Midway through Mission: Impossible – Fallout, the sixth and hardly final installment of the franchise, Tom Cruise runs. This alone is not new, as Tom Cruise runs in all the M:I films. Splendidly so. But it’s the context in which this particular sprint—off to join the rest of his IMF comrades to stop a bomb or some such—that makes it so clever; in the midst of having a poignant heart-to-heart with another veteran of the series, Cruise is forced to cut his emotional epiphany short and begin dashing for dear life… and the film knows that his arm-pumping blasts of adrenaline are selling points unto themselves. Or, more acutely, Cruise and his longtime writer-director Christopher McQuarrie understand that it is the simple things in life that are the most enjoyable.
Vanishing into the distance of a stationary wide shot, one deep cardio breath at a time, the moment is not oversold as a gag or part of an elaborate CG spectacle; it’s just slightly humorous and quixotically heroic. It’s a smart bit of fun, and the canniness with which it’s presented highlights that in its later years, the Mission: Impossible franchise has become a refuge for shrewdly intelligent blockbuster filmmaking, during both the dazzling stunts and in the moments in-between. With an ear for salient dialogue and acute characterization, Fallout’s “downtime” can be just as as sharp as when Cruise is falling out of an airplane in one scene, or off the side of a mountain in another. At both ends of the spectrum, it’s implicit this is a movie made by incredibly savvy people who know exactly where to place the camera, be it for some of the decade’s very best jaw-dropping, in-camera stunts—bar none—or merely an image of Cruise cantering away.
This is the returning acumen that also makes Mission: Impossible – Fallout the first true sequel in the franchise. While there have been four other follow-ups of Cruise as the indestructible Ethan Hunt, Fallout is the one time in series history that a director has reprised his position in the field, hence the vast connective tissue between this and 2016’s Rogue Nation, the franchise’s best movie. All of the major players from that previous effort are back, we dig even further into Ethan’s past, and the film maintains a certain affection for classical Hollywood storytelling that has mostly gone extinct in its big budget peers. Yet most effectively, like Rogue Nation, here is a finely tuned and dizzying extravaganza where the ethos is to stuff as many breathtaking sequences into the 147-minute running time as possible without self-destructing.
Set a few years after the last movie, Fallout is ostensibly about stopping the “Acolytes,” former associates of Sean Harris’ dastardly and now imprisoned Solomon Lane, from detonating some plutonium. However, truth be told the plot doesn’t matter. That is not to say the adroit screenplay isn’t as tight as the many face masks Ethan and company stretch across their countenances; it’s just the story is merely a pretext for the film to pile on more twists, turns, and double-crosses than a Howard Hawks noir.
So there’s some plutonium, and IMF Sec. Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) wants Ethan and his most reliable teammates, Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), to retrieve it. Unfortunately for Ethan, CIA Director Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett) doesn’t trust him to get the job done. She tells Hunley, “You like using a scalpel; I prefer a hammer.” That hammer’s name is August Walker, a mustached and muscular Henry Cavill, who is a younger, tougher spy peering over Ethan’s shoulder, ready to take his team out if they get in the way of CIA orders. And then there’s also Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), the first returning romantic foil in the series, who is more than Ethan’s equal—which is an issue when her MI6 interests put her at cross purposes again with Ethan’s American ones. At least they’ll always have Paris, for in this film their literal meet cute is Ethan having to run her over during a high-speed car chase along the Seine as she’s trying to assassinate his asset. Don’t worry they’re cool about it. It’s the job.
The appeal of Mission: Impossible – Fallout is that it is a movie about playing spy games exclusively for the sake of the game. Early in the picture, Bassett bemoans that Ethan and his buddies’ modus operandi is akin to “adults in Halloween masks.” And one senses that McQuarrie knows she’s not wrong, so he’s crafted a movie that is adult enough to admit it, as well as find the joy in espionage dress-up. Ethan’s crew of spooks have never been cuddlier and more devoted to one another—even when they’re shooting at each other—yet it isn’t due to some empty platitude about “family.” They’re professionals who love what they do, and knocking back a few after work might include a little bathroom donnybrook.
Hence the weaving narrative contortions often appear like workplace rivalry. If McQuarrie’s take on Ethan keeps the Bogie-lite insolence that carried over from the Casablanca nods in Rogue Nation, then Cavill is sort of the IMF’s version of big John Wayne coming to butt heads with the anti-hero. He’s by-the-book, all-American, and speaks with a slow drawl of disdain for anyone he perceives as insufficiently loyal. Yet that just makes their shared HALO skydive above the lights of Paris that much more exhilarating.
Indeed, the stunt work is uniformly stunning. With the climactic helicopter chase filmed in massive IMAX 65mm, Fallout is another defiant cry of old school cool, screaming into the summertime winds, “The old ways are the best.” Nimbly shot and gleefully edited, all of the action sequences have a crisp breeziness. Yes, that’s really Tom Cruise doing a HALO jump in one scene, and that’s also him leaping between London rooftops in another. Which is all the more impressive when you realize he broke his foot while doing one of those jumps and then kept on chugging. But for my money, nothing tops seeing Cruise on a motorcycle speeding against the flow of Parisan traffic around the Arc de Triomphe.
It is all preposterous and exists merely for the thrill of existing. As such, the film is not quite as impressive as McQuarrie’s Rogue Nation. Whereas that previous entry, which is still the best Mission: Impossible movie, crafted its elegant action sequences as an existential challenge of Ethan’s core beliefs, the biggest thing to believe in with Fallout is how amusing it is to see Cavill and Cruise trade glares in opposing choppers rushing against the clouds.
Nevertheless, Fallout still works as the zippiest and most satisfying blockbuster you’re certain to see this summer. What it misses in plot, it lands in character and spirit. When we spy Ilsa spying on Ethan—with both we and her knowing that he also must know—it is the equivalent of watching the characters’ banter of wordless foreplay, and Mission: Impossible’s rather subtle idea of character development.
This is a throwback spy movie lark with a dedicated and ridiculously still radiant ball of movie star energy at its center of gravity. More than 20 years since the first M:I film, Cruise shows no sign of stopping, and frankly no one should want him to. As long as he’s willing to keep running in movies as wild as this, it’s a pleasure trying to keep up.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout opens Friday, July 27.