Mission: Impossible as Screwball Comedy

Note: This is a review/overview of elements of the entire series. If you want to cut to the meat of my argument, or don't need context/my thoughts for the series as a whole, go to "Mission Impossible as Screwball Comedy"—or if you just want impressions on the latest entry, go to "Fallout." Otherwise, enjoy!

There are few movie tastes of mine that raise quite as many eyebrows as my love for Mission: Impossible. It’s not quite as out there as, say, Real Steel or Fast and Furious—people generally like these films, after all—but love? They’re transparent Tom Cruise vehicles, the kind of competent yet workmanlike products that can be safely labeled as “popcorn flicks” and promptly forgotten. And while this is not inaccurate—this is the definition of an assembly-line franchise—it also confines our experience, and therefore critique, of the films.

The name, “popcorn flick,” and even to a degree, “Mission: Impossible” itself encourages a passive viewing experience, a What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get contract: the viewer agrees to only look for certain elements and ignore everything else, and the movie agrees to check those boxes. It is a blockbuster compromise—the film accepts a level of derision from the audience, and the audience accepts to like the movie a certain amount for indulging them. This phenomenon is best encapsulated in the phrase, “It was stupid, but it was fun.”

And there is certainly stupid fun here—Tom Cruise doing stunts, elaborate double and triple crosses, a bombastic score, at SOME POINT in every film a literal ticking clock and multiple spinning plates. The audience is trained to find these elements and focus on them alone—it’s part of the contract, and these elements are so overwhelming and gregarious that it’s an easy one to unwittingly accept. But it is in the “everything else” that the Mission Impossible series has mutated and grown—the tertiary details are what give each film in the series its unique soul.

We’re going to talk about “everything else.”

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THE BEGINNING

Now, as this is a decades-long series, we’re going to keep this short, focusing on what elements are carried over from film to film and the unique challenge in identity of each film without devolving into a full-on series synopsis. It should also be noted that, in this brief section, my criticism is borrowing heavily from Stephen Mulhall’s On Film, which includes a critical examination of the first four Mission: Impossible films as philosophy and the differences between its several directors. Cool? Cool.

Originally, Mission: Impossible was a Cold War espionage show created in the 1960s, following the Impossible Mission Force as they combated, not real-name threats of the era like the USSR, but stand-ins such as the “European People’s Republic” and the “Eastern European Republic.” These doppelgangers served a specific purpose: to give viewers the shorthand to quickly understand the threat without actually being that reference, and therefore having to engage with the real-world politics involved. The viewer immediately goes, “oh, it’s like the USSR.” Other cousins of real-world threats include South American dictators, Apartheid asshats, and, oh, Nazis. Because why not.

All of these fictional or safe villains create a comfortable degree of separation for the audience, a reality adjacent to ours that can have stakes (“the world could end!”) without any of the consequences (“our world could end!”). In less words—there’s an easily understandable but safe backdrop to justify our spy shenanigans, that implicitly comforts us about our own world, the safety rubbing off on us just a bit. This alter-reality continues in the feature films, as do the spy shenanigans. And in a way, Mission: Impossible as a film franchise has wrestled with these TV roots for its entire lifespan.

Take the first film, for example. Mission: Impossible, released in 1996, has the most transparent attempts at reconciliation (between pulpy TV roots and action film) of the entire franchise. Ethan Hunt (Cruise), leading an IMF team with Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), has a mission to retrieve a sensitive list of agent’s identities in Eastern Europe go horribly wrong, and everyone but Hunt dies. Soon after, Hunt, as the sole survivor, is accused of being a mole and a traitor, and is forced to go rogue and find who the real mole is in order to prove his own innocence. Of course, this eventually involves breaking into Langley and fighting a guy on top of a speeding train—why wouldn’t it? However, it turns out that Jim Phelps is alive, having faked his own death, and is the real mole. You can guess where it goes from there. (Spoilers: Tom Cruise isn’t the one who dies.)

