I blame my taste in action movies on Jackie Chan. Police Story 3: Supercop left quite the impression on me as a kid. I grew up during the action boom of the ‘90s. Movies like Speed, Hard Boiled, The Professional, Point Break, and Lethal Weapon (to name a few) were more memories to me than movies. Supercop is a particularly cherished one.
When Jackie Chan is dangling off that helicopter, or when Michelle Yeoh is hanging onto that truck for dear life, I was immediately engaged. They could fall! Indeed they do. When they fight teams of bad guys, it looks like they actually got hit, or hurt. They do, and when you see the end credits, you know that they did many times over. Both Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh did superhuman things, but they always came across as unpretentiously human. To me, that’s what makes a great action film.
I thought a lot about Supercop as I watched Mission: Impossible – Fallout.
Tom Cruise is as superhuman as any one person can get at this point. He soars on motorcycles, flies helicopters, scales the Burj Khalifa, hangs off the side of an airplane, runs ungodly fast. As much as the stunts in Fallout utterly and completely rule, I appreciate the lengths Cruise goes to all for the sake of reminding us that Ethan Hunt is a human being, and a very fallible one at that.
The first thing we see Ethan do is fail. The team loses the plutonium. The incalculable loss of life is what drives Ethan forward from that moment on. It’s a nightmare possibility he shoulders internally and that’s what makes Ethan’s fight to prevent nuclear Holocaust so personal and thrilling, heightened sonically by a few sustained notes by composer Lorne Balfe.
This is a nuclear scenario we’ve seen more times than we can count, but Fallout is among the few screenplays driven by this anxiety. While there’s nothing funny about nuclear devastation, the fun of the experience crafted by writer-director Christopher McQuarrie is seeing how that anxiety shapes Ethan’s actions, how each wrinkle in the plan or change in development tightens the stranglehold on him.
It’s fun to see Ethan gauge and engage with August Walker. Walker’s the tag along, the watchdog – the last thing Ethan needs. Walker is shoot first, ask questions never (and we find out why that is), whereas Ethan has clear goals and steps to achieve those goals. He prepares as best as he can, as fast as he can, but it’s often the worst that happens.
When Walker is briefly incapacitated by a lightning storm during the film’s epic HALO jump, Ethan has to act NOW. His guidance system starts a countdown given further urgency by Balfe’s score. There’s little time to think and we’re with him (literally) as he saves Walker and then pulls his own parachute, in true IMF fashion, at the last possible second.
Afterwards, when Ethan and Walker subdue decoy-John Lark, Walker irreparably damages the face-scan to knock decoy-Lark unconscious. The film’s iconic bathroom fight ensues, and Ethan is saved by a familiar face but loses the one he needs to meet with the White Widow. There’s nothing more frustratingly human than having to improvise.
I bring up Jackie Chan because he does two things consistently: 1.) his own stunts and 2.) improvise. Both create an immediacy you rarely get in movies because most movies fall into the rhythm of staging and choreography.
Most films, even the superhero films I adore, tend to ditch authenticity in favor of soundstages and green-screen. I suppose it’s hard to complain when you’ve got $200 million budget and ILM at your disposal. At the same time, shouldn’t that same budget be able to afford doing shit for real? Granted, Fallout has CGI (clearly not an actual lightning storm they flew in), but McQuarrie and editor Eddie Hamilton cut around the VFX. Practicality is the overriding agenda.
This is what I’ve loved about Jackie Chan’s films as a kid and why I worship them even more now. By all rights, he shouldn’t risk his life. It’s just a movie. For Jackie Chan, that’s exactly why he does it. It’s never about being cool or superhero-esque as he does them either. There’s always a beat to register how real it is as opposed to how staged it is.
When Jackie leaps from a parking garage onto the next building in Rumble in the Bronx, or free-falling off the side of another in Who Am I?, it’s done imperfectly. Jackie flails around, screams the entire time, and is as damaged and sweaty as such stunts would exhaust someone. Because he really is leaping from a garage or falling down a building. You get the sense that not even Jackie Chan knows if he’ll survive the stunt and that does wonders for the suspense and immediacy of the scene. When he takes the leap, we’re right there with him.
Jackie Chan reminds us he’s not impervious. He’s constantly injured, frequently reluctant. I’m more connected to his characters than any Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Dwayne Johnson, or Jason Statham archetype whom brush off pain like an afterthought. More important than the stunt itself is the hesitance, the shock, awe, and danger in doing them. We know it’s staged and rehearsed to death. That’s where the acting component is so crucial. It makes all the difference.
Just before Ethan charges at Liang Yang, in which the two go bursting through the wall – which is like something out of Batman V. Superman – Ethan takes a brief moment to realize that he and Walker are outmatched. It’s that pause that registers Ethan as human, along with him getting his ass kicked – a thing that action stars trade in for superhuman qualities that service the set-piece over character and story. Pain is both humbling and humanizing. Failure is too. Neither Jackie Chan nor Tom Cruise are afraid of getting hurt or losing a fight, whereas some characters do nothing but win simply because they’re the “protagonist.”
The convoy sequence tells us the most about Ethan. This is where Mission: Impossible pulls its ingenious heist-twist on the audience. We know there’s a plan, but we don’t know the details. Just when we think Ethan might go rogue (with an imaginary sequence that asks the audience and Ethan to imagine what he’d have to do for the greater good), Ethan instead pulls a reverse 180, fighting to preserve human life on the individual level, not just the abstract. It’s a spectacle in and of itself to see Ethan stick to the mantra that made him save Luther in the opening: no sacrificing innocent lives, ever, not even when faced with a massive trolley problem.
