‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’ Is a Master Class in Dramatic Tension

Mission: Impossible's protagonist, Ethan Hunt, is not the coolest, most badass action star. This is why it works.

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in 'Mission: Impossible - Fallout.'
Tom Cruise dangles from a helicopter in Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Paramount Pictures and Skydance

1. Our Mission

The Mission: Impossible series has become one of the enduring staples of the modern Hollywood blockbuster. But much like the Fast and Furious series, it has had an odd, rambling, remarkable path, where it took a few entries before the franchise found its proverbial footing.

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It’s somewhat hilarious to think it about now, but back in 1996, the first Mission: Impossible was considered Tom Cruise’s big, risky foray into the world of action films. But luckily, this first entry, directed by the great Brian De Palma, still stands as the series’ best “actual spy film.” Even with its labyrinthine plot, it’s perhaps best remembered for its incredible mid-sequence Langley heist, which still works as a masterpiece of silent tension (it also set the series’ defining “midpoint heist” trope in stone).

But when the time came for a second installment, Cruise, who produces these films, wanted to change gears and go with the equally great action-centric director John Woo. The result was…very Woo. It’s filled to the brim with his signatures: slow motion, flying doves and a romantic, elegant approach to the action itself (plus Tom Cruise’s luminous hair). Many regard the film as too silly, but I genuinely still like its aching singularity.

Six years later, Cruise would change gears yet again by going with TV maverick J.J. Abrams for the series’ third entry, which launched the director’s feature career (Cruise was apparently a big fan of those first seasons of Alias). The film is best remembered for its terrifying, villainous performance from Phillip Seymour Hoffman, but it’s worth noting how it was also aiming for a deeper emotional resonance. Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is now out of the game, married, and training recruits, but of course he gets pulled back into the horrible game of espionage. Try as it does, the film unfortunately ends up feeling like a slick, empty and somewhat fleeting affair in a series best known for its unforgettable high points.

Fortunately, the series experienced its defining shift with 2011’s Ghost Protocol, which set it on its current path. Brad Bird and the team of writers (including Christopher McQuarrie, who came on later in the game) tweaked Cruise’s character by giving him just a touch of Indiana Jones’ comic fallibility. Meaning Ethan Hunt was now in a constant battle with Murphy’s Law as every gadget, plan and intention flopped miserably—resulting in some serious deadpanning from Cruise in the vein of Buster Keaton, all before escaping by the skin of his teeth.

Turns out this comparison became rather apt, as a great deal of the film’s promotion centered around Cruise’s absolutely insane stunt work in the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world. Suddenly it all felt so daring. So fun. And it had to be seen to be believed. This is how the franchise ostensibly figured out “the new formula,” which essentially turned the films into an escalating series of stunt-based dares that I’m pretty sure will one day kill Tom Cruise. But when McQuarrie came in to direct the fifth entry, 2015’s Rogue Nation, it wasn’t just about the mere fact that they were having Cruise hang onto the side of a plane. It was the fact that McQuarrie was proving himself a new master of fine-tuned action sequences. The movie also featured the most solid storytelling from start to finish, largely capitalizing on the fiery interplay between Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust. Thus, McQuarrie became a series first: the first director to be welcomed back to the chair with Mission: Impossible – Fallout. And boy, oh boy, does this film deliver.

But I want to talk about why.

2. Falling In

I’ve loved action and martial arts movies since I was a kid, watching films like Die Hard, Sorcerer, The Terminators, James Bond films, Bullet and Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter all in equal measure. But all this means I am now generally angry about the state of action in Hollywood films. But it’s not the fault of all the incredible craftsmen, stunt people, visual artists and fans. This is the fault of the films losing “the philosophy of action” and not seeing what the real goals need to be in the things we put on screen. So when pressed to consider what it is that makes Fallout (and the other high points of this film series) so darn outstanding, I am able to identify the two core lynchpins.

The first is the filmmaking’s emphasis on stunt work. Like martial arts, there is something important in being able to recognize the “performance” of what you’re seeing and knowing the degrees to which it is real. While every film is going to be (and should be) touched up with CGI, the grounding notion that you can put faith in what you are seeing is crucial when it comes to the “gasp effect” of watching a given shot. However, this is actually the less important issue.

