Tom Cruise takes the title of his Mission: Impossible franchise as a literal challenge. With each successive installment, Cruise attempts to demonstrate that no classic set piece can’t be topped and that, no matter his advancing age (56), he can keep ignoring (if not outright fighting) Father Time to pull off ever-greater acts of stuntman insanity, at crazy risk to his personal safety. That’s never more true than with Fallout, his sixth outing as covert agent Ethan Hunt, which reconfirms that his inspired-by-TV endeavor is still the greatest blockbuster saga around, and that he’s Hollywood’s premiere action-adventure Peter Pan, an actor who—regardless of his spottier track record as of late—is right at home in this world of spies, masks and self-destructing messages. Determined to perpetually raise the bar for both the series and himself, Cruise again proves, with his latest, that both of those seemingly impossible feats is possible.
Fallout is the best action film since Mad Max: Fury Road, and it’s unique in the big-screen history of Mission: Impossible, in that it’s the first episode to be helmed by a return director—Christopher McQuarrie, who spearheaded 2015’s stellar Rogue Nation. For an undertaking once defined by its shifting personality—thanks to each entry being a stand-alone effort from a distinctive auteur (Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird)—the decision to reenlist McQuarrie signifies that Cruise has settled on a signature voice for his series. Not only does McQuarrie deliver the same style of grand, vigorous mayhem that he did before, but working as sole screenwriter, he also turns Fallout into a legitimate sequel to its immediate predecessor, continuing the story he began three years ago—while additionally, in one key respect, referencing Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III.
The decision to go back to McQuarrie does negate the thrill of discovering a new aesthetic and tone, which up until now has been a Mission: Impossible hallmark. Nonetheless, what’s gained is far greater—a refinement of McQuarrie’s superb action form. Fallout features more astounding set pieces than can be found in the rest of 2018’s summer crop combined, all of which escalate with such mounting electricity that it’s hard to catch one’s breath. The director’s stunning widescreen visuals (even more impressive in IMAX, whose outsized format is repeatedly exploited) enhance the magnificence of his scripting and staging, in which initially straightforward scenarios become complicated by a raft of unforeseen events, until the tension is almost too much to bear. In terms of providing a pure adrenalized rush, almost no contemporaries are in its league.
That Cruise’s Hunt routinely responds to surprising situations with “I’ll figure it out” only amplifies the anxious anticipation of Fallout’s big moments, of which there are many. During a two-against-one bathroom brawl, one half-expects the screen to tear apart from all the muscularity on display. A motorcycle and car chase through the streets of Paris is marked by McQuarrie and cinematographer Rob Hardy’s up-close-and-personal shots of Hunt and Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust speeding through oncoming traffic, the camera zooming in and around their faces at death-defying speeds. Those urban vehicular sequences are arguably the finest committed to film since John Frankenheimer’s 1998 Ronin, and would be the standout passages in any other studio tentpole. Yet saving the best for last (another series first!), McQuarrie outdoes them with his finale, in which Cruise climbs a rope dangling from the bottom of an airborne helicopter, climbs inside and takes control of the craft, and then pursues another chopper—which he tries to ram, mid-air.
Fallout’s climactic aerial showdown is one for the ages, a master class in brawny ticking-time-bomb suspense that benefits from the fact that Cruise is, you know, actually dangling from that helicopter! The star’s commitment to putting his own health on the line to achieve such stunts is mad—and, unsurprisingly, resulted in a production-halting broken ankle during one rooftop leap that’s included in the film. It’s also part of what distinguishes the Mission: Impossibles, and Cruise himself, from the rest of the genre pack. Using every high-tech trick in the book to realize its remarkable spectacles, and yet also recognizing that nothing feels more real than something that’s really done by real humans, McQuarrie and Cruise’s third collaboration (they also did 2012’s Jack Reacher) is a superior marriage of the old and new school.
As for its globe-trotting plot, Fallout begins with Hunt trying to obtain a trio of plutonium cores that are also sought by The Apostles, an offshoot of The Syndicate, the terrorist outfit run by Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) that Hunt felled in Rogue Nation. When a maiden attempt to procure those assets fails, Hunt is forced by CIA bigwig Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett) to partner with August Walker (Henry Cavill), a government assassin who’s supposed to kill Hunt should he step out of line. That premise is the jumping-off point for a thoroughly tangled espionage tale involving familiar players—Simon Pegg’s Benji, Ving Rhames’ Luther, Alec Baldwin’s IMF chief Alan Hunley—as well as both a friendly and nefarious face from the past. True to form, each of these characters is given ample time to shine by McQuarrie, who makes sure to develop (or at least reinforce) their personalities and relationships through sharp comedic asides—the funniest of which involves a silent back-and-forth about body types between Rhames and Pegg, who at this point share such fantastic chemistry, they just about deserve their own spin-off.
Clocking in at a hefty 147 minutes, Fallout is a breakneck blast, never letting up as it barrels, plummets and crashes its way from one jaw-dropper to the next. Through it all, the massive Cavill is an excellent battering-ram foil for both the stout-and-resilient Cruise and the lithe-and-precise Ferguson. And Hunt, an individual who values innocent human life (be it one or millions) above all else, remains a captivating moral compass for McQuarrie’s apocalyptic adventures. Though the headliner does a lot of what we’ve seen him do before—free-climb vertical mountain faces; race motorcycles; run and run and run some more—he does it with a magnetism that, three-plus decades into his superstar career, has few equals. Like his incomparable franchise—continuing to hit impossible peak after impossible peak—he’s as dynamic as he is durable.