Over the past two decades, the Mission: Impossible film franchise has become the reliable, comforting home that’s always ready to shelter Tom Cruise. No matter what turns his career takes, there’s always Ethan Hunt: the dogged Impossible Missions Force operative who always gives 110 percent, perpetually putting himself at risk to secure other people’s safety.
In a different era, Hunt would serve as a sort of Platonic action-hero ideal, and there wouldn’t be any need to dig past the archetype itself. But there’s been an interesting wrinkle in the franchise, starting with Brad Bird’s 2011 take, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Hunt has had to face the notion of consequences — and not just the usual ones, where if he fails, some madman might blow up the world. Now, Hunt is facing personal consequences for his actions, as he has to leave behind his wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) because he can’t sustain a relationship while perpetually globetrotting to save the world.
Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout builds that core idea into an entire film. Or at least it builds that core idea into a frame for jaw-dropping setpieces and brain-numbing plot twists. The result doesn’t just feel like the sixth installment in a long-running series, it feels like an authentic sequel to 2015’s Rogue Nation, bringing back many of the key characters and storylines to explore whether the ideals of a character like Ethan Hunt even make sense in the modern world. And it explores those ideas while telling an audacious, exhilarating story.
Fallout begins with a new IMF mission: after Hunt captured Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) in Rogue Nation, Lane’s criminal cohorts have reorganized under the name The Apostles, and are trying to obtain some missing plutonium. They hope to create order from the chaos of the world by inflicting massive harm through a series of attacks, and forcing countries to work together as the old world order falls. Hunt puts together a mission to buy the plutonium before The Apostles can get their hands on it, enlisting his usual cohorts: Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames, still the master of deadpan reactions) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg).
When things go awry, Hunt suddenly faces a choice: save Stickell, or protect the plutonium. The conflict clearly lays out the central conundrum in Hunt’s character, but IMF director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) spells it out for the audience anyway: Hunt’s inability to prioritize the greater good over a single life may make people see him as a hero, but can also lead to the world becoming much more dangerous.
With the CIA no longer confident in Hunt’s abilities, agent August Walker (Henry Cavill) is assigned to team up with Hunt to get the plutonium back. That sound like a lot of setup, but it isn’t even Fallout’s first act. The movie is packed with plot reversals, and new characters arrive at every turn. The Crown’s Vanessa Kirby shows up as the White Widow, an arms broker who can help Hunt procure the missing plutonium. Angela Bassett plays no-nonsense CIA head Erica Sloan. Harris’ Solomon Lane returns as a key figure, and so does Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), the MI6 agent who infiltrated Lane’s network in Rogue Nation. All of this is a lot for audiences to keep track of, and at a certain point, there are so many plot micro-turns that it becomes easier to stop trying to make sense of it all, and let the story wash by on the way to the next action sequence.
That’s where the film really makes a statement, because Mission: Impossible – Fallout merges the franchise’s big-budget spectacle with an utterly ferocious style of action filmmaking that far surpasses what McQuarrie executed in either Rogue Nation or Jack Reacher. It’s filled with gasp-inducing motorcycle chases, kinetic car sequences, and bruising, brutal combat. When called into action, Cavill’s Walker is so savage a fighter that he’s hard to watch at times, whether he’s landing pummeling body blows or bashing his opponents into a bathroom sink. Many of the action beats just feel meaner than the industry standard, whether it’s Hunt taking a bruising tumble across pavement after being thrown from his motorcycle, or the relentless, violent gunplay that peppers so many scenes.
It sometimes feels like Fallout is more action reel than movie. The fight sequences are arresting, but they stretch out at such length that they can’t always maintain energy. What makes them constantly watchable, however, is the sheer variety — McQuarrie stages so many different kinds of action sequences in so many different locales that Fallout begins to feel like a James Bond film. The gorgeous IMAX visuals help as well. McQuarrie and cinematographer Rob Hardy pop into the immersive, 1.90:1 IMAX aspect ratio throughout the film, and the footage they capture with the IMAX cameras is stunning, particularly during a climactic helicopter chase above the snowy mountains of Kashmir.
Those IMAX cameras are particularly effective in capturing the sheer audacity of Cruise’s stunts. He’s made a personal trademark out of performing his own film stunts as often as possible, especially in the Mission: Impossible series. The actor famously broke his ankle during the filming of Fallout, and yes, the shot where he sustained the injury is in the finished film. (The Graham Norton Show featured a more gruesome breakdown earlier in 2018.) Cruise’s dedication is surprising, but his commitment to the role makes him almost too grounded of a character, which causes a sense of discordance in the later scenes, where the movie pushes into nearly comical levels of spectacle.
But no matter how ridiculous the action sequences become, the dedication to that core idea ultimately elevates the film. At one point, Lane warns Hunt that eventually evil will triumph, and the bloodshed that follows will be a result of Hunt’s inability to modulate his worldview — “the fallout of all your good intentions.” Other action films have similarly explored the idea that holding onto an ethos isn’t expedient for a hero — perhaps most notably in Daniel Craig’s take on James Bond. But reframing an American action hero, particularly one played by Cruise, as too heroic to be effective gives the idea a different sense of weight. As a performer, Cruise is known for his steadfast dedication to his work projects. With the more controversial aspects of his public persona, he’s known for his intense devotion to his personal religious beliefs. And as an actor, he’s built a career largely on the idea of being the all-American action star. Fallout channels all of that, using both his performance and everything audiences think they know about Tom Cruise to its benefit. It builds a portrait of a man who’s so resolute in his own beliefs that he pushes people away — even the ones he loves most.
But Fallout is still a Tom Cruise movie, so while the movie shockingly follows through with the implications of its main theme, it nevertheless tees up events so that by the end, all feels right with the world. The door is left wide open for another entry in the series, should everyone involved (plus Cruise’s ankle) think they’re up for another go-round. But should this end up as the series’ final entry, it’s hard to imagine a better, more fitting end than Mission: Impossible – Fallout. It’s hilarious and thrilling. It acknowledges that single-minded devotion is what lets characters like Hunt do what they do, while also admitting it would make them incapable of adapting to any kind of normal life. And it’s the ultimate on-screen expression of Cruise’s own personal dedication to stunstmanship at all costs. In many ways, Fallout feels like a movie about Tom Cruise himself, with a clear message to bring across: he’s a complicated celebrity figure, but he’s still a pretty damn good movie star.