The car chase in Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Paramount Pictures and Skydance

The reason the Mission: Impossible series works so well is because the action is not obsessed with coolness, but with tension. As much as you’ll get “manifest destiny” speeches and witness his iron will, Ethan Hunt is not the coolest, most indulgent badass character to focus on (though McQuarrie is actually quite good at doing that with Jack Reacher). Instead, he is the person who is constantly outmatched. Every moment is about making you think Ethan Hunt is surely done for. He’ll get beaten up. Hung from a rope. Tossed around like a rag doll. And every second after, they’re going to throw yet another obstacle at him with deadly acumen. And within that paradigm, what the Mission: Impossible series has done best is use the basics of A-B-C dramatic storytelling to turn the screws so that you stay on the edge of your seat.

So while everyone wants to talk about the logistics of filming these amazing sequences (which are jaw-dropping in their technical scope), they don’t provide the key to dramatic tension. These things always start on the page, taking a concept and ingraining basic goals and obstacles. And I want to talk about the sequences in this film in depth to hammer this home. I realize that makes it seem like I’m just going to describe the action, but I’m actually not. I’m describing the conflicts within the action. And if you want to be storyteller, it is absolutely crucial that you understand the difference and can write action accordingly.

I) The Dive

The first action scene is deceptively simple: two men have to skydive off a plane and land on a Parisian building. But what I love is that this incredibly simple premise turns into an incredibly tense scene all because of character conflict. The movie’s objective: Ethan Hunt is after some stolen plutonium, but after a recent screw-up in which Hunt put the safety of one of his team members above intercepting said plutonium, the CIA doesn’t trust him to go it alone. So they’ve brought in Agent August Walker (Henry Cavill) to tag along with him. We understand their character differences immediately. While Hunt is “the Scalpel,” Walker is “the Hammer,” meaning he’s a big, blunt, brash bully who’d rather shoot first and ask questions later. He is everything Ethan is not, purely because he’d step over his own mother just to get that plutonium.

This is all critical because it establishes the philosophical differences (thus, inherent tension) between them. Then, as they’re preparing to jump, they get into an argument over the plan. Ethan is simply trying to show Walker where the Oxygen valve is and explain the importance of the timing of the parachute pull to their safe landing, but Walker just keeps giving attitude, confident he’ll be fine. Then Hunt takes a look at the jump conditions and finds there’s a massive lightning storm. Oof. It’s too dangerous, Ethan says. They’ll figure out another tactic. But Walker brashly walks by, unhooks Hunt’s oxygen valve and jumps anyway. Fuck!

Ethan scrambles to get the valve back in and runs to the edge of the plane to catch up. He dives. The two argue for a brief second through their headsets, then boom!—a lighting strike. Disoriented and dazed, Ethan can hardly hear anything as he looks about. Where is Walker? They’re already running out of time! Finally he sees Walker, who is completely passed out, falling to his death. Fuck! Hunt tries to make his way toward him, but it’s difficult with all the wind. They’re already getting near the final point of the “safe chute launch.” Hunt finally gets a hand on him. He can’t get Walker’s oxygen to work in order to wake him up. They’re falling so quickly. They pass the safe point; it’s already too freaking late. Quickly, Ethan shoves his own oxygen valve into Walker’s to save this asshole’s life, but of course he begins passing out. He reaches for his parachute at the last second as they’re about to crash and…

Boom! The chute releases at the last second, but he’s too low. Luckily it hooks onto a nearby steeple, stops his fall dead, then violently shoves him back into the wall. He’s safe, but Oh, that freaking hurt. Hunt grimaces in pain, and of course, who then comes down floating and gloating? Walker, who is completely unaware that Hunt just saved his dang life, and he makes fun of Ethan for his landing.

