It’s tempting to use words like “formulaic” when describing Tom Cruise’s never-dying Mission: Impossible franchise, and in some quarters, you’d receive little argument for it. There is an element of repetition, to be sure — a global threat, the assembly of a team, a clever villain, some bonkers stunt work at great personal risk by Cruise, and so, so much running. Yet the franchise has survived, not by adhering to the formula that was so lovingly created and executed in the first film (all the way back in 1996, believe it or not), but by carefully honing that formula with each successive entry. The franchise almost killed itself with the legendarily terrible, John Woo-directed Mission Impossible 2, but once again found its footing six years later when JJ Abrams took the reins and brought it back to life (a habit Abrams seems to be making a career of). Since then, the entries have steadily improved, with Brad Bird directing the fourth entry (Ghost Protocol), and the Christopher McQuarrie taking over for the fifth (Rogue Nation).
This brings us to today’s release, also directed by McQuarrie, Mission: Impossible — Fallout. It’s a direct continuation of the last film, the only one to feature a returning antagonist (Sean Harris’s creepy Solomon Lane), with a bevy of returning supporting characters as well as a handful of new ones. Once again, the insidiously shadowy criminal syndicate known as, well, The Syndicate is at work, this time through the handiwork of a ruthless, unknown leader known only as John Lark. Hunt and his team — stripped down to only tech gurus Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) — are tasked by IMF boss Alec Baldwin to track down Lark, and as is often the case, everything goes sideways and Hunt and company, using a combination of brains, brawn, and lots of running, are off to save the world in another desperate hour.
McQuarrie elevated the series to another level in Rogue Nation, giving it an element of finesse and calculating, meticulous direction that made it a joy to watch, and he’s just as brilliant this time around. Fallout is an action movie at its finest, stripped of machismo and foolishness, and instead focused on character interaction, unbelievable action set pieces, and a harrowing intensity that is sometimes almost too much to bear. It continues the trend of gorgeous locations, breathtaking cinematography, and impeccable costume design, and its technology always feels smart and necessary and (mostly) grounded in some sense of reality.
Cruise is just as perfect as Hunt as ever, delivering lines with furious intensity but also taking a couple more comic relief breaks than usual, and it works in the film’s favor. At fifty-goddamn-six years old, his physicality remains astonishing, and it’s not hard to figure out why despite all his bananas personal life issues, he remains one of the premier action stars out there. Pegg and Rhames are eternally reliable as his comrades-in-arms, delivering quips, sage wisdom, and genius discovery equally. It’s a nice touch that they’re not just there to show him shiny gadgets, but instead, each one gets to actually do something. The whole operation essentially fails without them, and it makes the endeavor feel like that much more of a team.
There are two other shining points that really make Fallout gel. The first is Henry Cavill as CIA operative August Walker, a brutish blunt instrument of a man who’s got much more going on than may appear. He’s subdued and menacing, but with a physical presence that fills every room he’s in (and that bathroom fight that you see in the trailer is immensely satisfying). The second is the return of Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust, who was by far the best part of Rogue Nation and is just as fun to watch here. McQuarrie once again plays the women in the films as equals, and Faust is never a damsel in distress, but rather a take-no-shit, give-no-fucks operative with a mission of her own that she will not abandon, while still infused with a sense of humanity. Over the course of the film, she probably saves the IMF team’s ass more than hers ever needs saving, and she’s just so goddamn good in the role. Oh, and a generous hat tip to Angela Bassett as CIA Director Erica Sloane, a small and relatively thankless role that she absolutely crushes, giving the character a steely resolve and ruthless cynicism that’s almost startling.
The film feels like a rabbit warren of twists and turns, replete with betrayals and backstabbing and while the surprises are telegraphed, the execution is so satisfying that it doesn’t even matter. The action scenes are breathless and often almost exhausting to sit through, with a palpable tension and terrific choreography. It’s enjoyable, it’s funny, it’s exhilarating as hell, and it features a cast that knows exactly how to hit the right notes. No, there isn’t a ton of emotional depth (and if anything, the film’s ending is a bit emotionally manipulative), but it doesn’t need to be. It’s firmly grounded in its self-awareness, and it takes its business of “damn good action movie” very seriously. And while the plot often feels like a bit of spycraft novel gobbledygook, it’s forgivable in favor of the fact that Fallout makes no bones about what it is: a beautifully crafted ode to action films.