Home > Reviews > MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT – Lorne Balfe

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT – Lorne Balfe

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

When actor/producer Tom Cruise got together with director Brian De Palma in 1996 to make a brand new big-screen version of the classic 1960s spy TV series Mission: Impossible, I doubt that even he expected that he would still be playing the role of action hero Ethan Hunt 22 years later – yet, here we are. We’ve gone through multiple director changes in the intervening two decades – John Woo, J. J. Abrams, Brad Bird – but for the time being the series appears to have settled on Christopher McQuarrie, who with this film becomes the first director to make two Mission: Impossible films. Fallout is, in many ways, a continuation of the story established during Rogue Nation in 2015, as it sees Hunt and his IMF compatriots again locking horns with the shadowy villain Solomon Lane, whose sinister Syndicate organization continues to be a threat to the stability of the world. The globetrotting adventure sees the action moving from Berlin to Paris to London to the foothills of the Himalayas – and what action it is! The staggering set-pieces in the film include a HALO jump over Paris which Cruise did for real, a brutal three-way fight sequence in a bathroom, a high-speed motorbike chase around the Arc de Triomphe and beyond, an epic foot chase through the streets of Britain’s capital that contains a scene where Cruise smashed his ankle – for real – jumping from one building to another, and an exhilarating helicopter dogfight weaving between the towering peaks of the Kashmir. The film co-stars Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, and Alec Baldwin, and has been widely acclaimed as one of the best action movies in recent years.

Just as it has frequently changed directors, the Mission: Impossible franchise has also gone through a fair share of composers. The first movie was scored by Danny Elfman, who was a late replacement for original composer Alan Silvestri. Hans Zimmer scored M:I2, and Michael Giacchino scored both M:I3 and Ghost Protocol, while Joe Kraemer wrote what is, in my opinion, the best score of the franchise to date for Rogue Nation. Despite Kraemer and McQuarrie having a working relationship dating back 18 years to McQuarrie’s directorial debut, The Way of the Gun, and a personal relationship that dates back to when they were both teenagers, Kraemer’s services were not retained for Fallout; the reasons for this are not clear and have not been made public. His replacement is Scottish composer Lorne Balfe, whose high profile scores include It’s Complicated, Megamind, and Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (all co-written with Hans Zimmer), plus solo efforts such as Terminator Genisys and The Lego Batman Movie.

Balfe is a composer whose appeal, for the most part, has tended to elude me. I enjoyed quite a bit of his contribution to Megamind, I thought his dramatic work on the score for Churchill was sound, and I really liked a great deal of the music he wrote for the 2015 animated film Home, but unfortunately his efforts in the action and thriller genres – 13 Hours, Geostorm, 12 Strong, The Hurricane Heist, etc. – all failed to capture my imagination in any meaningful way, either in the context of the films that I saw, or as engaging pieces of standalone music. This, combined with the fact that he was being asked to follow on from Kraemer’s score meant that my expectation levels for this score were pretty low. As such, I’m somewhat surprised to report that Fallout went some way to exceeding my expectations – although, as you will see from the rest of the review, I felt that the music still has several significant problems.

So, before we get into the good stuff, let’s get some of the bad news out of the way. The most significant disappointment of the score is the fact that Balfe did not carry over any of Kraemer’s leitmotifs from the earlier movie, despite many of the same characters being present. Gone is Kraemer’s theme for Ethan Hunt and the IMF, which was a sort of inverted variation on Schifrin’s theme, alluding to its rhythm and structure, but which went off in its own direction. Say goodbye to the elegant theme for the Syndicate, a shadowy piece for mysterious woodwinds. And it’s arrividerci to the adaptation of the melody from Puccini’s ‘Nessun Dorma’, which acted as a recurring leitmotif for Rebecca Ferguson’s character, Ilsa Faust. While this is perhaps understandable, it’s also immensely frustrating.

So, having said that, let’s talk about what Balfe did right. I need to give Balfe significant props for paying proper respect to Lalo Schifrin’s iconic music from the original TV series. Every composer in the series to date has used the classic theme music – it’s pretty much mandatory at this point – but Balfe goes one step further than most of them and weaves both the full theme, and fragmented statements of it, into the score at regular intervals, making it an integral part of the score’s thematic framework. There are also numerous statements of one of Schifrin’s secondary themes, “The Plot,” through the score; Joe Kraemer did this too, but whereas he used the piece as a recurring leitmotif for Simon Pegg’s character Benji, Balfe appears to be using it less as a character-specific idea, and more as a recurring secondary identity for the IMF team as a whole. I was also very impressed with the way Balfe worked in many of Schifrin’s quirks of orchestration into this score, including the increased use of bongos in the percussion section, and the prominence of throaty jazz-inflected brass.