It’s not just the fact that they employed real skydiving stunt work (which is incredible). It’s all the dramatic conflicts that are in place. We get a sense of the clear objective: land safely on building by pulling parachute at this exact time. We get a clear explanation of the obstacles: the lightning is too dangerous; if you don’t pull the chute at the right time you’ll turn into a pancake. And we get a clear explanation of the characters’ conflict with each other, which in turn creates more conflict within the situation itself: Walker’s dangerous jump puts them completely at risk. And what’s brilliant is that the way the situation is resolved doesn’t cause Walker to actually learn anything. We, the audience, know that Ethan saved his life, but he can keep on going being a jerk and creating more conflict. Sure, it may be frustrating to not have this come with any sort of synthesis between the characters, but for now, we get more out of him being an obstacle.

II) The Bathroom Fight

Ahhh, a good old-fashioned brawl. Simple, right? Just throw in some kewl choreography and film it real good and it all takes care of itself! But no, that’s not how it works. Instead, any good fist fight has to center around clear tension, goals and power dynamics.

Luckily, the scene starts from a place of tension. Hunt and Walker have to identify “The Lark” and steal his identity (using their mask software), all so they can attend a meeting to find the plutonium. They only have the ability to track whoever this mysterious Lark is using their phones. They comb their way through a club, then slowly creep into the bathroom until they find a dapper Asian gentlemen wearing a suit (played by famous stunt coordinator Liang Yang!). As he washes his hands, they approach him from both sides, thinking they’ve got the drop on him. WRONG. The Lark senses he’s about to get got, and instantly slams Ethan down with merciless violence. Reacting quickly, Walker slams his computer right into the Lark’s face, knocking him unconscious. Ethan stares at Walker, who just smiles in his way-too-cocky way.

Liang Yang and Henry Cavill in 'Mission: Impossible - Fallout.'
Liang Yang and Henry Cavill in Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Paramount Pictures and Skydance

One problem: once they get the Lark into the bathroom stall to copy his face, it seems Walker has broken the computer with his hit. More negative consequences from Walker’s brashness! They slowly try to get it to work, but as they argue, the Lark wakes back up. Cue epic fight sequence! Both Ethan and Walker swing into action, but it becomes clear that the Lark is the superior fighter to both of them. The Lark punches them in the throat, tosses them about and unleashes a bevy of punishment. Their dueling character dynamics come out once again in the action. Ethan keeps saving Walker and getting punished for it. Walker keeps just getting more frustrated and angry (cue the “reloading his arms” meme) and coming after the Lark harder and harder. Every time you think they get the upper hand, the Lark squirms his way out and reverses it. He then takes out Walker and then slowly starts choking the life out of Ethan. This is it, they’ve lost! And then, bam!

We get the entrance of returning character Ilsa, from the previous movie, who has just saved Ethan’s life, but has shot the Lark in the head. On one hand, we’re delighted by the return of this character and that she saved Ethan. But this actually creates a new problem for the narrative. They still need to assume the Lark’s identity, but they actually need a face in order to copy one (which is one of the darker jokes in the series). So Ethan will have to try to pose as the Lark in the scene as himself. They have no idea if it will work, thus imbuing the next sequence with even more tension.

The lessons should be clear: good fight scenes are rarely demonstrations of how cool and badass your hero can be (even if you do want a few of those moments before they lose more). That’s just indulgence. Good fight scenes are about turning the screws on your characters. It’s about punishing them, hurting them and putting them in peril. It’s about making them think they have the upper hand, then having them lose that upper hand (and that can be as granular as the exchange of blows, or as big and story-building as damaging the actual objectives, as with the broken computer). It’s all about stacking the odds against your heroes, creating reversals and then ending it by putting them in more trouble than they were in before it all began. And all the while, you should be able to follow the actual fight choreography with a sense of cause and effect, while clearly understanding the characters’ geography with one another.

III) The Paris Chase

Again, this one largely functions off of good setup, but in a way you wouldn’t expect. Objective: the situation is complicated. Now posing as the Lark, Hunt has joined with the White Widow and a bunch of really, really bad guys who wouldn’t think twice about murdering anyone. And they’re going to “heist” a person—Solomon Lane (the bad guy from the last movie). They are going to use two trucks to block Lane’s transport, then shoot all the police officers (which is not something Hunt is going to do). So Ethan has a more complex objective: he needs to capture Solomon Lane without letting the murderous group he’s posing with capture him…we just don’t know how he’s going to do it.

