It could have all been so perfect. Standing in front of a scenic lake overshadowed by endlessly green mountains, former special agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is about to marry the love of his life, the civilian doctor Julia (Michelle Monaghan). Her cream-white dress beautifully matches her husband’s spotless smile, as they embark on a life of peace and equanimity. Hunt has, to use espionage terminology, “come home.”
Except that it was all but a dream. In Belfast, Hunt is woken up by a courier, who delivers his next mission: to recover weapons-grade plutonium stolen by cosmopolitan terrorists. Now in its sixth installment, the “Mission: Impossible” franchise has once again proven that the American spy movie can still be a box office hit. After grossing $61 million its US opening weekend, the Christopher McQuarries-directed movie has received rave reviews, complimenting both lead actor Tom Cruise’s daredevil stunts and a thrilling plot to save the world from doom once anew.
And so it begins. After Hunt chooses the life of a teammate over the secure possession of the plutonium in an arranged meeting in Berlin, an intricate net of betrayal, deception and high-tech weapons unfolds. The action sees Hunt and his team travel to Berlin, Paris, London and rural India, where they are mixed up in the crossfire between rivaling agencies, old loyalties and degenerate anarchists. The latter have a clear ambition: to destroy as much of the “old order” as they can, following their pernicious mantra of “the greater the suffering, the greater the peace.”
Although its theme has been a staple in popular culture for well over a century, the spy movie’s many precursors have set the bar high for a movie like “Mission: Impossible.” In literature, such masters as John le Carré (“The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”) and Len Deighton (“Funeral in Berlin”) have fielded their agents; television, too, had its fair share of excellent shows like “24” or the Israeli “Fauda,” not to mention the massive shadows cast by the 24 “James Bond” movies or their counterparts in the “Bourne” series. When Tom Cruise first played Ethan Hunt in 1996, most contemporaneous agents on movie screens were meddling with shiny miracle gadgets and navigating a post-Cold War order in which all geopolitical scenarios seemed possible.
Times have changed since then. After “The Bourne Identity” was released in 2002 and “Casino Royale” followed in 2006, cinematic spies are almost expected to display a novel-like level of depth and interiority. The protagonist in “Mission: Impossible,” however, is written to be dangerously shallow. Cruise, now 56, may be as handsome as he ever was, but his polished behavior and stern dedication make him appear almost superhuman, with only two noticeable weaknesses. First, as his long-time enemy and former colleague Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), alleges, he is obsessed with “pathetic morality,” making him unable to perform cruel acts like letting a Paris police officer bleed to death. Second, there are only two women that he has ever cared about: his ex-wife Julia and his MI6 colleague Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). It should not be surprising that the two look eerily similar to each other. Hunt is ultimately an empty shell with impressive martial arts skills but devoid of inner conflict, deeper motivation or even a speck of a genuine personal flaw. His long-term companions are united in their admiration of Hunt’s style, which is about everything the audience learns about them.
In a sense, “Mission: Impossible Fallout” has it all: a high-speed motorcycle chase through Parisian contraflow, feverish firefights in other European capitals, betrayed allegiances and a shootout on burning helicopters, which also happens to take place on the snowy summits of the Himalayas. Those craving a two-and-a-half-hour festival of suspense and breathless combat may be in luck, and a majority of other critics have praised these traits quite enthusiastically. Tom Cruise performing the best stunts of his career ensures that the experience is aesthetically pleasing, and his reckless driving and climbing are sure to entertain even the most cynical cinema snobs for a bit.
And yet, there is, unfortunately, not much one will remember about the 147 minutes of condensed action. Because in-between the dad jokes and gorgeous aerial shots, we must wonder what purpose the movie’s disproportionately flashy production actually serves. Its predictable storyline makes it easy to digest, and not even Hunt’s shamelessly cheesy interaction with his ex-wife invites the audience to think about the movie and its lessons — of which there are very few — upon leaving the theater.
Then again, should we expect a “Mission: Impossible” movie to fulfill such expectations? This question is up to the audience. The film ends with no direct impact on the larger story arc started in the previous installment, and McQuarrie has given no definitive answer as to whether he would direct another sequel to the series. Until then, we are left with the most successful action blockbuster of the summer, although there is a good chance it will have faded from our memory by the time fall comes around.