Our only returning character, Jim Phelps doubles as our Psycho­­-style fake-out main character to be replaced by Ethan Hunt, and an older audience’s touchstone for the series. The fact that he, and Hunt’s entire IMF team, are killed so quickly signals an obvious passing of the torch for the series. However, it is significant that this is not a graceful retirement, but almost a roadside execution. Phelps, the symbol of the old-guard, the tradition, is not just killed, but essentially resurrected to become the villain. As opposed to another long-running spy franchise, James Bond, and particularly, Skyfall, tradition is the enemy, not to be eulogized but vilified.

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Being betrayed by an ally becomes a staple of the series, and it shows the synthesis of genres starting to take hold in the nascent franchise. It is no longer purely espionage, with fun gadgets and elaborate schemes, but has interpersonal schemes as well—the realm of noir, a clear visual influence as well in the opening dark alleys of Prague. We have gone from goofy espionage to spy/noir/action, a mix of tones and genres that’s held together by tightly wound dramatic motivations. The goofy espionage occurs when Hunt is in his element, the noir occurs when he doesn’t know who to trust, and the action kicks in when every plan has gone to hell and he’s madly holding onto any chance he has (a recurring moment in the series).

The movie’s true thematic concern is dead simple, however—itself. Screens, on televisions, glasses, computers, and cameras litter the entire film, from the opening scene to the ending. We open on a room being surveilled, and end with Hunt revealing Phelps’ betrayal with hidden glasses. It is watching itself, surveilling itself, much like Dickinson’s “soul unto itself.” She writes, “The Soul unto itself / Is an imperial friend - / Or the most agonizing Spy - / An enemy – could send - / Secure against its own - / No treason it can fear - / Itself – its Sovereign – of itself / The soul should stand in Awe –“ Mission: Impossible is not only similarly self-examining, but in its self-combating plot (IMF fighting the IMF), it simultaneously fights itself while standing in awe of itself.

This multiplicity extends to the chameleon-like direction of Brian de Palma. It is simultaneously brutal and absurd, whimsical and dark. Relevantly, of De Palma, David Thomson once scathingly said in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film:

“There is a self-conscious cunning in De Palma’s work, ready to control everything except his own cruelty and indifference. He is the epitome of mindless style and excitement swamping taste or character. Of course, he was a brilliant kid. But his usefulness in an historical survey is to point out the dangers of movies falling into the hands of such narrow-minded movie mania, such cold-blooded prettification. I daresay there are no “ugly” shots in De Palma’s films—if you feel able to measure “beauty” merely in terms of graceful or hypnotic movement, vivid angles, lyrical color, and hysterical situation. But that is the set of criteria that makes Leni Riefenstahl a “great” director, rather than the victim of conflicting inspiration and decadence. De Palma’s eye is cut off from conscience or compassion. He has contempt for his characters and his audience alike, and I suspect that he despises even his own immaculate skill. Our cultural weakness admits and rewards technique and impact bereft of moral sense. If the thing works, it has validity—the means justify the lack of an end. De Palma is a cynic, and not a feeble one; there are depths of misanthropy there.”

Now, that’s quite a tirade, but underneath the several layers of invectives and general Thomsonian pretension, there’s a crucial idea here. “If the thing works, it has validity… [a] lack of an end.” There is an assumption of skill with no meaning, “mindless style and excitement” swamping the rest of his work—in other words, the expectations of the modern blockbuster, and therefore, Mission: Impossible. We see a conflict of narrowness in this paragraph—of De Palma’s narrow skillset and Thomson’s narrow, moral gut reaction, which, while powerful, is very singular, overwhelming his critique.

It is this supposedly “style over substance” Brian de Palma who brought Mission: Impossible to the modern film era, on a hell of a complicated first step. By having such a synthesis of tones, De Palma provided a broad palette for the series going forward—it could get as goofy or as dark as it needed, and the foundation would still remain. And its total dearth of meaning outside of itself meant the series could go anywhere. This is all well and good, but there was an unfortunate toxic side effect of this approach. Remember when I said earlier that M: I was much like Dickinson’s soul standing in awe of itself? Well, this early, self-aggrandizing approach for the series only works with a heavy, heavy caveat: every entry has to stand in awe of itself.

