Coming down from the surging adrenaline rush, I was trying to determine when was the last time an action movie made me feel the immersive, delirious highs that Mission: Impossible – Fallout offers in spades, and what I came up with 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Simply put, this is the best straightforward action movie in three years. It’s the best Mission: Impossible movie in the series, which, if it hadn’t already, has assumed the peak position of the most consistent, most entertaining, and best action franchise in Hollywood. Allow me to explain how returning writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) makes an action movie that demolishes the competition.
Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has been pulled back into spy action thanks to the lingering fallout (eh, eh?) of the capture of Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), whose followers, nicknamed The Apostles, have stolen three plutonium cores. It’s Ethan Hunt’s fault the nuclear cores got loose, and so he and his team, Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg), must clean up after their mess. The CIA sends its own asset, the burly August Walker (Henry Cavill), to help oversee the mission and specifically Ethan Hunt, who must pose as a shadowy terrorist broker to maintain appearances with important figures in the criminal underworld. In order to get the nuclear parts, Ethan Hunt has to retrieve Solomon Lane and release him back into the open. Complicating matters further is Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who needs Solomon dead to clear her own spy debts.
Every action movie lives or dies depending upon its unique set pieces, often the first thing constructed by a studio and then the plot mechanics are ladled on merely as the barest of connecting tissue. They need to have stakes, they need to have purpose, they need to be memorable, and they need to be understood and develop organically. Mission: Impossible – Fallout could be taught in filmmaking schools about how to properly build action set pieces. They are brilliant. McQuarrie finds interesting ways to set them up, complicate them, and just keep the escalation going in a manner that still maintains the believability of the moment. Take for instance a foot chase where Ethan Hunt is trying to nab a bad guy through downtown London. Where McQuarrie pushes into the extraordinary is by having that foot chase on a multi-level terrain. Ethan Hunt has to chase after his target but multiple stories above the ground, and so he’s leaping out windows, jumping over rooftops simply to keep up. It’s a simple twist that takes what we’re familiar with and, literally, elevates it to new heights. Or take for instance the mission in Paris to capture Solomon Lane. At first it’s capture, then it’s flee police, then it’s flee another assassin. There are multiple stages to this sequence, each with a new goal, each with new complications, and each with new eye-popping stunts and escapes. The action finds natural points to progress, making smart use of the geography, and keeping different elements at play to come in and out to add more problems. This is how you do action right. As soon as the half-hour mark settles in with the arrival of Walker, the movie is practically nonstop in its set pieces until the very end. At a steep 147 minutes, this is the longest Mission: Impossible movie yet but it’s breathless in its execution.
Amazing set pieces that are cleverly designed is one aspect of a great action movie, but if you can’t tell what’s going on, what’s the point of all that cleverness? Fortunately, McQuarrie understands this and adheres to a visceral depiction of the action that creates gloriously immersive and pulse-pounding sequences. The set pieces are terrific, so it stands to reason the stuntwork should be terrific, and to make sure you appreciate the stuntwork, McQuarrie makes sure the photography highlights the verisimilitude. It’s a symbiotic (or as the Venom trailer tells me, “sym-BI-oat-ic”) relationship but when done correctly, as evidenced in this film, it’s the key to truly kinetic action sequences. Take for instance a parachute jump that marks the start of the second act. McQuarrie films it as a sustained long take, and as the camera plummets to the ground chasing after the two men, our brains can tell us that there is some special effects trickery to mitigate the dangers, but our senses are overwhelmed with the sustained illusion of tension. The fight choreography is equally up to the challenge. A bathroom brawl with Ethan Hunt and Walker and another man becomes a lesson in how many things can be smashed and what can be used as a weapon. A high-speed motorcycle chase through Parisian streets gets even more frantic when Ethan Hunt drives against traffic, and the scene becomes even more exciting when McQuarrie’s lens allows us to see the danger in all its glory.
