Is it wrong to be critical of something for being what it is? Do you fault the seasons, for example, for their predictable pattern of changes in temperature and weather? Or do you lambast the animal kingdom for its various hierarchies of predators and prey? Of course not! Circle of life and all that, right?
Similarly, maybe I cannot seriously be cranky at Tom Cruise for being an attention-seeking narcissist. Sure he risks his damn life doing his own stunts while filming, and then discusses it, in interviews, as though he were securing the safety of the free world, instead of just jonesing for that sweet adrenaline rush in a supreme act of rich white male privilege. Who am I to judge? Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, Cruise gotta crash a copter. Right?
Further, is it my place to throw shade at Cruise, Christopher McQuarrie, Paramount Pictures, and a small army of seasoned professionals from a variety of fields of expertise, for working long days and busting their asses to execute, record and tell a story chock full of explosions, fist fights and races against the clock? Seems unreasonable of me to do so, right?
So then, why do I have the urge to tell Cruise, et. al., what Thor once told Loki?
“Life is about . . . growth, it’s about change, but you seem to just want to stay the same. I guess what I’m trying to say is that . . . you could be more.”
Don’t get me wrong: there is a lot to enjoy about Mission: Impossible – Fallout.
There’s the brutal fist fight in a men’s room between IMF agents Ethan Hunt (Cruise), August Walker (Henry Cavill), and a nameless thug (Liang Yang). I winced every time someone’s head went through a mirror or took several tiles off a wall. It’s bone-crunching goodness.
There is glorious subterfuge, which is all I can say on the subject. Come on, it’s a spy film.
There’s Angela Bassett, one of the true modern queens of Hollywood, who owns each and every scene she graces, because of course she does, she’s Angela @&$#!~€§?! Bassett.
There’s the witty banter among Hunt’s team, Benjy (Simon Pegg), Luther (Ving Rhames), and Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), clearly taking a page from the Joss Whedon section of the Marvel Studios handbook.
There’s Cavill emerging as an actual movie star. He brings the kind of intensity and moral grays to Walker that makes me want to see a spinoff movie of that guy’s exploits. The totality of interactions between Hunt and Walker amounts to what is really happening here: Cruise is training his eventual replacement in Hollywood.
Which brings us to Cruise, and to Ethan Hunt.
Cruise has been a lasting presence in Hollywood for good reason. He’s an exceptional actor, with that elusive, amorphous “it” factor that all movie stars possess. He has demonstrated tremendous range, in dramas like Magnolia and in comedies like Tropic Thunder. Moreover, he possesses an acute understanding of both his public image and what content works in studio films. He is Hollywood’s leading authority on the science of personal branding (yes, I know Dwayne Johnson seems to own that title, but where do you think he learned it from?). In fact, if he is a scientist (as opposed to a Scientologist . . . see what I did there?), then Ethan Hunt is his greatest invention. And that is not necessarily a compliment.
Since his big-screen introduction in 1996, Hunt has always been more of a type than a character. He is the absolute best at what he does, is strong, agile, quick-witted, brilliant, clever, humble, confident, charming, compassionate, creative, and is a pro at slight-of-hand magic. Yet, for this abundance of talent and good breeding, he has no personal shortcoming to compensate for his attributes and thus to make his challenges that much more challenging. He doesn’t have a failed marriage and aversion to modernity like John McClain; he doesn’t have a criminal past that he’s trying to put behind him, like Han Solo; he’s not psychologically warped by profound tragedy, like Bruce Wayne. He has no mental deficits, no emotional issues, no financial problems, no missing body parts, no severed vertebrae, no off putting social quirks, no challenges with maturity. No clay feat of any kind. In fact, the only trait that could be identified as a personal fault – the fact that he puts his career ahead of his marriage – is portrayed in the M:I franchise as a strength, something he and his wife (Michelle Monaghan) mutually decided is for “the greater good.” The guy is, in a word, perfect.
And, as protagonists go, that’s not very compelling. In fact, the more I think about it, Hunt could almost make for a pretty good Bond villain.
Drama as a rule requires conflict, and that includes internal conflict, which Ethan Hunt does not possess. But the M:I films have managed to sidestep that detail by focusing on the mission itself and coming up with creative approaches to the same formula. This has been accomplished largely with one of the series’ most notable distinctions: each film has been helmed by a different, accomplished director (except for Fallout) – Brian DePalma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird, and Christopher McQuarrie (this is his second M:I film). Each movie has been a composition of each director’s unique idea of what a spy thriller should be. Cruise, and by extension Hunt, has been the connective thread among all of them, and in doing so, he has served as a kind of human template for each auteur. And perhaps Cruise and his production team decided that the path to success for this venture was to make Hunt as much of a blank slate as possible, while still retaining the character’s specifics and kept compelling by Cruise’s capacity to breathe life into the character (no matter how thinly written). In doing so, perhaps each director could mold Hunt, ever so slightly, to best accommodate their respective artistic visions.
And perhaps because Fallout (jeez, I keep wanting to write Skyfall and it’s really annoying me!) is the first M:I installment to involve a returning director, I’m accustomed to McQuarrie’s style, from Rogue Nation. And perhaps, in the absence of no new stylistic tricks (you may notice the callbacks to elements from all the previous films, which some other critics have praised as an “accumulation” – I disagree with that characterization), I am left to pay closer attention to the characters, especially Hunt. And for the first time with an M:I movie, I am struck by how much of a cypher he is. For the first time I saw him as less a character than a set of corporate decisions. I mean, yes, the world is falling down all around him, and those closest to him are in perpetual danger, and Ethan is appropriately desperate and upset and seeking a solution (notice how I have not described the movie’s plot at all? Do you care? Me neither). But I couldn’t escape the sense that, of course he is reacting in the ways he does. He is a generic action hero. He is supposed to act the way he acts.
As the great and omnipotent Angela Bassett says, with stone cold clarity, “That’s the job.”
And in the end, that’s what Fallout felt like to me. For all the dazzling stunt work and action sequences, this felt like a job. I could almost see the studio’s notes on the screenplay. I could almost hear Cruise deciding what reaction from Hunt will elicit the right amount of emotional response, while maximizing his enduring status as an action icon.
Mind you, I’m not describing anything that every other Hollywood movie production doesn’t already do. But in the absence of an interesting protagonist with an unique outlook on life and set of compelling traits, that’s all an action movie is. A job well done.
But it could be so much more.