And that becomes a real problem for the next two films.

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THE DARK YEARS

M: I 2 and M: I 3 are two separate but equally flawed answers to the first film’s question. (“Where can the series go from here?”) Mission Impossible establishes Ethan Hunt as the new-guard, the ur-action protagonist, but 2 and 3, in the slick hands of John Woo and JJ Abrams, respectively, simply double down on Tom Cruise’s perceived “cool” factor and inadvertently make Ethan Hunt one of the most boring protagonists in the history of film. (See here, “the rule of cool” cliché.)

For example, the opening moments of Mission Impossible 2 “modernize” the series in the most dated way possible. This being an early ‘00s film, our main character has to have a sick haircut and some interest in extreme sports, so we have to open on Tom Cruise with an unruly mane of hair and rock climbing. Upon reaching the top of the rock formation, a helicopter shows up to, and I’m not kidding here, shoot an unarmed rocket at Ethan’s feet—inside the rocket is a pair of sunglasses which relay his mission once he puts them on. The whole thing, especially with the sick rock cover of the Mission Impossible theme that plays, is just embarrassing. Self-destruct tapes and phone calls are kind of old-fashioned, sure, but is Tom Cruise throwing a pair of exploding sunglasses (inadvertently referencing Resident Evil 4, a campy B-story if ever there were one) any better? No. No it’s not.

The rest of the film is surprisingly pedestrian in comparison. I love John Woo as much as the next guy, but in a PG-13 Tom Cruise vehicle, his action cinematography feels oddly muted and restrained. Of course, Woo restrained, even by Mission Impossible standards, is absolutely bonkers, but, for lack of a better phrase—the “bonkers” to “leaden interpersonal drama” ratio is absolutely crippling. For every slow-motion, dual-pistol-shooting and leaping with explosions and doves action scene, there’s four more scenes of Tom Cruise and Thandie Newton’s “romance,” where toxic masculinity runs rampant as he pretty much blackmails her into going undercover to seduce her ex, manipulating her with their own past relationship.

See, underneath its adorably early ‘00s “cool” veneer, Mission Impossible 2 is just a bad remake of Notorious by Alfred Hitchcock. Except, where that was a Swiss watch of tension focusing entirely on the stakes between characters, exploring ideas of perverted maternal impulses and love, Mission Impossible 2 can’t wait to get all these stupid people talking scenes out of the way so Tom Cruise can just shoot and jump more.

A better movie.

A better movie.

For those who haven’t seen it, Notorious is a classic thriller about Cary Grant sending Ingrid Bergman into the arms of her Nazi ex against her will as an undercover agent. Unfortunately, the ex’s mom catches on and starts poisoning Bergman’s drinks so that she’ll slowly die over time and no one will suspect a thing. The plot of Mission Impossible 2 is exactly the same except instead of any clever plot developments or slow poisonings, Thandie Newton just gets poisoned with a super virus as an act of self-sacrifice and Tom Cruise has to jump and shoot things to get the antidote in 24 hours while pretentious orchestral music plays.

See, Notorious had plenty of problematic elements, but that could be forgiven by the era and the fact that the noir genre sort of engaged with this—mistrust and problematic relationships are sort of the name of the game. But by taking that plot wholecloth, changing very little, and putting it in a power fantasy starring Tom Cruise that young men are going to look up to, Mission Impossible 2 gets into very icky territory. And while the first film had the tiniest decency to at least be honest about how disposable its love interest was, literally shooting her at the end, Mission Impossible 2 has the gall to pretend Hunt and… what’s her name again?... have some great love as the last shot is them happily kissing at a picnic in Sydney. Really? REALLY? After this prick manipulates her and throws her in harm’s way? No number of motorbike beach fights in slow-motion can salvage this shit.

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And the disposable women syndrome has just started!

Enter Mission: Impossible 3, which asks you to promptly forget that whole “happily ever after with Thandie Newton” thing (though you probably already did) and accept that Ethan Hunt is now marrying a woman named Julia. Julia, played by Michelle Monaghan, while not as aggressively mistreated as Thandie Newton’s character, makes up for this with sheer blandness. See, Julia isn’t a spy, but a civilian, so Ms. Monaghan gets the novel opportunity to play a woman in the dark, a woman on the sidelines cheering for her man, and a damsel in distress all in one.