The Mission: Impossible franchise has been notable for its insane stuntwork but also, chiefly after the second installment, its edict to practical effects and maintaining the believability of its reality. It’s still movie spy shenanigans and globetrotting adventures, yes, but the moment-to-moment thrills feel like they’re really happening. The Fast and Furious franchise has gained great acclaim for the bombast of its physics-defying spectacle, and the Mission: Impossible franchise seems to have gone purposely in the opposite direction. It’s real Tom Cruise jumping off that building, it’s real Tom Cruise riding through traffic on a motorcycle, and it’s real Tom Cruise falling and climbing up a speeding helicopter during the thrilling finale. Cruise has had a death wish when it comes to throwing himself into the high-wire stunts of his franchise, but even at 56 years old he’s still at it, essentially trying to commit suicide on film for all of our amusement. Cruise is one of the few remaining movie stars and his commitment is without question.
This is also the first Mission: Impossible film that feels like the characters matter. It’s a direct continuation from the previous film, 2015’s Rogue Nation, bringing back the (somewhat lackluster) villain, the newest spy counterpart/potential love interest, the CIA and IMF brass, and the essential supporting team members from prior engagements. Because of this it feels more like what happened previously was establishment for a new story building upon that foundation. Rather than starting all over, the characters find ways to deepen their relationships, and the film opens up Ethan Hunt as a character and the toll his duty takes on those closest to him. There are some nice quiet moments that examine these characters as actual people. Several complications are as a direct result of personal character decisions, some good and some bad. I was joking with my pal Ben Bailey beforehand about wondering whether they’d find a way for Ving Rhames to matter, since he hasn’t been much more than “a guy in the van” for four movies, and by God they make him matter. They make each team member matter, finding moments to give them, mini-goals they’re entrusted with. During the dizzying helicopter chase in the finale, supporting players are left with their own task. Luther has to defuse a bomb but doesn’t have enough hands. Benji has to find something valuable in a very needle-haystack situation designed to torment and waste precious time. Ilsa is at cross-purposes for most of the film, not wanting to harm her fellow allies but also being given her own orders to prove her loyalty and protect her future. All of this comes to a head and it makes the parts feel as important as the whole. That’s great storytelling.
Let’s talk about that million-dollar mustache of Cavill’s. It was a year ago that Justice League re-shoots required Cavill and the Mission: Impossible team refused to allow their actor to shave his mustache, thus leading to that unsettling fake baby lip Superman was sporting in a majority of his scenes in the haphazard Justice League film. I just read an AV Club interview with McQuarrie where he for the first time discusses the whole mustache brouhaha and apparently Paramount estimated that it would have cost them three million for the effects to uphold Cavill’s upper lip continuity. Warner Brothers refused to pay up and so went down that ill-fated CGI mustache-removing route. It was shortly afterwards that Cruise shattered his ankle in a roof-leaping stunt (that is in the finished film and advertisements) and the production had to shut down for a month. If only Warner Brothers had waited, perhaps we all could have avoided this mustache mess.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout is a new highpoint for the best action franchise going in movies today (I’m still waiting for a third Raid film, Gareth Evans). The set pieces are memorable and unique, leading from one into the next with exquisite precision and thought. The action sequences are stunning and shot with stunning photography, highlighting the stunning stuntwork by the best death-defying professionals. It’s the first Mission: Impossible movie that doesn’t climax at its middle; in fact there’s a pretty obvious reveal that feels like it was going to be a late Act Three twist, but McQuarrie recognizes the audience thinking ahead, and there’s like a whole other exciting 45 minutes after. The stakes are better felt because the characters matter and are integrated in meaningful ways. This is the most I’ve enjoyed Henry Cavill in a movie (with possible exception of another spy movie, Man From U.N.C.L.E.), and you know what, his mustache works too. While the vertigo-inducing Burj Khalifa sequence is the best set piece in the franchise, Fallout has everything else beat at every level. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is a reminder that there are few things in the world of cinema better than a properly orchestrated, properly filmed, and properly developed action movie operating at full throttle. This is one of the reasons why we go to the movies, folks. See it in IMAX if possible. Soak it up.
