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'Mission: Impossible -- Fallout' delivers action, thrills-and realistic roles for women

The latest installment of the Tom Cruise franchise features a slate of female stars who would seem to have real staying power.

"Mission: Impossible--Fallout," which starred Rebecca Ferguson and Tom

"Mission: Impossible--Fallout," which starred Rebecca Ferguson and Tom Cruise, helped make this summer's box-office rebound possible. Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures and Skydance/Chiabella James

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to figure out what happened to the women of “Mission: Impossible.” Not just those in that 1996 film, the first installment in the megasuccessful Tom Cruise-propelled franchise, but female cast members from its sequels.

The tales of superspy Ethan Hunt (Cruise) are super-satisfying. Yet it’s been a curious fact of the franchise that many of its female co-stars — if they survived to the end of their one film — disappeared after the credits rolled, never to be seen again. Remember Thandie Newton of “M:I 2,” Maggie Q of “M:I 3,” Paula Patton of “M:I — Ghost Protocol”? Men working on the Impossible Missions Force have returned. Jeremy Renner and Alec Baldwin appear in two of the films; Simon Pegg, four; Ving Rhames, all six). The only woman to make a comeback has been Ethan’s wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan).

Until, that is, “Mission: Impossible Fallout,” the latest installment, which vaults into theaters Friday, July 27 with a slate of female stars who would seem to have real staying power.

“What I discovered [while shooting] was that every woman in the movie owns every scene she’s in,” says “Fallout” writer and director Christopher McQuarrie. “It becomes her moment, and not that of the man she’s with.”

FOUR FORMIDABLE WOMEN

“Fallout” finds Hunt pursued by enemies and supposed allies alike in a race to capture an anarchist mastermind before he sets off a series of nuclear bombs. The film has two female alums (Monaghan, and “M:I — Rogue Nation” breakout star Rebecca Ferguson) and two intriguing newcomers (Hollywood vet Angela Bassett, and fresh from her star turn as naughty Princess Margaret in “The Crown,” Vanessa Kirby).

The inclusion of these four women seems to herald a new era for “M:I” films, just in time for the #MeToo movement.

For his part, McQuarrie — a longtime collaborator with Cruise, and the first to helm two “M:I” films — says he’d tried to bring back Patton and Maggie Q for “Rogue Nation.” But neither was available. “It was as simple as that,” he says.

What’s nice about the “Fallout” female characters is that there’s nothing simple about them. They are:

Julia Meade-Hunt (Monaghan) Ethan’s devoted, and oft-endangered, wife. As Cruise traveled around the world in 2015 promoting “Rogue Nation,” he found fans kept asking about Julia, whose outcome was murky in her last appearance. “The first request he made going into this movie was, ‘I want to give people resolution to that story,’  ” says McQuarrie.

Ilsa Faust (Ferguson) A laser-focused sniper and motorcycle-revving daredevil who looks great in heels, but has the smarts to take them off to run across rooftops. Ferguson found it “a massive compliment to me — but also my character — that they wanted her to come back.” Like Cruise, who is famed for doing his own stunts, Ferguson loves her role’s physical challenges. “With Ilsa comes training, healthy eating and a physical regime,” she says. And controversy. According to focus groups, some older men surveyed about the new film were bothered by a scene in which Ilsa defies the wishes of Ethan and his right-hand man, Luther (Rhames). McQuarrie theorizes that “it’s because two of the toughest guys in the movie can’t seem to control the woman.” But he remains unfazed. “Rebecca’s a gem,” he notes. “When she leaves [a scene], you can’t wait for her to come back. You want her to be there.”

Erica Sloan (Bassett) The newly appointed CIA director. “She’s strong, determined, take-charge. Someone who knows her own mind, has her own way of doing things, who gives orders — and they’re followed,” says Bassett. She credits McQuarrie’s “appreciation of the feminine” when it comes to the way “Fallout’s” women stand out from your standard spy-film heroines. “We are no damsels,” she says. “We are take-charge women — in head, heart, spirit and soul.”

The White Widow (Kirby) A seductive and steely arms dealer who seems as comfortable wearing a slinky evening gown as she does whipping out a dagger (artfully concealed in a garter) and slashing attackers. “People love that character and would love to see her come back,” says McQuarrie. “We see her as nothing but raw potential.”

MANY HAPPY RETURNS

You’ll find no spoilers here regarding who lives, and who dies, by the time the credits roll in this latest “M:I” installment. What becomes of any of these characters, and the question of their returnability — in brief cameos, flashbacks, dream sequences or full-on dramatic arcs — remains to be seen. Cruise, of course, maintains significant creative control over the brand, and McQuarrie says he’s discussed with the star the potential return of several of the female characters from this latest film.

“All of that is a conscious effort to open up the future of the franchise,” McQuarrie explains. “So it’s more female driven — so there are women outside of Ethan’s team. It just creates a different dynamic.”

Does McQuarrie perhaps have a better sense of women (or the current zeitgeist) than the franchise’s revolving door of previous directors? Bassett suggests he might, perhaps because at home he’s surrounded by his wife and daughters — it’s all women, 24/7, says Bassett, “except for him and the puppy.”

McQuarrie laughs at that, noting he loves raising girls. “I wouldn’t know how to handle boys. I was a handful to my parents,” he says, quickly adding that he’s no expert on women. “I’m a man, and don’t pretend to understand women,” he says. “I don’t. All I try to do is give female characters in any story their own problems to deal with.”

And, it seems, their own skills.

“We’re just always looking for opportunities to create women characters who aren’t subservient to men.”

REVVING HER ENGINES

Tom Cruise gets a lot of credit for the wild stunts he performs in his “Mission: Impossible” films (shooting “Fallout,” he broke his ankle in a rooftop leap). But when it comes to being chased through city streets on a motorcycle, Jenny Tinmouth is right on his tail.

The British motorcycle racing champ performed Rebecca Ferguson’s stunt riding, taking curves at rakish angles and flying by in a blur in “Rogue Nation” and now “Fallout.”

“I guess I’m a bit of an adrenalin junkie but motorcycle racing makes me feel alive, especially when I crash!” Tinmouth told the Financial Times. She’s not kidding. She even has a section of her website — labeled “Woops” for her own personal crash footage.

“There are small things I can do on the bike — then she does all the intense driving,” says Ferguson. “And she is absolutely insane. She’s this quiet, modest woman who then straddles a bike and becomes ... so fierce and fast and fearless. She’s incredible to watch.”

 
— Joseph V. Amodio

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