It doesn’t even waste a second in putting Julia in distress—the film literally opens with the couple tied down to chairs, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the bad guy pointing a gun at her as Ethan begs him not to shoot. As she sobs, he pulls the trigger! And we immediately cut to a fun montage with the classic Mission Impossible music of all the spy hijinks we’ll get up to in this romp!

…what the fuck?

And weirdly, there’s not much more to say about this one. That scene kind of says it all. More than ever in this film, Mission Impossible is less a clever, fun spy flick and more a boilerplate action film, with a gritty, grounded camera style and tone with lots and lots of shooting, helicopters, drones, men with guns, stuff blowing up, but very little intrigue or dramatic interest. Most notable in this entry is Phillip Seymour Hoffman—who plays a sociopathic, casually cruel villain incredibly well, but in entirely the wrong franchise—and the first appearance of Simon Pegg, who will be one of the only regulars in the series, along with Ving Rhames, from here on out.

At the end of the series of explosions and all-too-predictable “WAIT THE BAD GUY WAAAAAANTED TO BE CAUGHT” moments, all we’re left with is the continually weird relationships with women in this series. Not only does Ethan have his “I’m Not a Shitty Plot Device” wife, but early in the film there’s also a young, blonde and busty IMF agent he trains and has to rescue. There are some flashbacks, and they never say anything explicitly, but there’s some real weird vibes in there…? That ride that all-too-common line between paternal protector/mentor and sexual tension? And it’s just icky? And I already used that word but that’s really best description for these two films?

Icky. It’s just icky. And it’s what you get when you sincerely uphold an actor like Tom Cruise as some icon of masculinity to aspire to, what happens when you tell these kind of pulpy spy stories with no self-awareness or winks to the audience whatsoever. There is very little humor in these first three movies, but the first earns it with a well-constructed, if convoluted story with some noir flare. This self-seriousness in 2 and 3 give the audience no humanity to latch onto, no truth to connect to—all we are left with is a display of competence and a bad taste in our mouths.

Luckily, things got better. A whole hell of a lot better.

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 MISSION IMPOSSIBLE AS SCREWBALL COMEDY

A lot of critics, such as Manohla Dargis, have rightly commented on Tom Cruise’s stunt work in these films as being one of the most genuine aspects of his acting, and therefore, the Mission Impossible series as a whole. And this series staple has always been there, but what the first few films lacked was a connection to the human performing all these elaborate, death-defying acts. The audience gasps, and Tom Cruise just goes, “no biggie!” (At least in 2 and 3—the first has some great “oh shit” face moments.) I’ve already talked a bit about the safe alternate reality the films live in, but one of the problems was how the films were in awe of themselves, how seriously they treated all of this as the audience giggled.

So, to explain how these movies pivoted for the better, I’m going to say something really obvious that I’ve somehow not touched on yet.

These movies, at their best, are hysterical.

Right?

It sounds really, really obvious. Like I shouldn’t even have to say it. This is a series with exploding bubble gum, motorcycle bike fights, exploding sunglasses, almost Bond villain-style deaths with overcomplicated diseases and “explode in head” implants. What doesn’t explode? What gadget isn’t absurd?

It’s all so apparent and obvious, but I’m afraid this is one of those truths of the Mission Impossible series that kind of flies under the radar. You know, one of those “so obvious” answers that no one bothers to say it out loud, and inadvertently buries the truth a little bit—so let’s just say it.

Mission Impossible is a comedy.

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It’s a crackpot, exciting blend of Loony Tunes-style cartoon violence and screwball gags of mistaken identities and elaborate comedic situations. It may have action, but it’s at its best when we don’t take any of it seriously. The helicopter chasing a train in a tunnel scene from the end of 1 wouldn’t be out of place in a Road Runner cartoon, and the constant face masks and mistaken identities recall classic screwballs like Bringing Up Baby.

