Light the Fuse

So there’s this dumb thing in rock criticism where, every few years, a new rock band appears that the press anoints the saviors of rock n’ roll — inevitably, they aren’t (have people figured out that the Strokes were just straight-up boring yet?), but the phenomenon persists because every once in a while it’s nice to get back to basics and experience that primal, atavistic excitement once more. Action movies haven’t gone away, not really. They’ve just been relegated to lower-budget thrillers like John Wick, foreign markets, or straight-to-VOD schlock. Special effects-driven four-quandrant blockbusters are the name of the game right now: superheroes throwing CG at each other, motion-captured creature features, children’s fantasy stories. The funny thing about Mission: Impossible: Fallout is that it’s a totally fun big stunt-driven 90s action movie in the Bruckheimer mode (which not even the first one was), but it’s been so long since we’ve had one of those that people are flipping out over it.

It’s not a good spy movie — the twists are obvious, there’s not a lot of actual intelligence gathering, Ethan Hunt is objectively a terrible spy — but it’s one hell of an action flick. Even the Fast and Furious movies, which I love, have turned into ridiculous effects extravaganzas. While M:I:F certainly uses its share of visual effects, there’s still a visceral shock that comes from watching Tom Cruise jump out of an airplane or throw down with a martial artist in a public restroom. It’s the same reason those old Jackie Chan movies are great — as questionable as some of their storytelling and filmmaking merits may be, nothing quite compares to the reality of a man throwing himself through the window of a bus for our entertainment. You can appreciate the artistry and creativity of some of the computer generated stuff — Gravity still remains a nonstop thrillride — but that extra layer of reality adds a lot.

It’s not just a return to 90s action flicks in its approach to the stunts, either. It’s also a return to traditional action film structure. There’s a hero, flawed but with a solid moral center. There’s a bad guy, with his own reasons for being evil but still clearly evil with a very clear evil plan that’s going to hurt a lot of people. The hero must go through obstacles, setbacks, and tests of his moral certitude to defeat the bad guy, which mostly manifest through a series of setpieces and action scenes that escalate in scale, scope, and stakes until the explosive (often literally) finale. That escalation and clear establishment of stakes are what make the film so propulsive. Despite all the twists and turns and (usually obvious) reveals, the audience can follow along with what the heroes and villains are trying to do. Ironically, it’s a structure largely perfected by the old-school Bond movies before they tried to make everything about murky, moral gray areas (one of the reasons the Daniel Craig run, post-Casino Royale, has floundered).

More importantly, especially for an action film, the biggest setpiece comes at the very end. A lot of modern films, even previous Mission: Impossible films, have the biggest action scene in the middle, thus leading to a feeling of letdown when the movie draws to a close without that big final bang. That’s the Marvel model — the fight at the airport in Captain America: Civil War, the car chase in Black Panther (sure, the showdown in Wakanda had more stuff happening, but it was messy with unclear stakes and goals), the Washington Monument sequence in Spider-Man: Homecoming. It’s clearly worked for the kind of movies they’re trying to make! It just doesn’t work as effectively with straight-up action films like this. And I’m not trying to argue that three-act structure 90s action movies are the pinnacle of successful storytelling, either. It’s just hard to deny that, for the type of story they’re trying to tell, there’s a model that’s been finely honed by hundreds of movies. It just works.

And Mission: Impossible: Fallout, for all its flaws, just works.

The Strokes still suck, though.

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