This means there is a different dramatic tact to this scene than the previous one. Rather than have a set of expectations, we’re going to witness a situation in which Hunt is making choices that will slowly start to make more sense as he goes along. So when the time comes, instead of driving his truck and parking it behind the transport, Hunt slams on the gas, knocking the transportation into the river. Ethan has caught his murderous new cohorts by surprise, but now has to lose them. Meanwhile, Lane’s transport is filling with water and he’s going to drown! Cue the first reversal on the audience—Benji and Luther are there underwater to get Lane out safely and load him onto a boat (while stealthily avoiding detection). Meanwhile, Ethan and Walker’s truck gets jammed in an alley, so they have to change plans and hop on a couple of motorcycles to escape. There’s even a great little obstacle of tension when Ethan’s doesn’t start immediately as he’s being shot at. Ethan gets out by the skin of his teeth and now needs a new extraction point! Benji confirms and turns the boat around (this will be important).

The tension now comes from three different obstacles. There are the murderous bad guys who want to see Ethan dead. There are the police, who are closing in but whom Ethan does not want to harm. And then there are all the cars filled with people and pedestrians just going about their days. Ethan continually swoops and dives on his motorcycle, which makes it harder for him to get to safety. He literally has to drive against traffic, and there are so many terrifying close calls. (Technical note: look at the cinematography to see how many shots happen from the perspective of the traffic, meaning we see Cruise’s reactions before the danger hits our screen, which nicely adds to the tension.) Finally, Ethan is hit and careens to the ground. The cops close in. So he…pulls out a knife? What the heck? He limps to a nearby bush. The cops surround him and…

Discover a cut net. And Ethan has now escaped on Benji’s boat in the sewers below. They got away with it! Almost. Because just when you think everything’s safe, they: 1) have a three-way standoff with the police and the bad guys (where Ethan has to try to save an officer’s life). And then right on top of that: 2) a black-clad figure has shown up on a motorcycle and is taking shots at Solomon Lane—even hitting him! And now they gotta have a car chase while trying to keep the target of their heist alive (note how the stakes and obstacles keep building), and it all comes to a head with a final standoff. Ethan turns a corner, and the motorcyclist is poised before them, gun drawn. But it’s Ilsa. Oh no! We actually like her! They reach an impasse because these two people are clearly in love with each other, but they have conflicting objectives. She clearly wants Lane dead, but Ethan can’t let her harm him because there’s too much at stake. So he slams on the gas as she fires, but he runs her over and barely gets away.

What works so well about this scene is that it takes the time to establish so many important things, but it would be unfair to blithely call this “exposition,” when that exposition is actually vital to the dramatic action that follows. It creates an understanding of objectives and conflicts so that the action can just “go” when it all starts, all before ending in a tense, character-centric face-off with Ilsa.

IV) The Rooftop Run

Now, this scene is largely a straightforward demonstration of how cool it is when Tom Cruise runs. But it also contains three nice little comic beats worth noticing. Objective: Ethan is chasing after Walker, who has betrayed them and stolen Lane. But Benji has trackers on both Ethan and Walker, and he’s watching the two of them on his digital map, aiding in the chase. Benji barks out orders for which way Ethan should turn, but Benji keeps giving him the wrong instructions, first because the screen’s locked, then once again because he didn’t have it in 3D. Then there is another fun gag when Ethan gets cornered in the church during a solemn funeral. Note: these things are funny and allow for a nice change of tone, but they are still obstacles to their dramatic goal. Also, this sequence is perhaps the one with the most famous stunt, where Cruise clearly breaks his damn ankle and still finishes the shot, by limping away. OUCH.

Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in 'Mission: Impossible - Fallout.'
Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Paramount Pictures and Skydance

V) The Helicopter Chase

Ah, the grand finale. It is also full of all the classic lessons of traditional drama, chiefly a game of “spinning plates” where characters are all fighting their own individual battles, as the action intercuts between them all. The overall goal is simple: they have to disarm two nuclear bombs at once. But in order for the bombs to be disarmed, the countdown has to start. And at the same time, they need to hit a fail-safe trigger thingy which will be in possession of the bad guys.