Nate’s Grade: A
Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) awakes on a train. His mind has been transplanted into the body of Sean Fentress, a doomed train passenger. Fentress, along with 200 others, were killed in an explosion on a commuter train heading in to Chicago. But this has all happened in the past. Colter has been quantum leaped into a top secret government program known as the source code. It uses people’s brain waves to simulate a recorded reality. The last thing Colter can remember is a firefight in Afghanistan, and now he’s aboard a train looking for a mad bomber. Whatever info he can retrieve will help the officials (Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright) prevent a second terrorist bombing scheduled that day. Colter only has eight minutes to interact with the train passengers and deduce who the bomber is. After eight minutes, the train explodes and the reality resets itself again. Things get even more complicated when he falls for Fentress’ fetching female friend Christina (Michelle Mongahan). Can he save her? Can he save anyone? Can he get out of the source code?
Source Code manages to be a twisty, trippy little film that doesn’t so much knock you out but definitely packs a bit of a punch. Its simplicity is its very best asset. There’s a bomb on a train (ignore the questionable movie sci-fi physics). Colter has exactly eight minutes to learn what he can before he and everybody else blows up. Then the fun starts anew. The movie is less a time-travel flick than an alternate reality sort of experiment. Personally, I love movies that present a timeline and then slowly thumb away at the edges, stretching the narrative space, showing the audience the various intricacies of this tiny world. Whether it’s Pulp Fiction, Groundhog Day, or the propulsive fun of Run Lola Run, I enjoy a story that expands outward into a greater foundational complexity. I enjoy the clockwork of a story that shows me how the different pieces work together. I enjoy that through the variations I can experience a richer world, seeing what happens to a passenger as they leave the train, seeing how a character’s actions can impact another, seeing how altering that character’s action alters other forces in the story. That kind of narrative trickery, perfected in Groundhog Day, makes the story feel like a living creature because you witness the interconnected relationships of everything and everyone. It also makes it pretty fun to watch.
Director Duncan Jones makes slick use of tight spaces like he showcased in 2009’s celestial sci-fi thriller, Moon. The quick pacing and collective rhythm of the movie helps contribute to its entertainment factor. Source Code is playful enough in design and execution. It remains consistently clever with its plotting, but what’s really surprising is that Jones is able to find a personal human story inside all the thriller trappings. Colter is trying to make sense of his situation, but he’s also trying to reconcile the idea of life, death, fate, and getting to speak with his parents who assume he was killed in Afghanistan (he’s been with the source code project for over two months). There’s a human face to all this, and while the love story feels tacked on and underdeveloped, Colter’s emotional turmoil and existential struggles to reassert his identity and find some peace from his life ring true. Gyllenhaal (Prince of Persia) is an ever capable lead who takes a near Hitchcockian leading man role and plays it straight to fine effect.
At the same time, Source Code tries to have it all with an ending that I don’t truly believe it pulls off. Spoilers will lurk, so skip the next two paragraphs those who wish to remain pure and chaste. The film does a fairly nimble job of setting up an appropriate, if mostly downbeat, ending. Colter doesn’t want to be a brain in a box; he doesn’t want the government using him as their newest tool for the rest of his unnatural days. He was pulled from the brink of death and he now just wants to die in peace. In the recorded reality of the source code, he’s allowed the chance that most of us will never have – he can find closure. Whereas he would have died on a desert battlefield, now Colter has an opportunity to speak to his father one last time, to say goodbye. The entire denouement of Source Code seems to be establishing a memorial for the people who were lost on that train, because once the source code is erased so too will they be. They’re electronic recreations but in the end it reminds you that they were real people, and now they get something of a proper sendoff, a fairly touching memorial to the people who will just be seen as numbers in a news report.