In addition to the existing themes, Balfe’s new music for the film comprises three new musical ideas – motifs, rather than developed themes – which appear throughout the score. The first is what Balfe himself calls the ‘Ethan’s Regret’ theme, or the ‘Ethan’s Burden’ theme, and it relates to the concepts that McQuarrie built into the film regarding the character’s failures: his relationship with his ex-wife Julia, his relationship with Ilsa, and his regrets about missions gone wrong. Musically it’s a simple construct – just a set of shifting tones for strings, high and low moving against each other – but it’s appearance in cues such as “Should You Choose To Accept,” “No Hard Feelings,” “Kashmir,” and “We Are Never Free” adds a very brief touch of pathos to the proceedings.

The other new ideas are little more than instrumental textures – a three note motif for brass, and a fluttering piece for jazz piano – which crop up from time to time in combination with each other, in cues ranging from “Your Mission” and “Good Evening Mr. Hunt,” to “The White Window,” “Kashmir,” and “Cutting On One”. Every once in a while Balfe makes an instrumental switcheroo by moving the three-note motif over to the string section, or even to the woodwinds, but it’s not entirely clear from film context what these motifs represent in the overall structure of the score – if they represent anything in particular at all.

The rest of the score – in fact, I would estimate fully 75%-80% of the album – is action music. The bad news here is the fact that, if you dislike Hans Zimmer’s scores for Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, then a significant amount of Fallout is going to annoy you intensely, because Balfe’s score is ‘inspired’ by the action ostinatos from those works to an almost comical degree. Every action cue in the score, from the first to the last, is basically a variation on the action music from those two films. Without a word of hyperbole, if you were to play a few selections from The Dark Knight Rises, and intersperse them with a few selections from Fallout, I would not be able to tell the difference. And I’m really listening.

There are chugging cellos, enormous explosions of brass playing very loud whole notes, heavily manipulated electronic sound design elements, and layers upon layers of both live and processed percussion. Cues like “Change of Plan,” “A Terrible Choice,” “And the Warrior Whispers Back,” and many others, could have been lifted directly from the mean streets of Gotham, and as much as I appreciated those ideas when Hans Zimmer first wrote them, I feel that Balfe should have done more with the music to make it unique to this film. Bruce Wayne is not in the IMF and Ethan Hunt is not fighting The Joker. I hesitate to use the word ‘lazy’ to describe this writing, because no film composer is ever lazy, but Balfe’s music for these scenes never rises much above being ‘generically appropriate’. He never goes the extra mile to make his rhythmic ideas vivid, he never does clever or stylish things with the brass to make it truly memorable. It’s technically accomplished, and gets the job done, but once you’ve heard the same percussion pattern or the same cello ostinato for the umpteenth time, it all starts to feel a bit bland and predictable. It’s like Balfe stopped at a point when it was ‘good enough,’ and he never went on to make it actually ‘good’.

Fortunately, amongst all this interminable temp-trackery, Balfe does occasionally provide some music that is genuinely entertaining. One of the most important things I must stress is the fact that, in the film itself, Balfe’s score is very good indeed. Just like Zimmer’s music gave The Dark Knight a tremendous sense of forward momentum, so too does Balfe’s music here. His frantic, relentless, propulsive, rhythmic writing adds an undercurrent of breathless energy to the numerous fight and chase sequences, giving Tom Cruise a burst of power as he sprints along the banks of the Thames in “Stairs and Rooftops,” or weaves his motorcycle headlong into oncoming traffic down the Champs-Élysées in “Escape Through Paris”.

Once in a while Balfe also injects a choral element into the score, which adds an interesting textural variance. The choral version of ‘The Plot’ in “Change of Plan” is especially fun, while in “Free Fall” Balfe uses voices, electronic boinging noises, weirdly manipulated low-end cellos, and a howling echoing brass idea to give a slightly chaotic edge to the now famous HALO jump sequence. Perhaps the best use of chorus comes in the aforementioned “Stairs and Rooftops,” which includes a Latinate choral outburst of Agnus Dei amid the banks of bongos, the overlapping rhythmic collisions between strings and synths, and various statements of Schifrin’s Mission Impossible theme.