It’s during the film’s white-knuckle bike chase – a sequence that would leave the Fast & Furious franchise green with envy – where both actor and character fuse as one. Tom Cruise, the performer, knows his marks, knows that the camera’s in front and that there are all these moving parts designed to keep the audience on the edge. It’s Ethan the character who’s figuring this shit out as he goes, both nonetheless conscious of the stakes. We’re the lucky passenger in all this. We experience that visceral reality in between (or viscer-reality), the purity and uncertainty of the moment that these high-flying stunts can immerse us in.
The con of movies is that essentially they’ve already happened. They’ve shot the film, taken it through post-production. The magic-trick is making the film feel like it’s unfolding as it happens, that there’s no beginning, middle, or end – only the present. McQuarrie is quite the magician, increasing the danger and Ethan’s proximity to the point that we forget this is all orchestrated. Cruise, too, smartly sticks his feet out for a point of reference between him and incoming cars. If anything goes wrong, he’s a goner and both Cruise and the audience knows that. This same tactic ironically becomes his undoing in a later stunt.
That’s only the first half of the sequence in Paris. The next kicks off with a confrontation involving a policewoman and Zola’s henchmen. Ethan’s tasked with a very real life or death equation and has to think and act fast. It results in another complication (as the White Widow goes on to change the terms of the deal), but it’s satisfying to see the choices made as McQuarrie frames both the imaginary sequence and the police confrontation in the same manner.
Ethan then finds himself being pursued by a mysterious biker. It’s a chase right out of Ronin. Yet, McQuarrie’s greatest influence is himself. Jack Reacher features a similar testosterone-fueled sequence. McQuarrie once again pulls the music altogether and all you hear is the sweet sound of screeching tires and engines blaring down alleyways. (The car chase in Fallout as well as Reacher owe a debt to Bullitt, and many of the stunts in the M:I series owe a debt to Jackie Chan.)
McQuarrie does something almost anti-Mission: Impossible with Fallout; he uses the laws of physics. There’s nothing wrong with letting them go haywire from time to time, but what makes Fallout so unique is how the film dials down the staging and increases the execution. Ethan pulls similar moves in Fallout as he did in Rogue Nation. He spins a 360, careens down some stairs. Fallout pulls it back. It’s not the action so much as knowing that that’s Tom Cruise performing the action that’s so vital, and further, Cruise staying in character while doing so.
The scene cuts from windshield to backseat, simultaneous to the motion, and not a moment is lost on you. You’re bolted to the backseat of the BMW, so that when Ethan slams on the brake and he, Lane, and Ilsa Faust share an eyeline of recognition, you don’t even realize not a word of dialogue is spoken. You know the stakes, just as you know Cruise is driving for real, just as you know that’s Sean Harris being tossed around in the passenger seat.
Mission: Impossible II might’ve introduced the series’ fixation on high-speed chases, but it’s also the franchise at its most pretentious, replete with slow-mos and wholly unnecessary flips mid-action. (This hurts me to say because it’s John Woo we’re talking about.) There’s no tension because across a high-rise shootout to a breakneck chase, the film sacrifices tension for overkill-style and doves – as John Woo is wont to do.
The action in Fallout services THE STORY. That’s what made Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation so gripping. McQuarrie refines the technique to a tee that it’s damn near artful. Tom Cruise by all means could showoff. But he doesn’t. Because Walker’s getting away and any unnecessary flair in the chase detracts from the goal. Cruise goes to literal excruciating pains to look un-smooth, not as adept, not as efficient as Ethan would like to be. That’s what sells the leap. When his ankle breaks in the shot, you don’t know if it’s Cruise the actor, the producer, or Ethan Hunt who hoists himself up to get the job done.
By the time they get to Kashmir, you believe in Ethan resolutely. You’re on board and on his frequency as he guns it for the helicopter. They need that detonator as much as they need to dismantle the bombs. That Cruise takes 3 tries to grab the rope AND that he falls are ironically the most reassuring things in the film.
He’s contending with real forces of nature. Putting Julia in the game doesn’t magically give him confidence or strength. It makes him more vulnerable, more desperate. Ethan’s fallible the entire way through, including his final confrontation with Walker.
There are a great deal of ways that fight could play out, the same way Batman and Joker’s fight could’ve been more stylish, the same way Mad Max and Rictus’ fight could’ve been so much lengthier. They’re not because there are bigger goals and greater stakes. The detonator is far more important. Walker’s just in the way and that’s exactly how Tom Cruise plays it.
This is what makes him so compelling just as it made Jackie Chan so compelling. They start at the lowest rung of the ladder and it’s a clamor to get back up. The odds are never in their favor, whether it’s losing the plutonium and then having to con a nuclear physicist, or free-climbing on the edge of a literal cliff. Neither Jackie Chan nor Tom Cruise are invincible. They gotta work, they often fail, but they succeed where it counts.
As moviegoers, we often lament, “they don’t make them like they used to.” It’s an overrated sentiment, but an understandable one. I have nothing against CGI. It’s an attractive solution when the alternative is contending with real cities filled with real people and their quality of life. My problem is that CGI makes us settle for less and as a result we lose touch with what’s “real.” This is film we’re talking about, so real might be beside the point, but there used to be a time when we delighted in an action film that got the job done – that not only entertained us, but immersed us. We took pride in it, celebrated the fact that the filmmakers made the impossible possible. Isn’t that what stories are about?
Films like Fallout, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Dark Knight come around once in what feels like a millennium, yet I find myself not at all wondering what’s next for the action genre or the Mission: Impossible series. For the first time, I’m plenty satisfied with where we’re at.