going. I didn’t care; I could see Cruise’s face, and it told me he was on the run from something, while trying to get somewhere else, quickly. The threat of the bomb always looms, and Hunt never wavers in either his love for his friends or his will to do his job well. He is thus spared from making any ethical compromises—he really can have it all. All of this is lean stuff, thematically, but it’s plenty, freeing the film from the pained, futile moral posturing that weighs down many of its contemporaries.

Fallout, like just a few standouts in Hollywood’s franchise era, pleases both audiences and critics. McQuarrie’s humble expertise and craftsmanship in an age of frenetic editing and ponderous and careless mise en scène ensures some appeal to the latter category. Entire action scenes play out with only diegetic sound. Conventional lighting grounds characters in real places, alongside editing that captures the human emotions of choreographed fistfights and car chases. Digital effects are modest in number and carefully deployed, so the movie won’t start to look shitty after a few years on the shelf, a plague that afflicts just about every other tentpole film. McQuarrie loves expository shortcuts, and nods often to both film history and current events not to comment on them but to activate his audience’s feelings about them. The massacre in Paris deliberately invokes the 2015 Bataclan attack; Fallout’s climax is set in Kashmir, because that’s a place where we know the end of the world might plausibly start.

But Fallout never stops being fun. The camera has a sense of humor, lingering on a skeptical glance from Cruise, or the bugging of Henry Cavill’s eyes when he takes a punch to the throat. Even the series’ theme is upbeat, reminding viewers as they consume on-screen pathos that they’re still being entertained. Cruise and McQuarrie are technicians, but the scope of their craft eclipses so much other triple-A action cinema— they are emotional technicians too. As Cruise pilots his helicopter, looking terrified, one of his partners gets strung up in a noose during a fistfight and swings desperately, his skin turning purple. Meanwhile, a man and a woman, racing to defuse a nuclear bomb, realize they’ll likely fail, and we believe their fear and resignation. Later, a young, beautiful male villain gets half of his face burnt off by jet fuel. Each thread is connected to a Spielbergian network of payoffs. This is the old-school emotional machinery that keeps a franchise alive for twenty-two years.

The series reached this maturity after evolving from the Hitchcock-revivalist aesthetics of Brian de Palma into a heinous, nu metal–soaked, John Woo–helmed sequel. It really found its footing in a fourth chapter, Ghost Protocol. That film was lifted by an uncredited rewrite from McQuarrie, who trimmed unnecessary details, aiming for clarity, even bluntness; the plot, like Fallout’s, centers on Hunt, disavowed by the government, racing to secure rogue nuclear weapons.

After winning an Academy Award in 1996 for writing The Usual Suspects, McQuarrie spent his clout on a pet project, 2000’s The Way of the Gun. That film was ambitious, weird, and vile; its visuals and score elevate the anti-heroes Benicio del Toro and Ryan Phillippe, grubby drifters who kidnap for ransom an unborn child carried by a very pregnant woman, played by Juliette Lewis, for whom the camera spares little sympathy. When gunmen interrupt her C-section and start killing each other, her wailing stays in the background. Beyond that, the film is over-clever, and despite its violence, sterile. McQuarrie’s only real attempt at auteur cinema tanked massively, taking his career with it and leaving an eight-year gap in his credited filmography.

This was a lesson for the filmmaker. In interviews, he reflects that he went wrong by merely providing information, leaving his audience to do the emotional work. To an extent this is nothing but elegant bullshit—and an effective bit of storytelling in its own right—but McQuarrie clearly learned from that mistake. This principle guides him in creating masterful action set-pieces, like Fallout’s three-part climax; that’s the maximum number of threads you can leave open at once, he says, before things get too confusing. He no longer asks his audience to work.

This sensitivity for his audience aids McQuarrie as a handler of Cruise, whose unsettling personality has at times risked making him a toxic asset, like in an infamously tense 2005 interview with Matt Lauer. In an earlier appearance, Cruise had ridiculed the actress and model Brooke Shields for taking postpartum antidepressants. (“You can use vitamins to help a woman through those things,” he said.) When Lauer pressed Cruise on that, the actor tried to sidestep. Don’t get him wrong, he protested to Lauer, he really just wants to entertain people. As the interview soured, Cruise offered: “I like hearing good news, d’you know? I like hearing, you know, if something good happens to you? It’s nice. I like sitting here talking to you.”

McQuarrie rescued the script for Edge of Tomorrow, where Cruise is at his latter-day best, by playing to the joy of iteratively watching the superstar die. (“It’s fun to come up with new ways to kill yourself,” Cruise chuckled to an interviewer.) To state the extremely obvious, that Cruise continues to endanger himself as his own stuntman feels like an ongoing act of penance to his audience.

Making Fallout tested Tom Cruise’s body, which is beginning to show its age: his face is on the verge of cragginess; the production at one point halted because he broke his ankle. His slight frame looks tiny next to the hulking Cavill. The contrast of their pairing seems to comment on the potential and limitations of human bodies, an intellectual pursuit the franchise inherited from de Palma. As a child, I was horrified by the first few minutes of the original film, released in 1996, in which Emilio Estevez’s head was crushed by spikes inside an elevator shaft. That killing and others are orchestrated by Jon Voight’s character, the aging mentor to Hunt, who frames his protege for the crimes because he suspects the young spy is fucking his wife. In a few frames of the film’s climax, Voight’s body is crushed by an exploding helicopter, and the aircraft’s rotor blades come to rest within a few inches of Hunt’s throat, his Adam’s apple bulging, exposed. Throughout this series, the camera carefully tracks the way bodies, especially Hunt’s, are shot through the air, or suspended in it. For Fallout’s predecessor, Rogue Nation, Cruise learned to hold his breath underwater for six minutes. Nearly every remarkable feat Hunt’s body performs is something a real one—Cruise’s—did as well.

This realness is the franchise’s actual trademark. This means traditional stunts, and Cruise performing them, but also, crucially, that the film never tries to be more than it actually is. It’s surprising that there isn’t more crammed into this two-and-a-half hour movie. There is no romance, and no real politics here; the strongest nod to contemporary social issues—more dynamic roles for women—was a deliberate choice, but one presented without comment.

That this movie knows it is nothing more than a movie, not a social or political document, and that it cost some $200 million less to make than, say, Avengers: Infinity War also feels essential. That it does so much more than its committee-written, CGI-burdened counterparts is a feature, not a bug. Its actors don’t do Comic-Con panels; it has no fan culture I am aware of. I suspect it doesn’t need those things to make it feel real; for that, it has Cruise’s willingness to lay himself at the sacrificial altar. It may succeed most at its humble aims because that’s all the two middle-aged white men who made it wanted it to do.

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