Speaking of Schifrin’s themes, as I mentioned earlier, Balfe’s use of the two main ones is mostly impressive. “Fallout” features a clever gradual introduction of the main theme surrounded by gravelly brass, ridiculously fast bongo playing, and electronic tones which give it a contemporary edge. Later, cues like “The Exchange”, “Steps Ahead,” and the aforementioned “Escape Through Paris” feature one or more of Schifrin’s themes prominently, and in these moments the score bursts into life. It’s almost as if having a strong, memorable, identifiable thematic idea somehow gives the music a lift and something tangible for the audience to connect with. I wonder if the idea will ever catch on? The final version of Schifrin’s theme comes in the end credits cue “Mission: Accomplished,” where it is arranged in a new way featuring even more bongos, and a chanting choir, but to be honest I found the arrangement to be a bit over-the-top.

For me, Mission: Impossible – Fallout is by far the weakest of the six franchise scores to date, but it’s by no means the abject musical nightmare that some would have you believe. Lorne Balfe handles Lalo Schifrin’s iconic themes very well, some of the recurring new textural ideas he works into the score are good, the infrequent use of the choir is interesting, and several of the action sequences are extremely enjoyable, especially the London and Paris chases I mentioned above. However, these potentially interesting ideas are utterly overwhelmed by the redundant and repetitive action music, some of which appears to go on endlessly, especially on an album that drags on for more than 90 minutes. Here, in these cues, Balfe shows a desperately exasperating lack of creative spark, writing music that just goes on and on and on and on with a barrage of ear-splitting rhythmic devices.

Let me be absolutely clear: it’s not the fact that Balfe uses rhythms rather than melodies, or the fact that there is just as much synth as there is orchestra, that is the problem. It’s the fact that, too often, the music feels lifeless. There’s so much scope for there to be wonderfully complicated and invigorating percussion patterns driving the action along, for there to be cool and ballsy brass combinations, and for the strings to do more than simply chug along in basic repetitive ostinatos, but Balfe almost never seizes the opportunity. Ever since it first debuted in the 1960s Mission: Impossible has been about swaggering cool, and the almost complete lack of that in this score is what ultimately makes it so disappointing.

Buy the Mission: Impossible – Fallout soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • A Storm Is Coming (1:12)
  • Your Mission (2:15)
  • Should You Choose to Accept… (2:35)
  • The Manifesto (1:45)
  • Good Evening, Mr. Hunt (4:20)
  • Change of Plan (5:47)
  • A Terrible Choice (2:55)
  • Fallout (1:30)
  • Stairs and Rooftops (6:00)
  • No Hard Feelings (4:21)
  • Free Fall (4:15)
  • The White Window (4:43)
  • I Am the Storm (2:08)
  • The Exchange (5:55)
  • Steps Ahead (1:02)
  • Escape Through Paris (5:05)
  • We Are Never Free (6:57)
  • Kashmir (4:30)
  • Fate Whispers to the Warrior (3:55)
  • And the Warrior Whispers Back (3:57)
  • Unfinished Business (1:50)
  • Scalper and Hammer (5:10)
  • The Syndicate (6:00)
  • Cutting on One (3:43)
  • The Last Resort (2:55)
  • Mission: Accomplished (1:15)

Running Time: 95 minutes 59 seconds

La-La Land Records (2018)

Music composed by Lorne Balfe. Conducted by Matt Dunkley. Orchestrations by Shane Rutherford-Jones. Original Mission: Impossible themes by Lalo Schifrin. Recorded and mixed by Geoff Foster. Edited by Cecile Tournesac. Album produced by Lorne Balfe

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  1. July 31, 2018 at 10:46 am

    Totally agree John as I was in the film itself which I saw last night. There are a couple of cues where Balfe does get going with some interesting percussion but it was all too fleeting.

  2. Kevin Duncan
    August 1, 2018 at 9:29 am

    In recent interviews McQuarrie has discussed becoming a ‘new’ director to the one he was during ‘…Rogue Nation’. To that end, he severed ties with several long term collaborators of whom Joe Kraemer was one. They’re still friends (as far as I know) and hopefully work together in the future.

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