And then… just as Colter makes peace with passing over, he passes over into another reality. The train doesn’t blow up. The people are able to get off. He gets to walk hand-in-hand with his new sweetheart. Jones doesn’t make it clear what really happens, which can lead to some mounting confusion. Did they really alter the past? Did they create a parallel dimension? In one dimension is everyone on the train dead whereas in another everyone lives, short of Sean Fentress? And how crappy is that? Yes, Gyllenhaal is a charming and terrific looking guy, but does no one shed a tear for the fact that he stole another man’s body? Sean Fentress may not have had the courage to ask out his pretty friend, but that doesn’t mean he deserved to have his identity hijacked and his existence more or less erased from time and space. It’s a weird blemish that the filmmakers don’t truly want to address, and why would they? The ending lacks commentary of any sort strictly because the movie wants to have it all. It wants the sad, mournful ending, it wants the happy “Everything’s gonna be okay” ending. It almost let’s you choose. But Source Code doesn’t come across so much as a film that begs to be opened for different interpretations so much as a film that didn’t want to upset anyone by picking an ending.
Source Code is nicely paced, nicely plotted, and it produces just as many intriguing questions as it does substantial thrills. Jones finds interesting ways to make the same material different. The various characters, converging storylines, and science-fiction mumbo jumbo are all nicely woven into a satisfying bite-sized sci-fi thriller. It fumbles with the landing, in my view; it seems like a pandering appeal to please every faction of the audience, or at least to confuse them with the illusion that they have gotten what they wanted. This is an intellectual sci-fi potboiler in disguise as a thriller. Roll with it, play along, don’t think too hard about the moral implications of its murky ending, and enjoy the ride.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Due Date feels less a wholesale rip-off of 1987’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and more of a full-blown film inspired by the one sequence where Steve Martin unleashes a profane tirade at an airport clerk. It has two talented actors (Robert Downey Jr., Zack Galifiankas) in situations that should come across as funny, but the movie only gets so many laughs. The road trip angle has been done to death but the mismatched pairing of Downey, acerbic anger, and Galifianakas, continued goofball man-child, should have compensated for any stale genre formula leftovers. I think Due Date, under the direction of Todd Phillips (The Hangover, Old School), really just doesn’t know what to do with all its misplaced mean-spirited rage. So we end up with kids getting punched, people being beaten by disabled veterans, multiple cars crashing in spectacular fashion, public masturbation with dogs, people enduring great injury, and somehow the characters bond through all the adversity, even though neither changes at all. The comedy setups are all fairly transparent and can only deliver medium-sized payoffs; when a man’s ashes are kept in a coffee can, you know it’s only a matter of time before the inevitable occurs. For better or worse, this is a two-man operation; the supporting actors are all wasted, particularly Downey’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang co-star Michelle Monaghan (Eagle Eye) as Downey’s pregnant wife. She isn’t even given one funny thing to say or do the whole movie. Due Date is a comedy that will make you laugh sporadically but it should have performed better. It’s a mid-level comedy with medium-level payoffs that ultimately prove to be underwhelming given the upper-level talent involved.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Ben Affleck doesn’t necessarily establish any gifted visual style with his directing debut, however, Affleck the Screenwriter and Affleck the Actor ensure that the movie succeeds swimmingly as a murky morality play. The film is an actor’s showcase and they get plenty of room to maneuver, with standout performances by Ed Harris as an embittered cop and Amy Ryan as the living embodiment of the worst white trash would-be mother on the planet. Where Affleck earns his artistic stripes is by asking hard questions with moral ambiguity and not dishing out easy answers. This is an above average crime thriller that uses its lower class Boston setting as an additional character. There are only a handful of relevant flaws, like Michelle Mongahan’s character being pointless except to cry, and a mystery that clever moviegoers will have figured it out early thanks to the economy of characters and some shifty glances. The missing child mystery allows Affleck to explore some very dark places and non darker than the human soul. Affleck may not dazzle with visual prowess, but the man sure knows how to tell a damn good story and direct actors to award-winning levels. Give this man another movie.
Nate’s Grade: A-