And it is this simple realization, this simple acknowledgement, that informs every Mission Impossible from Ghost Protocol onward, makes the series exhilarating and entertaining once more, all while changing literally nothing else.

Take Ghost Protocol. Of the entire series, it might be the most disposable entry—few of the characters make it to any future film, the plot is a transparently McGuffin-fueled romp, and the feminine presence is still, uh… an issue. I mean, there’s a cat fight for God’s sake, and the token female agent checks all the “Poorly Written Female Character” boxes: her main motivation is her dead boyfriend, she kinda sorta falls for Ethan in a way that is never followed up on, her most important actions in the film are fighting another lady and seducing a guy, she unnecessarily strips at one point, and she disappears from the series entirely after this film. Ugh.

But it still works. Because the film is just so god-damn funny and breathlessly paced.

Credit is owed to the stunt work, which is still incredible. This movie features Cruise climbing the god-damn tallest tower in Dubai with nothing but his hands! But the best parts of Ghost Protocol are the tiny human touches throughout the entire film, both during these elaborate schemes and in between. And by human touches, I mean the team’s own incredulity at what they have to do.

When Benji (Simon Pegg) suggests that Ethan has to climb on the tower from the outside, he suggests two or three other options, trying to weasel out, each one getting shot down. “Vents?” “Protected—not enough time.” “Elevator shaft?” “Lasers—not enough time.” He very gingerly steps outside as he starts climbing, and Simon Pegg winces as Ethan makes the first jump. It sounds insignificant, but these human reactions sell the entire film. It grounds the spectacular, the impossible if you will, in an emotionally resonant reality.

Another fun trope that starts in this entry was the idea of none of the gadgets working properly. Those elaborate face masks keep messing up, and Ethan Hunt’s magic magnetic gloves stop working halfway up the tower (at which point he shoots them a dirty look as he yanks them off and starts free climbing). It all comes together in the right kind of dumb fun, as Tom Cruise is no longer this superhuman machismo bore, but an overconfident dork in over his head.

NO MATTER HOW MUCH I SMASH MY KEYBOARD THE INTERNET WON'T STOP MAKING FUN OF ME

NO MATTER HOW MUCH I SMASH MY KEYBOARD THE INTERNET WON'T STOP MAKING FUN OF ME

I mean, Christ, guys, the last scene is Ethan shouting “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” as he dramatically pounds his fist on the abort button of a nuclear launch, only for it to not work. For the first time in Mission Impossible, the film is in on the joke of Tom Cruise’s entire persona, changing the entire tone, and truly, soul of the movies, while the audience is blithely unaware because, well, the contract is still being fulfilled. We still have our convoluted world-hopping plot, our stunts, and our gadgets, so we think Mission Impossible is still the same. But it has fundamentally changed, and pretty obviously so once you consider Ghost Protocol was directed by Brad Bird, who has already made fun of super-macho masculine supermen in The Incredibles.

HOLD ONTO YOUUUUUUTH

HOLD ONTO YOUUUUUUTH

Rogue Nation takes this cue and just runs with it. The show starts with a showstopper, as Ethan climbs onto a literal JET as it takes off and hangs onto the side. Again, we start to see Ethan’s can-do masculine archetype start to veer into ridiculous proportions, and for the better. We see his wolfish handsome features distorted into grotesquerie and comedic angles in the wind, once he gets inside he tries to stealthily push a crate out the plane only to be caught mid-grunting, quite ungracefully, by a guard. The cinematography commits to this comedic tone, with a wide angle and all the characters insignificantly small in the frame.

We are also finally graced with a decent female character for the first time in Ilsa Faust, played by Rebecca Ferguson. (And it only took 20 years!) She is one of the few restrained presences in the series, exuding competence and craftiness while looking after her own interests (instead of always supporting Cruise the whole damn time). It’s not all perfect—the camera leers at her frequently as she wears a (to be fair, killer) dress, bikini, nothing but her pants, you get the picture, but she’s at least a start. And while there’s a romantic air/subplot kind of deal going on between Ilsa and Ethan, they do not end up fucking, which is a plus.

