Mission: Impossible – Fallout has been hailed as an instant all-time action classic. Its story moves forwards with relentless determination, while Christopher McQuarrie’s direction and Tom Cruise’s apparent death wish provide jaw-dropping stunt spectacle. It’s edited to near-perfection, constantly escalating the stakes until it hits a climax that’s nail-biting even despite concluding with a hackneyed cliché.

That climax is a perfect microcosm of the film as a whole. In around 15 minutes of screentime – time-kept by a nuclear countdown – it tells its own self-contained story within a story. Fallout’s Kashmir setpiece is masterful parallel-action storytelling, worthy of placement up there with Raiders of the Lost Ark, Return of the Jedi, and Mad Max: Fury Road. Strap yourselves in, because we’re going to dive deep into what makes this incredible sequence tick.

Major spoilers, obviously, follow.

The sequence in question is made up of three discrete but intertwined subplots, led by three sets of characters. The setup: villain Solomon Lane has set two nuclear bombs in a medical camp in Kashmir, the detonation of which would contaminate a third of the world’s water supply, and it’s up to Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his team to stop him. In order to do so, they’ll have to locate and disarm both bombs, and locate and remove the arming key from the remote detonator, held by turncoat August Walker (Henry Cavill and his moustache). Once the countdown begins, three objectives must be achieved, and three sub-sequences commence.

Fallout team

The Functional Setpiece

Before we get into how the sequence plays out, let’s discuss the function of each sub-sequence. We’ll see that while one overshadows the others in terms of “wow” factor, the sequence as a whole relies on all three working in concert.

The most ostentatious throughline here (and possibly in the entire franchise) belongs to Cruise’s alter ego, Ethan Hunt. Hunt takes the task of retrieving the detonator from Walker, which involves boarding a helicopter, flying it in pursuit of Walker’s, crashing both helicopters, fighting Walker on a mountaintop, and finally struggling up a sheer cliff to the detonator. Our boy has a lot to deal with.

Plot-wise, Ethan has to remove the detonator’s arming key for any bomb-disarming. But doing so also completes a character arc. The whole operation functions on trust, and Ethan finally gets to face off against his tactical and physical opposite in Walker: an enemy that has thus far not only evaded him, but worse, annoyed him. Making it all the sweeter: Walker doesn’t know of Ethan’s plans, likely just believing him to be a psychopath thirsty for revenge. And obviously, Ethan’s activities – and Cruise’s piloting – provide the huge action, physical suspense, and unexpected laughs we’ve come to expect.

Second: tech wizard Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) attempting to locate and disarm one of the bombs. This entails a frantic hunt through the medical camp for the bomb’s radioactive signature – tricky in itself, given the surrounding medical equipment’s own radioactivity – and ultimately a showdown with Solomon, before the bomb can be disarmed.

The tone here is actually more frenzied than Ethan’s helicopter excursion. The threat of death in this sequence is much more personal and relatable, given that most people have choked and not many have been in helicopter crashes. Solomon’s fight scene is claustrophobic and intense, the search for the bomb panicked, and the implications of failure made all the clearer. What’s more, it’s a chance for Ilsa to finally capture Solomon – the target that would free her from the spy game once and for all.

Finally: Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) disarming the other bomb, with an unexpected helping hand from Ethan’s former wife, Julia. Where Ethan’s arc offers spectacle, and Ilsa’s urgency, Luther’s scenes offer something just as important: stillness. It’s really Luther who’s coordinating everything, and he does it with calm, unshakeable faith in Ethan. His dialogue with Julia, too, reminds us of the human side of these characters. As the only two not involved in fistfights, Luther and Julia actually contend mentally with the prospect of point-blank nuclear incineration. These moments allow the audience to catch a much-needed breath – all while ramping up the emotional stakes.

mission impossible fallout trailer

Yesses and Noes

Any story is more or less a series of reversals. The heroes advance; the bad guys beat them back. The villains get to the edge of winning, then the heroes do something clever to stop them, but it goes wrong, but it creates another opportunity. And so on, each beat causing the next. Mission Impossible: Fallout does this on a macro story level, and the climax mirrors that on a moment-to-moment basis.

