A couple weeks ago, I wrote about “Skyscraper,” the newest vehicle for Dwayne Johnson that tried to build stakes around his character without having to stoop to showing him as a fallible human being. In that review, I threw out “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” as an example of a movie that did right much of what “Skyscraper” did wrong, providing an action film defined by its impressively helmed action sequences but held together by its characters and their combination of humanity, grit and determination. They would take a hit, take a fall, but get back up ready to kick ass.
Brad Bird (“Incredibles 2”) directed “Ghost Protocol,” but left the franchise after his one installment as per franchise tradition; Brian de Palma, John Woo and J.J. Abrams preceded him. “Mission: Impossible” star Tom Cruise (“American Made”) recommended “Jack Reacher” director Chris McQuarrie to take over for the fifth installment, “Rogue Nation,” and what followed somehow raised the bar even further for the series.
In McQuarrie’s hands, the pacing was a little tighter and the villains slightly more menacing. The action had a more visceral quality, and the ensemble felt like more of a team than ever before. It established McQuarrie to mainstream audiences as a director on the rise, and few were upset to hear he would return to the director’s chair for the sixth entry in the saga.
“Rogue Nation” is clearly the work of a man who knew what he was doing, and it’s a personal favorite of mine. By comparison, though, “Fallout” is the work of a master. It’s a two-and-a-half hour mic drop. It’s McQuarrie shouting to the heavens, “Witness me!” then strapping an IMAX camera to a crew member’s chest to shoot a stunt-intensive skydiving sequence from 25 thousand feet in a single take. Without hyperbole, it’s the best, boldest action movie to hit theaters in years.
It would be easy to lay much of what makes “Fallout” such an experience at the feet of McQuarrie, and a good deal of the credit must go to him. It’s his hand guiding the spectacular action scenes — from the aforementioned HALO jump to the climactic helicopter chase — as well as the breathless pacing. It’s hard to imagine “Fallout” working as well as it does without him behind the camera.
However, there’s much more to it than that. It's obviously impossible to overstate Cruise’s dedication to the physical side of his character, Ethan Hunt. At one point, he breaks his ankle while jumping between two buildings in a take that was used in the finished movie. I won’t make the argument that the practicality of the effects and stunt work alone makes him great, but there is a certain pleasure to be taken in watching some of Cruise’s outstanding work here knowing the literal blood, sweat and tears.
Beyond even Cruise’s dedication, the action and the film as a whole sing because everything behind the scenes is operating like a well-oiled machine. Short of McQuarrie and Cruise, the score by Lorne Balfe may be the aspect of “Fallout” most necessary for the film’s greatness as it perfectly underscores and amplifies the surprisingly dark tone. McQuarrie is obviously cognizant of the score’s brilliance. At multiple moments he dials back the sound of what’s happening on screen to let the music wash over the viewer.
Even the sound design and mixing, something that often goes overlooked, becomes a highlight. A fight taking place in a Paris bathroom would have been memorable thanks to its insane, diverse choreography, but it becomes one of the best fistfights to have been put on screen in the last decade thanks to the sound, which adds a brutal edge to every single punch. The sight of Henry “Insert Moustache Joke” Cavill as a man who packs such a ludicrous amount of strength into each punch that, in an already iconic bit of improvisation, he has to reload his damned fists doesn’t hurt either.
I could go on about everything that makes “Fallout” the best action film since “Mad Max: Fury Road” melted the brains of the American moviegoing public, but it would take too much time. Everything necessary for action movie greatness is on full display here, down to the most minute details. I sat down ready to be entertained. Instead I was enraptured. I started holding my breath less than 10 minutes in and I didn’t stop until after the credits had rolled.