It doesn’t take long to recognize that “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” is one of the best action movies ever made.
Some will see the light during the first act HALO jump, when Tom Cruise caps off an exhilarating long-take by leaping out of a C-17 at 25,000 feet, aerial photographer Craig O’Brien capturing the stunt through the IMAX lens strapped to his head (your move, Christopher Nolan). Others might cotton to the film’s brilliance during the bareknuckle fight scene that follows in the bathroom of a Parisian nightclub. Henry Cavill packs so much firepower into each punch that he literally has to reload his arms, and director Christopher McQuarrie — invoking the best of James Bond as he shoots the brawl without any music on the soundtrack — makes sure that we absorb every bodyblow and wince at each piece of busted tile.
And if anyone is still on the fence after that, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll be convinced by what comes next: A symphonic, character-driven rescue operation/motorcycle chase/underground getaway sequence that speeds across the City of Lights along a breathless riptide of raw spectacle. Not since “Fury Road” have such viscerally practical effects been put to better use by such deliriously impractical people. And they’re only just getting started. Tom Cruise hasn’t even broken his ankle, yet.
But the true genius of the latest (and possibly last) chapter in the long-running “Mission: Impossible” saga isn’t found in one of the film’s death-defying set pieces, or in the elegant way that McQuarrie strings them together like perfect little pearls of violence, or even in the moment when Angela Bassett deadpans some ridiculous line about stolen plutonium with a stoic fury worthy of King Lear. “Fallout” wouldn’t be the near-flawless experience that it is without any one of those things, but they aren’t what makes it great.
No, “Fallout” is great because it fulfills a promise that its star made to moviegoers back in the last millennium, and — with only a handful of exceptions — hasn’t reneged on since. It’s a promise that’s made him the last movie star of his kind, a one-man supernova who’s yet to burn out a time when audiences only seem to care about brands. And it’s a promise that Tom Cruise finally voices out loud in the sixth installment of the series that he’s sustained for 22 years, and has sustained him in return for at least the last seven: “I won’t let you down.”
Technically, the “Mission: Impossible” movie franchise has been around since 1996, when Tom Cruise partnered with Brian De Palma to reinvent TV super-spy Ethan Hunt. In reality, however, the “Mission: Impossible” movie franchise as we know it today didn’t take shape until J.J. Abrams took the reins a decade later and made Hunt domestic, grounding the secret agent with a wife named Julia (Michelle Monaghan) and a little pocket of suburban paradise.
Cruise first inhabited the character as a more intense and team-oriented version of 007, but “Mission: Impossible — III” suddenly inflicted Ethan with something to lose — it made him into a real boy. It softened his heart into an Achilles’ heel. And in the film’s very first scene, when villainous arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) held a gun to Julia’s head and forced Ethan to choose between her and the rest of the human race, he couldn’t do it in time to save them both. Ever since, Ethan Hunt’s empathy has been easy to exploit. And even when Julia was pushed to the periphery of “Ghost Protocol,” or entirely absent from “Rogue Nation,” it was clear that Ethan was more interested in saving the world than stopping the bad guy — it’s always personal for him, but only because of the people he’s trying to protect.
A direct sequel in a franchise built from standalone adventures, “Fallout” refocuses on Ethan’s core dilemma with a moral urgency more befitting a prestige drama like “Bridge of Spies” than a late summer blockbuster that opens with a five-minute exposition dump and an extended cameo from Wolf Blitzer (two unexpectedly perfect choices). From the moment it starts, this movie has one question on its mind: Is it possible that Ethan Hunt’s concern for other people isn’t just his greatest weakness, but also his greatest strength?
The setup is beautifully succinct, and no, you don’t need to have seen “Rogue Nation” to follow it. A handy little dossier spells everything out before the opening credits: A shady group of anarchists called “The Apostles” have stolen three plutonium orbs that can be weaponized into atom bombs within 72 hours; their intention is to capitalize on the current weakness of the world order (Trump isn’t mentioned by name), razing it to the ground in order to start over from scratch.
It’s not a terrible idea, to be perfectly honest, but Ethan takes issue with the means of making it happen. “The greater the pain, the greater the peace” just isn’t a philosophy our boy can get behind. Alas, it’s Ethan who gives the Apostles what they need: When a standoff forces him to choose between nabbing the plutonium, or saving his old pal Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), he inevitably prioritizes one man he knows over millions he doesn’t, and the bad guys run away with the ingredients they need to cook up an international catastrophe.