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How ‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’ Gets Immersive Action Right

This shot breakdown and a few words from ‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’ director Christopher McQuarrie reveal what good action is all about.
Mission Impossible Fallout Henry Cavill
By  · Published on July 27th, 2018

This shot breakdown and a few words from ‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’ director Christopher McQuarrie reveal what good action is all about.

Action-heavy tentpole movies rule cinema screens more now than ever. To say that mainstream entertainment feels oversaturated with violence — stylized or otherwise — feels like an understatement at this point. Any movie with a sizeable budget could potentially be the next noisy, empty Bayhem-filled extravaganza, and that’s bad.

Whether we’re watching a superhero flick, or a big-budget spy vehicle, or even smaller offerings like John Wick and Atomic Blonde, these films must present audiences with some level of investment that makes their action scenes worthwhile. Usually, this comes in the form of plot and character development. That feels like a no-brainer. Yet, things are a little different in the Mission: Impossible franchise.

The first five installments of Mission: Impossible may play out like an anthology centering on Tom Cruise‘s Ethan Hunt and several rotating cast members. However, the man and the myth that is Cruise’s celebrity have clearly become so intertwined that this alone is enough to drag people into theaters.

The Tom Cruise renaissance effect is all too real, and audiences just fancy witnessing the actor’s indefatigable thrill-seeking in action. Cruise’s uncanny ability to dominate the screen in itself raises the stakes of any Mission: Impossible story at this point. What crazy stunt will he be up to next? Will he survive it, despite being over 50? That’s how you know he’s a movie star. For years, people have only cared about his well-being and supposed fearlessness more so than his character’s.

However, Mission: Impossible – Fallout actually breaks all the rules of its own franchise. In the film, there is legitimate dramatic tension that feels as visceral and authentic as its jaw-dropping action sequences. Fallout successfully finds the sweet spot between story and spectacle, and this is extremely refreshing for the series.

On the technical side, Studio Binder’s succinct shot breakdown comes in handy in explaining – using a clip from Fallout – how the Mission: Impossible keeps its action hair-raising and engaging. Watch it below.

According to Studio Binder, the bathroom fight scene in Fallout expertly uses a variety of basic filmmaking tricks to create a fluid sequence that’s perfectly married to the high-impact fight choreography being dished out by Cruise, Henry Cavill, and Liang Yang. These tactics include utilizing multiple subtle camera angle changes and introducing the use of simple props into the brawl to imply shifts in power dynamics. Together, they promote an organic, unmuddied flow within the combat sequence while maintaining a feverish atmosphere.

Moreover, the scene is shot handheld, mirroring the frenetic energy of participation that the sequence requires. If you don’t feel like you’re physically in that bathroom watching Cruise plow through Liang at full-force, then so much of the action loses its power.

Fallout director Christopher McQuarrie certainly shot all his action sequences with audience engagement actually in mind. According to an interview with Variety, he states:

“I shoot everything in a somewhat voyeuristic point of view, but not a voyeur peering in from the doorway. You’re right over Henry Cavill’s shoulder, over Tom’s shoulder. So Tom and I work together to create that sort of immersive experience so that you’re with Ethan and you feel what’s happening. You’re just that much more invested. That’s really what we’re after.”

The authenticity of the action in Fallout is then coupled with McQuarrie’s commitment to the movie’s characterization, and they combine for an enthralling big-screen experience. The practical nature of the bathroom fight – and indeed any of the much bigger set pieces that exist in the Fallout narrative like the HALO jump or Cruise’s helicopter piloting – is anchored by the story around it.

Speaking to The A.V. Club, McQuarrie notes that physical feats alone weren’t enough to set Fallout apart from the rest of the Mission: Impossible movies. The evolution of the franchise and its protagonist beyond the closed-off infallibility of earlier incarnations was of the utmost importance to him as a director, especially after his experiences working on Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation several years prior. McQuarrie remarks:

“I said I wanted to make a more emotional movie. I want to make a movie that’s more inside of Ethan’s head. In the previous five movies, including the one I made, you don’t really get a sense of who Ethan is as a person. You get the sense that other people project things onto him. They surmise what he is thinking. But we’re never fully allowed in, and that’s part of the allure of the character.”

Thus, McQuarrie then purposely constructed a three-point relationship in Fallout: Ethan, the film’s secondary characters, and the audience watching the movie are interlinked in narrative friction due to varying degrees of secrecy. The storyline had to almost play out in real time for each group in the dynamic, in order for every twist to pack the most punch (no pun intended). As McQuarrie says, “You’re sucked into thinking you know more than anybody in the movie and you come to find out there are things in the story that you are not privy to.”

In this way, viewers don’t just experience the authenticity of Cruise’s stuntwork divorced from anything meaningful or resonant. The audience is projected into the drama of the movie, too. When the story is allowed to breathe in between all that astonishing action and still manage to implore audiences to care about where its plot is heading, the film finds a moving and fulfilling balance. Which, in turn, renews an old-school franchise like Mission: Impossible as a whole.

And that’s how Mission: Impossible — Fallout ticks all the requisite boxes for a damn good action movie, spelling great things for the franchise moving forward.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)