So they arrive on camp and their first mini-objective is: find the bombs and find the person with the trigger. But when they arrive there’s an added complication for Ethan: his ex-wife Julia is there along with her new husband. (This is another measure of revenge from Solomon Lane. Remember: it’s easy to think faceless millions will get our sympathy, but we will always care so much more about the characters we have come to know.) So our heroes have a brief emotional moment, then get to work.

They find the first bomb and Luther sets about disarming it as Ilsa and Benji try to find the other one. Meanwhile Ethan sees Walker get on a helicopter with the failsafe trigger. Oh no, he’s going to get away! So Ethan runs after them, barely grabbing onto the rope below the helicopter. Cue INSANE STUNT WORK BECAUSE TOM CRUISE IS HANGING FROM A REAL HELICOPTER. There’s even a terrifying fall where he tries to execute a tricky move and ends up barely grabbing the rope to stay on. Gasp!

Back with Luther, Julia has returned. She understands the gravity of the situation, and knows there’s nowhere to run. But she’s a helper like all of them, and the only way out is through. So she begins helping Luther as an extra set of hands with the bomb. Meanwhile, Ethan slowly takes over the other helicopter and this time successfully gets to the undercarriage without falling. But the whole takeover is not exactly elegant. It’s a wrenching, terrifying, spiraling affair that he barely gets out of. Then we cut back to Benji, who his having a hell of a time finding the bomb because Lane put all sorts of radioactive material around to throw off the scent of their detectors. Again, the bad guys have stacked the odds. But Ilsa sees Lane and runs inside to get her original objective, alone.

Back with Ethan, he’s now chasing after Walker and trying to figure out a way to bring his chopper down. But unfortunately, Walker has an advantage in the form of a massive machine gun and starts firing back at him. (It’s amazing how this sequence gets so much out of the practical helicopter shots; being able to see the reality of it gives such a strong base, and of course there’s lots of great invisible CGI mixed in. But nothing about it feels “animated.”) Meanwhile, Ilsa goes after Lane, but he has the element of surprise to his advantage. He takes her out, all as Benji’s still searching for the bomb and can’t find her, either. Back with Ethan, he realizes he has only one way to take out Walker: be a battering ram. He goes for it a few times with narrow, terrifying misses, and then, right when it seems all hope is lost, Ethan makes contact, crashing his copter into them, turning their two choppers into a storm of metal and sinew.

Back with Benji, he arrives to find Ilsa tied to a chair, then immediately gets into a fight with Lane in which he’s so outmatched. Lane takes him out then begins hanging Benji around his neck, choking the life out of him. With no option, Isla has to throw herself back, breaking her own chair to get into the fight. Back with Ethan, the danger piles higher and higher as the people aboard the crashing choppers, which are rolling down a mountain, try to escape. Ethan and Walker fight as the copters keep falling farther down the cliff. The tension builds as they’re barely hanging by a thread, always a new danger popping up, all as Ethan struggles for the only important thing: the fail-safe switch. Meanwhile, Ilsa is struggling with her own spinning plates in fighting Lane, while also not letting Benji choke to death. She nearly doesn’t succeed, but at the last second manages to choke the life out of him, before cutting Benji loose. Upon this moment of victory, we switch to Ethan and Walker hanging on the last wire of the helicopter, trying to climb back up to the cliff where the fail-safe switch rests. Ethan makes the choice to let go and free-climb (a callback to the series’ second film!) just as the wire snaps back, hitting Walker and killing him.

