There are some movie trailers that are just too good. There are some trailers that cause me to anticipate films with a mixed sense of excitement and dread, knowing the odds are high that they can live up to the density of adrenaline packed into the carefully edited advert. There are some trailers, I'd argue, that inevitably intertwine my reaction to a film with my expectations of it.
I remember watching, nonplussed, as Tom Cruise clung desperately to an ascending plane, the runway fading into the background behind him, and thinking, "This is just a typical Monday for him isn't it?" This was the gripping new stunt on display in the trailer for Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015), the fifth entry into the action-thriller franchise. I hadn't kept up with the films, had never been sufficiently drawn by the spectacle of the next big ridiculous stunt. When I found out Brad Bird had directed the fourth film, subtitled Ghost Protocol (2011), I decided to catch up. I subsequently became swept up in the phenomenon. I gained renewed appreciation for the sans-CG stunt-work, the perilous countdowns, the clever reversals, and of course, the "literal manifestation of destiny" Ethan Hunt. I had come around to understanding that the essence of the franchise is witnessing the prodigious extent of Cruise's willingness to simulate danger, and how well it translates to the increasingly manic intensity of his character.
My renewed interest in the franchise may have also coincided with the awe-inspiring trailer for this latest installment, Mission: Impossible - Fallout. To begin, the voice of one of Ethan's former nemeses Solomon Lane, (the delectable Sean Harris) returns with a prognostication of doom. There is a dark tone shift, a sense of setting this film apart from previous entries in the franchise. Indeed it is the only film to feature a returning villain, or a returning director (Christopher McQuarrie) for that matter. With Ethan's former wife also pulled back into the picture, the stakes have never been higher for him. Could it be that this time Ethan might lose something? Not necessarily the world, or the mission, but something?
No. Of course not. Well, yes, he does lose some hot plutonium when he decides to save one of his team; the subsequent action of the film is the titular fallout from this moral choice. And to its credit, this quandary persists in the film to a degree. Ethan's most important quality is, as stated by the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) secretary Hunley (Alec Baldwin), his valuing of an individual life. Some of the most compelling action in the film results from Ethan's improvisation to make sure no good guys have to die. In opposition, the CIA is characterized as having an at-all-costs ethos. The rival agency imposes a shoot-first ruthless operative onto Ethan's team, played by Henry Cavill and the twenty-five million dollar mustache. The self-aware gadgetry and camp of the franchise is contrasted with modern grittier notions of American intelligence to the effect of political nostalgia. The audience's belief in Ethan Hunt's ̶ perhaps unrealistic ̶ methods is aligned with the absurdly fun belief that he alone can save the world. Indeed one could argue that Ethan succeeds in unmasking the mysterious John Lark because the latter fails to grasp to what marvelous extent and why Ethan's team trusts him as much as they do; as always their trust is well-placed in the end.
On top of pulling off another truly thrilling entry, It may be asking too much for the franchise to reckon with Hunt's nigh invulnerable ridiculousness, but Fallout deliberately asks us to, or at least its villains do. By involving Ethan's former wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) in his evil scheme Solomon Lane threatens to make Ethan suffer the consequences of his moral superiority. "You should have killed me," he calls from Ethan's dreams, as Ethan watches Julia disintegrate in a mushroom cloud. Similarly, a manifesto authored by the antagonist thematically declares "There was never a great peace without a great suffering." This line serves as the villains' flimsy moral justification for committing mass genocide in order to vaguely disrupt the status quo of civilization. It's a perfectly serviceable nefarious ideology, but it also fittingly applies to the sacrifices Ethan makes in order to keep the world safe. We've already seen Ethan's marriage sacrificed in Ghost Protocol, here we get the benefit of seeing Julia herself affirm that sacrifice and give Ethan her blessing. But Ethan doesn't suffer any new devastating loss in this film, he proves that there ultimately is no fallout for his good intentions.
Fallout is truly the mission to end all missions. It's unique continuity with the rest of the franchise and direct connection to its predecessor set it up to pronounce a statement on the legacy of Ethan/Cruise. The fifty-six year-old action-star seems to be grasping at straws throughout the final act, and frantically repeats lines like "I'll make it work" or "I'll figure something out", testing his dear friends' trust and audiences' expectations further than ever before. "How could you ever have doubted him?" The film seems to shout in conclusion. Ethan/Cruise is the definitive action hero ubermench. He makes superhuman feats look like a simple combination of willpower and gymnastics. He chugs jet fuel for breakfast. He runs like a spinning blade.
Check out The Movie Gang Podcast's full review of Fallout.