Who would have guessed that any product of the 1960s TV series remake bonanza from the 1990s would have endured for two more decades, much less flourished for several sequels? Sure, The Brady Bunch Movie somehow spawned two follow-ups, but it’s not as if My Second Favorite Martian, The Modder Squad, McHale’s Air Force, or Dudley 2-Right ever stood a chance of being realized. Yet, 22 years after its first theatrical release, and based on the eponymous 1966-1973 spy television program, the Mission: Impossible film franchise maintains consistently—if not increasingly—favorable returns, the series reaching a landmark echelon of crime fighting longevity previously reserved for the likes of Police Academy 6: City Under Siege. This sixth big-screen task of dubious feasibility, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, isn’t just an inordinately effective hoot of an action flick; it’s also a testament to the series, like the insistently vital lead for whom its always been a vehicle, showing no signs of slowing down with age. If anything they’re getting better, thanks to a beautiful, hubris-defying symbiosis between the now-hexalogy and its quinquagenarian star: Tom Cruise needs Mission: Impossible just as much as it needs him.
The Quantum of Solace to Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’s Casino Royale, Fallout picks up the threads of its predecessor as the closest thing to a direct sequel this franchise has seen. (Credit due in no small part to returning writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, in vogue Cruise chronicler and the first two-time M:I helmer.) Super-spy Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his team of super-spy pals—Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg)—are cleaning up the remnants, Avengers: Age of Ultron-style, of the shadowy Syndicate organization that was disassembled in the preceding film. Haunted by nightmares of his personal failures, Hunt blames himself when their most recent operation to retrieve some errant plutonium goes horribly sideways; in order to vindicate themselves and once again save the world from nuclear terrorism, the trio must collect both the radioactive materials and escaped Rogue Nation main baddie Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). Despite the curmudgeonly pleas of Impossible Mission Force secretary Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), CIA director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) saddles the Impossi-Boys with a babysitter in the dapper, hulking form of Special Activities operative August Walker (Henry Cavill)—he of the pithy running catchphrase, “I’m Walker, by the way.” A crap situation already strained by Walker’s involvement is exasperated by the re-emergence of women from Hunt’s past (Rebecca Ferguson, Michelle Monaghan), calling alliances and friendships into question during the punishing chain of Spielbergian white-knuckle escapes and near-misses that form Mission: Impossible: Fallout.
Ever a revolving door of filmmaking talent, Mission: Impossibles have historically doubled as showcases for a director’s unique style, for better or dumber. (M:I III was J.J. Abrams’ first sleekly-distilled property reboot, M:I – Ghost Protocol made Brad Bird’s knack for hilariously orchestrated set-pieces flesh, while M:I II was the apotheosis of self-parody for the repetitively histrionic John Woo.) Bucking that trend, McQuarrie’s first Mission lacked the sometimes-intrusive level of style and personality in the four films that came before, making him the ideal guy to be invited back for a second go-around. Under his twice-assured watch, Fallout is bigger than Rogue Nation and the longest in the series by far—but, paradoxically, it’s the most refreshingly spare. The picture (borrowing Alex Garland cinematographer Rob Hardy) has a handsome, coolly desaturated look, lending a straightforward crispness to the barrage of action, and the story is light on twists, jokes, and out-there gadgets—aside from the of-course further streamlined (like the film itself) mask technology—instead favoring narrative shorthand and clear-cut goals and stakes. There’s almost no fluff in this wonderfully single-minded, danger-perpetuating machine, but there are the odd zags built in to stave off action scene tedium: subtle nods to moments and figures from previous Missions; adorably clumsy stabs at emotional beats (especially from Mr. Rhames); and, gosh, some surprisingly bloody fits of violence. Like Cavill’s hirsute, CIA super-man antagonist, Fallout is one brutal, no-nonsense beast.
With each successive Mission, it’s nicer to see the familiar faces of Hunt and his crew; they, like the big, absurd spy movies they scamper around in, keep proving themselves more reliable as the franchise rolls on. They’re not particularly dimensional archetypes, but after this many filmsm they’re at least warmly lived in if not particularly dimensional archetypes. McQuarrie makes a play for Fallout being “the most personal Mission yet,” but it’s difficult to invest in the tears of characters who—likably portrayed as they are—were never going to be more than sketched in. He realizes even better than his predecessors that the focus should be on the spy thriller nonsense, which he supplies in drove—be it casual globetrotting, high-tech disguises, bathroom fisticuffs, dogfights, HALO jumps, or ticking time bombs. Fallout could be dismissed as a greatest hits compilation were it not such an unusually killer one.
Hunt and company find themselves dealing with a new level of near-constant, heart attack-inducing pickles in Fallout, and the gleefully sadistic McQuarrie can’t help but deliberately exacerbate them—he might as well be holding a lighter to Cruise’s fingers each time he’s hanging precariously from a ledge. Luckily for them both, Cruise is one Big Time Movie Star who’s (almost uncomfortably) desperate to suffer for his art, lest we be made to suffer for it instead (à la The Mummy). That passionate willingness to bleed is what fueled Mission: Impossible to reach the crescendo of Fallout, star and franchise becoming synonymous in a much more winning capacity than, say, Bruce Willis and his Die Hards. If a broken ankle during a breathless rooftop foot-chase is all Cruise had to (no doubt grinningly) endure to bring the rousingly confident actioner Mission: Impossible – Fallout to the screen, then so be it. Remember: Cruise wouldn’t be doing stupid shit to break his ass without Mission Impossible, and we wouldn’t have Mission Impossible if he wasn’t doing stupid shit to break his ass.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Runtime: 147 minutes
Cast: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, Michelle Monaghan, Alec Baldwin