Left to right: Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust and Simon Pegg as Benji Dunn in 'Mission: Impossible - Fallout.'
Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust and Simon Pegg as Benji Dunn in Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Paramount Pictures and Skydance

But even with the two bad guy obstacles removed, they’re not out of the woods just yet. The bombs are still set to go off. Worse, Ethan’s communications are down, so they have no idea if he’s hit the fail-safe yet, which means they have to wait for the last possible second to cut the wires. Luther and Julia have an emotional moment together where he tells her to spend her last moments with her new husband. She does so, knowing it’s important. Meanwhile Ilsa and Benji argue about waiting until the literal last second (or two seconds). They’re all operating on blind faith. Terrifying seconds click by. Ethan struggles to climb up the cliff. He still feels so far away. Two seconds. One second. Snip. CUT TO WHITE. What the fuck happened?! FADE BACK IN. Ethan has the fail-safe cap in his mouth…he got it.

I suddenly realized was a pile of sweat in the theater. My body had been so tense. I had been chewing my fingernails. Pulling off this kind of spinning plates sequence is incredibly difficult, not only because you essentially have to do three good action scenes in their own right, but you also can’t just clash them together willy-nilly. Because cutting away is actually a disadvantage a lot of times. When you get invested in the tension of something on screen, cutting away to something else isn’t as fun and lets the air out. So how and why you cut transitionally becomes critical. Most important, when it comes to rhythm, you can’t just cut on every win, just as you can’t just cut on every loss. And you certainly can’t just cut on every big moment of tension. Instead, you actually have to mix it up so that you keep the audience constantly off-balance, which is precisely what helps keep them on edge.

And boy, does this movie keep you on edge.

3. Sweet Relief

We often think of action as a purely visual idea. But the entire point of this essay is to get you to think about how action functions on the page and the way it should be written about. Sure, what I’ve written above isn’t nearly as thrilling as the film itself (how could it be?), but as a storyteller, you want to give the film the footing to do its job. Meaning, you don’t want to merely describe the action itself, but describe what’s dramatic about what is happening. I could have just written about the cool moves the characters performed. But when it comes to storytellers writing action, you want to give the incredible craftspeople some real ammo by giving them tension on the pure story level. Feed them clear objectives with clear obstacles. Stack the odds, make them spin plates, make them think they’ve won before losing again. Find a way to add wrinkles and always, always make the situation worse. Do this on the page, and the craftspeople will bring it to life…which brings us to the crux.

This is a pivotal time in the age of the “trailer shot.” I can’t tell you how often I’ve talked to VFX artists and others buried in the pre-viz-heavy industry who are taught to think in terms of “cool” or “poetic” imagery, all of which is an important part of the artistry. But the fundamental notion of tension, and tension within a clear story, is completely gone. Seriously, tentpoles start putting together cool shots and sequences before they even have the story, with objectives and drama focusing around them. Some don’t even understand what those concepts are. This is a crisis of philosophy to me. It’s not that these artists aren’t all amazing. It’s that everything is being pointed in the wrong direction. But luckily, there’s an old Hollywood adage I think a lot about when it comes to action, and even storytelling in general, and it is this:

“Don’t impress me, convince me.”

As critics, we are taught to have a conversation about the weakness of a given film (and, hopefully, offer a constructive way of viewing it so that the reader can learn). As much as I will be hard on the Marvel movies for their problematic aspects, they are an utter testament to the power of characterization and humor—just like the Fast and the Furious franchise is a testament to the power of sincerity, taking its stock idea of “family” and really throwing earnest weight behind it. But in that spirit, the Mission: Impossible series has come to fruition because it is one of the last bastions of tension. Because it is a film series more interested in the dramatic principles of Wages of Fear and the daring of Buster Keaton than the quip-laden snazz of blockbuster fare and the chaotic noise of Bayhem.

And yes. It’s a series that is no doubt trying to impress us. Every time Tom Cruise hangs on the edge of a building, cliff or plane, you simply cannot help but be impressed by the sheer audacity of the movie’s willingness to entertain us. But that’s not the reason these films are good. They are good because they take those attractive, impressive events and weave a story around them that makes me hang on the edge of my dang seat. They want to implore tension so effectively with the filmmaking itself, that even though you know the good guys will win, you are constantly being made to believe that they won’t. And it’s all done purely through the remarkable execution of dramatic principles. In other words, the amazing thing about the Mission: Impossible movies is simple:

They convince you.

< 3 HULK

‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’ Is a Master Class in Dramatic Tension