To illustrate: let’s go through the whole sequence, beat by beat. [Bold = Ethan and Walker; Italic = Benji and Ilsa; Plain text = Luther and Julia.]

***

NO: The countdown begins.

YES: Luther begins disarming the first bomb as Ethan drives towards the helicopters.

NO: The helicopters take off.

YES: Ethan grabs onto the chopper’s payload, being hoisted into the air.

NO: Benji and Ilsa struggle to find the second bomb, while Luther struggles to disarm the first.

YES: Ethan reaches the top of the rope.

NO: He slips and falls.

YES: He catches himself on the payload, dangling precariously.

NO: Julia joins Luther, putting herself in harm’s way.

YES: She offers to help, and begins assisting Luther in disarming the bomb.

YES: Ethan gets on board the helicopter, giving its pilot and passenger a swift, manual ejection.

NO: Without a pilot, the chopper spirals towards the ground.

YES: Ethan grabs the joystick and pulls the helicopter back up.

NO: Over the radio, Benji confirms Ethan can’t fly a helicopter, and indeed, his craft’s payload gets stuck in the forest canopy.

YES: Ethan hatches a plan to hit Walker’s helicopter with the payload.

sequel bits fallout

NO: 11 minutes remain on the countdown timer.

YES: Luther and Julia resolve an issue over left and right.

NO: Ethan misses Walker’s helicopter with the payload.

YES: Ethan comes into eye contact with Walker. “That’s right…prick.”

NO: Walker pulls out an enormous gatling gun.

YES: Ethan evades being shot.

NO: In his manoeuvring, Ethan loses control of the helicopter.

NO: Benji and Ilsa are stuck, surrounded by radioactive signatures that aren’t the bomb.

YES: Ilsa has an idea, and heads elsewhere to search for the bomb.

NO: Benji discovers a massive room full of locked cases, any of which could be the bomb.

NO: Walker’s machine gun fire hits Ethan’s chopper, which starts smoking.

YES: Ilsa discovers Solomon in his hut, chasing after him.

NO: Benji breaks open the largest case, but the bomb isn’t in there.

YES: Ilsa discovers the actual bomb.

NO: Solomon attacks Ilsa, knocking her down.

Mission Impossible Fallout Stunt Video

YES: Ethan uses a cloud formation to disorient the pilot of Walker’s helicopter.

YES: Walker runs out of ammunition for his machine gun.

NO: 7:30 on the clock. Luther accidentally reveals to a highly-concerned Julia that there’s a second bomb.

NO: Ilsa is now tied up, being taunted by Solomon.

YES: Benji arrives in search of Ilsa.

NO: Solomon attacks Benji, quickly overpowering him.

YES: Ilsa starts trying to get free of her bonds.

NO: Ethan’s helicopter catches fire.

NO: Solomon hoists Benji up by his neck.

YES: Ilsa breaks the chair she’s tied to, kicking a box to Benji for him to stand on.

NO: Alerts sound in Ethan’s helicopter.

YES: Ethan rams his chopper at Walker’s.

NO: They both crash into the side of the mountain, rolling towards a cliff edge.

YES: Ethan’s helicopter is caught by a rock right on the edge.

NO: 6:00 on the clock. In the fight with Solomon, Benji kicks Solomon and falls off his box, choking again.

YES: Ilsa gets on top of Solomon, choking him out.

NO: Benji starts to pass out.

YES: Ilsa incapacitates Solomon and cuts Benji down from his rope.

NO: Walker’s helicopter rolls down the mountain towards Ethan’s, knocking it off the cliff.

YES: The helicopters get caught between two rock faces. Ethan makes a move towards Walker.

NO: The helicopters fall to another cliff, with one left hanging from a cable; Ethan and Walker get thrown onto a ledge.

YES: The detonator is now out in the open.

NO: 4:30 on the clock. Luther tells Julia there’s nothing left to be done.

YES: Luther talks Benji and Ilsa through disarming the bomb.