There’s an utterly forgettable nasally villain played by Sean Harris in Rogue Nation, who unfortunately comes back to Fallout, but the real star of the show is the continuing pivot of the series. Ghost Protocol helped sell an incredulous Ethan Hunt, but Rogue Nation goes a step further and makes Ethan Hunt a critical reflection of Tom Cruise’s entire persona. Here, he is not just incredulous, but completely willing, and in fact, eager to throw himself in harm’s way as his aging body protests, and other characters call him out on it.

For example, mid-way through the film, after Hunt has drowned himself from holding his breath too long underwater switching out ID cards in a water-cooled server, he is abruptly revived with a defibrillator. But then, the important McGuffin flash drive is stolen from him and he immediately gets into a sports car to make chase as he’s still groggy and wide-eyed from being, you know, dead. Simon Pegg looks over as Cruise groggily keeps his eyes open, clutching the steering wheel and starting the engine with the look of a mad-man, and asks, “are you sure you can do this?” And Cruise blithely drives on, all “I GOT THIS” when he so clearly does not got this.  It’s perfect.

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And suddenly, I am reminded of how emblematic of the male movie hero Tom Cruise is in these films. Think about Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Reeves in John Wick, or Kiefer Sutherland in 24. Their defining attribute is not cleverness—to be clever would be effeminate and weak—but raw prowess and determination. There’s a hysterical scene in 24 when a man Jack Bauer needs to interrogate on the other side of a panic room door/wall is locked inside. So, for a moment, you think he’s going to talk him out or find a Macgyver-esque solution to the problem. But no, he just takes a fucking shotgun or sledgehammer and wails against the wall until it breaks down. It’s raw determination. He wants it more than the other guy and he’s going to get what he wants, damn it!  John Wick doesn’t need a clever solution, he just shoots the other guys better, and this prowess lets him do things and take approaches no other character in the Wick films can, making him an almost superhero-like figure. And similarly, Ethan Hunt is the guy who can just climb a skyscraper, leap onto a plane or helicopter, run for miles, whatever. It is his core character trait throughout the entire series, as his actual emotional and character state is sort of waffled on between directors (genuine if charming rookie in 1, disgusting lady’s man in 2, grizzled vet in 3, so on). And sure, he can be clever, but when push comes to shove it is his physical state that saves him.

And this is what Rogue Nation, and subsequently, Fallout, so brilliantly play on. It slyly comments on Cruise’s aging state (the man is now in his late 50s) by portraying how desperately he will cling to whatever chance there is at succeeding a mission (and therefore, how desperately he will cling to his youth). He is the “I can do it” masculine attitude taken to the nth degree. And that’s why Rogue Nation is shot more as a comedy than an action film. It’s not like this is flying under Tom Cruise’s nose, either—he’s a huge producer on these films, and has the final say on many elements. I am reminded of Katharine Hepburn and how she was the one to suggest Cary Grant throw her to the ground at the beginning of The Philadelphia Story—she knew audiences didn’t like her and would like to see her smacked around a bit. Similarly, Cruise knows what modern audiences think of him, and he’s starting to have fun with it—and that makes me very, very happy.

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FALLOUT

Which finally brings us to Fallout, an odd duck in the series. In the “contract” sense, it is another competent Mission Impossible film, and I enjoyed it a hell of a lot, but there’s weird unresolved series issues at the periphery.

First, the good: I think they continue Cruise’s self-deprecating streak brilliantly. He gets beaten up severely in stunts in some cartoonish ways, and the wonderful comedic camera work is still in full effect. There’s a shot where the Henry Cavill is sitting in a helicopter blithely unaware and calm as Cruise climbs the rope underneath another helicopter in the background that nearly had me rolling on the floor with laughter. If Ghost Protocol was incredulous Hunt, and Rogue Nation was Hunt as self-harming with his determination, then Fallout shows how even his colleagues and people in his ridiculous world find him to be an absurd entity. Angela Basset calls the IMF “Halloween,” his (now-standard) crew of Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames always look away as he’s doing ridiculous stunts—the running gag of Hunt’s very existence plays like gangbusters. In the words of a frustrated villain, “Why won’t you just die?”

