Late in Mission: Impossible – Fallout (which owns extremely hard), indefatigable secret agent Ethan Hunt, having twice climbed the rope dangling beneath an ascending helicopter, pulls himself carefully up onto one of its skids and perches there, just outside the open side door of the helicopter and out of the view of the bad guys inside.
It’s a crazily dangerous thing to do, of course; if you saw someone do this in real life, it would be one of the most dramatic things you’d ever witnessed and you would tell the story 10 times a year for the rest of your life. But it registered weirdly on-screen, when I saw the movie yesterday: Something was off.
And then it occurred to me. Plenty of movies have had their heroes hang onto the outside of helicopters before, and if you’ve watched any number of action-adventure-type movies in recent years, you’re probably familiar with how these usually look, how they go, even if (like me) you don’t have the technical vocabulary to describe it in film-school terms. There’s the wide, longer-distance shot of the whole helicopter, with the scenery blurring by in the background, the hero with his back fully or partially turned toward the viewer, standing on the skids or hanging out the door or dangling off the side; then there’s the closer-up shot of the hero in a moment between moves, where you can see his windblown face, panicked or intensely focused as the moment requires; then there’s maybe a cut to, like, the chopper pilot or bad guy, not yet aware that our hero is hanging off the side of the helicopter, mere feet away. Then a shot from a stationary camera on the ground or a nearby rooftop as the chopper zooms by overhead, to give you a sense of how fast it’s moving and how dangerous this is. Then back to the wide shot, then the closer-up one, and so on. With maybe a cut to a red LED countdown thrown in there from time to time.
So you’ve got all these different views, and every few seconds a cut between them. The fast pace fits an intense sequence in which every second counts, delivering the constituent storytelling parts in parallel: What the hero is doing, and at what insane breakneck speed, and how he’s feeling about it, and whether the bad guys are onto him yet. You’ve seen this before, right? Close your eyes, and you can probably picture this pretty much exactly as I am.
This quick, intercutting way of showing the action suits the story’s needs in more ways than one. For one thing, it does a good job of showing the amazing thing the character is doing, without calling attention to the fact that in half of the shots that character is being portrayed by a different actor than the guy who was exchanging hard-ass bon mots with the supervillain 90 seconds prior. I used to think of this as cheating, but that’s silly: All of fiction is cheating by this standard. None of what’s happening in the story is really happening, in the world where you’re sitting there reading or watching, and the job of the storyteller(s) is to make you forget that fact for a period of time. That’s fine. Within the world of the story, James Bond really is having a helicopter fight over the streets of Mexico City, and the filmmakers’ responsibility is not to let you be distracted by the unfortunate reality that he happens to have a whole different face during parts of that helicopter fight.
Over time, I think this has evolved into just sort of being How Action Movies Work—so that even a movie like John Wick, rightly praised for the clarity of its gun- and fist-fight and car-chase scenes and for its star, Keanu Reeves, having done much of the fighting and driving himself, still delivers its action mostly in quick-paced cuts. Even when action filmmakers don’t need to hide trickery, they still tend to show action this way. It’s just the grammar of action in movies.
So what’s jarring in this part of Fallout are the many long seconds—realistically, it’s probably not even 20 seconds, but it feels longer—during which, as Hunt boosts himself up onto the side of the ascending helicopter, your view never changes: You’re looking at him through a perfectly stationary camera apparently mounted along the side of the helicopter. There are no cuts to a wide shot of the whole helicopter, or cuts to a close-up of Hunt’s concentrating face, or shots of the helicopter whizzing by overhead. There’s just this extended, almost documentary-like view, looking back along the left side of the helicopter’s fuselage, where you can see Ethan Hunt, in his entirety, boost himself up from beneath the chopper and perch on the skid, with the mountainous ground receding quickly behind him. There’s something weirdly bald about this moment; I had an impulse to call it “un-cinematic” even without being totally sure what that even means, because it doesn’t look the way I’m used to this stuff looking.
Of course, what enables the makers of Fallout to do this is that, at all moments during Hunt’s climb up onto the skid of a flying helicopter, he is portrayed by Tom Cruise; they don’t have to cut away to some other shot to obscure the fact that he has suddenly become a whole other guy. So at first the moment registered, to me, as kind of graspingly thirsty, like the filmmakers had sacrificed good action moviemaking at the altar of letting their big star show off what a brave boy he is. It felt, for just the faintest blink of time, like Tom Cruise was getting in the way of Ethan Hunt.
But that feeling dissipated in half a moment, when I realized that I was actually holding my breath in terror, which I think was the desired effect no matter what name I stuck on the guy clinging to the side of the helicopter. That it’s weird and jarring to see the hero character of an action movie do some amazing death-defying shit all in one single unbroken shot ... that’s not the fault of Mission: Impossible – Fallout, man! That’s the fault of every other action movie whose star is not as insanely dedicated (or just flat-out insane) as Cruise, who will do all of this crazy shit for the sake of exactly that kind of clear, unbroken, undisguised action, where pretty much all the elements of the story can be on the screen at the same time instead of dispersed to different camera angles. If you have a movie star in your movie who will vault himself up the side of a flying helicopter in one take and you break that up in the editing booth to cut to a shot of some shitbrain villain checking his watch, you belong in fucking prison!
Fallout is filled with moments like this, where it employs Cruise’s mania for stuntwork to achieve levels of immediacy, intensity, and clarity that make you feel like you took a big sucking whiff of pure oxygen. All of the Mission: Impossible movies have had them, going all the way back to when Cruise sprinted away from tons of cascading water in the 1996 original’s restaurant scene (they’d tried using a stuntman for it, but it didn’t land as strongly without the hero’s face in the shot, and the final result remains fucking astonishing, even for these movies), but I think Fallout marks the point where this stuff has completed its shift from a ticket-selling gimmick—Come see what wild shit Tom Cruise got into!—into a distinct and, I think, phenomenally successful storytelling style.
This is a different thing from the showily long, unbroken (sometimes fake) single-take action scene you might know from, say, Children of Men—by the end of which you’re definitely paying more attention to the fact that it’s a single take than you are to whatever’s happening in the story. A(n apparently) single, unbroken, four-minute take, by the end, can’t help but call your attention to the fact that it is a(n apparently) single, unbroken, four-minute take, so that your attention is, at best, divided between what’s happening in the story and the clever means by which the director has accomplished showing you so much of it without cutting between shots. By contrast, there’s nothing particularly unusual or showy about the camera lingering on the star of a movie for a comparatively slight 15 or 20 uninterrupted seconds... except when, as in Fallout, that star is throwing himself out of the back of a fucking airplane 25,000 feet in the sky. What it accomplishes, in that case, is to draw your attention not to the filmmakers’ intricate and daring choreography, but with scary immediacy and a real sense of danger to what the character is doing. Instead of throwing you out of the story, it plunges you farther into it. After that one, vanishingly quick moment of dissonance, I spent the last, oh, 15 minutes of Fallout in a state of pretty much constant breathless terror, and it fucking ruled.
So what I am wondering now is how the hell I will go back to watching rubbery CGI mannequins do lasers at each other in whichever superhero movie comes out next. It’s gonna look really stupid and phony, I suspect.