NO: Solomon taunts them.

YES: Ethan comes to on the mountain ledge and engages Walker in fisticuffs.

NO: The detonator is knocked closer to the cliff edge.

NO: Walker gets Ethan in a chokehold.

YES: Ethan flips them both over the ledge.

NO: Walker grabs and hangs from Ethan’s leg, hanging precariously.

YES: Ethan makes a move for the detonator.

NO: His movement dislodges the cable, dropping several feet.

YES: Ethan kicks Walker down the cable and begins climbing the rock face.

NO: Walker pursues.

YES: Ethan yanks on the cable, which smacks into Walker, sending him plummeting to his death.

NO: The camera pulls out to show how far Ethan has to go.

YES: 50 seconds left. Benji and Ilsa continue to disarm the bomb, following Luther’s instructions.

NO: Ethan hasn’t got the detonator yet.

YES: Benji and Ilsa and Luther are all ready to cut their respective detonator wires. Ethan climbs.

NO: Benji questions whether Ethan has, or will have, gotten the detonator key in time.

YES: Luther assures Benji “he’ll get it done.” Ethan climbs.

NO: 15 seconds left. Benji and Luther argue over whether to cut the wires at 2 seconds or 1 second.

YES: 1 second left. They both cut the wires.

YES: Ethan hangs from the ledge, detonator in hand, and spits out the key. Hooray!

YES: The bombs jettison their plutonium cores. “My man.” Hooray!

YES: A helicopter arrives to rescue Ethan, who’s lying exhausted on the ledge. Hooray!

***

So you see: the action is a seesaw of success and failure; of overcoming obstacles, making mistakes and improvising. This is obviously a granular analysis, but you could apply the same lens to the movie as a whole and it’d look similar.

fallout

Putting it All Together

Juggling the various components of a complex, multithreaded sequence like this is a daunting task. It only takes one poor choice to break the tension when it should be constantly ramping upwards. Luckily, there’s none of that here.

It all begins, of course, in the writing. This sequence isn’t just action for action’s sake – there’s a clear purpose to everything the characters do, and each thread pays off a hanging character relationship, whether adversarial or friendly. McQuarrie constantly escalates tension by narrowing the gap between life and death – focusing the action inwards as it goes along.

Incredibly, one way this is accomplished is by compressing and concentrating the action over time. Ethan begins by swinging from a helicopter, then transitions into flying it, then into a perilous clifftop crash, then a two-man fistfight, then ultimately a test of himself alone in that final climb to get the detonator. Similarly, Ilsa and Benji start off searching the whole medical camp, before it all comes down to defeating one man and cutting a pair of wires. Starting big and getting small enables the sequence to deliver its large-scale action, but become more relatable and personal in its final nailbiting moments.

The edit, too, is impeccable, aided by a script clearly written with editing in mind. A difficulty in putting a sequence like this together is maintaining connections between each thread, while letting them play out individually. Cutting without breaking action, momentum, or tone is both an art and a science, and McQuarrie and editor Eddie Hamilton use a variety of techniques to keep things moving.

The most obvious linking device is the literal ticking clock of the bombs’ countdown timer. Close-ups and dialogue callouts of the remaining time are frequently employed not just to reinforce the urgency of the situation, but to transition between locations and characters – after all, it’s the one element present throughout each thread. Cliffhangers make the audience constantly want to see what happens next. Curiously, though, the most common connecting device is simple dialogue: whenever a character is mentioned, the scene cuts to that character. Luther, in constant contact with the team via radio, acts as a sort of narrative switchboard: many transitions between Ethan/Walker and Ilsa/Benji go through an intermediary step of Luther checking in on them both.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout‘s final sequence could only have worked with every department working perfectly in tandem. The directing, the script, the performances, the stunt work, the cinematography, and especially the editing are honed to perfection, doing exactly what they need to do. It’s a terrific capper to a terrific film, demonstrating the talent of everyone involved. The whole thing is as finely-tuned as clockwork. Or, if you’ll forgive me, the detonation mechanism on a nuclear bomb.

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