Ilsa Faust continues to be in it, and is much less objectified by the camera this time around. The stunts are incredible, Henry Cavill is a wonderful addition who has a lot of fun with his straight-man role against Tom Cruise, and the whole film moves very smoothly and confidently as you’d expect the sixth entry in the series to. Unfortunately, however, Rebecca Ferguson is not the only returning actress.

That’s riiiiiiiiiight! Michelle Monaghan is back as Ethan Hunt’s boring ex-wife! And not only that, she has a cringe-worthy speech about how she can sleep well at night knowing he’s out there saving the world (barf). In general, this film is one-step-forward-two-steps-back with women. On the one hand, Ilsa continues to be great—if a bit blankly staring concernedly at Ethan this time around—and on the other, there’s a whole train of women interested in Ethan this time around (because one woman is never enough, AIMIRITE?) There’s Ilsa, who is more explicitly an interest, there’s an arms dealer who’s the daughter of the arms dealer from the first film named the White Widow who is just immediately turned on by Tom Cruise and finds him incredibly sexy and thrusts herself at him repeatedly, and then there’s his ex-wife thrown in the mix for good measure. Ugh. We even have a weird passing of the torch with love interests as his ex-wife speaks to him on a hospital bed and then Ilsa shows up immediately after, after whispering something into her ear. HERE’S THE NEW AND IMPROVED LADY SHE’S A SPY LIKE YOU AND I’M JUST GONNA GO BE A DOCTOR AND BE A GOOD WOMAN CHEERING FOR MY MAN FROM THE SIDELINES SURE HOPE I’M NOT ABDUCTED AGAIN ALRIGHT I’M GOING TO GO SLEEP SOUNDLY KNOWING YOU KEEP ME SAFE LIKE A STALKER BAAAAAAAAAI!

(Takes a deep breath.)

It’s at this point I have a (probably inaccurate, but still funny) image of Tom Cruise in a writer’s meeting:

Tom Cruise: Alright, and what if in this scene, she draped her arms onto my chest seductively and said, “Oooh, Ethan, you’re so sexy… what? No, you don’t look old at all, you still look like you’re 30. You don’t look like a grape that’s been left out in the sun for a little too long at all!”

(Tom Cruise turns to the producer.)

Tom Cruise (whispers): We’ll have a larger de-aging budget this time, right?

Besides easy potshots at Cruise’s age and persona, my other issues with Fallout are mostly tonal. Despite the often comedic tone and spyjinks, the entire movie has a really drab color palette and some dark-ass subject material. We open on a dream sequence ala Terminator 2 of Ethan and his wife disappearing into nuclear ash as the bad guy from Rogue Nation recounts all the ways Ethan failed her, and there are not one but two fakeouts of real rough shit happening and then going “Just kidding!” It feels like the filmmakers are trying to play with the expectations of a Mission Impossible film in the most shocking ways, while actually doing nothing. The first time, I was on board and thought it was really clever. The second time, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth that I hadn’t had since Mission Impossible 3.

There are also certain scenes that go on a little too long, but really, this is all just nitpicking. Mission: Impossible Fallout, overall, is the latest in a smart new trajectory for the series. I just hope Cruise’s ego doesn’t get in the way, and that this series is gracefully retired before we get to the Roger Moore Bond-era of Mission Impossible: Catheter.

"Phew, I'm tired. Are you tired? I'm tired. How many more of these are we making again?"

"Phew, I'm tired. Are you tired? I'm tired. How many more of these are we making again?"

IN SUMMATION

Hopefully I’ve demonstrated, that, like Bond films, Mission Impossible films are rather defined by what most people consider to be the most throwaway elements of the movies—the women and the stuff around the staples of the series, what, quote unquote, “Needs to be in a _____ movie.” The Mission Impossible series is one of the most fascinating mainstream takes on masculine action movie heroes in recent memory. They might be “popcorn flicks” that we don’t have to think too hard about, but it is exactly that which we don’t think about too much that shapes our thinking and our public culture.