At some point midway through Mission: Impossible – Fallout—the sixth entry in the franchise and director Christopher McQuarrie’s unprecedented second go at helming one of these beasts—CIA brute Austin Walker (Henry Cavill) asks his superior, CIA Director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett), how many times she thinks Übermensch Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) will put up with his country screwing him over before he snaps. Walker’s question is rhetorical, intended to convince Sloane that Hunt is actually John Lark, the alias of a shadowy conspirator planning to buy stolen plutonium whom he and Hunt also happen to be chasing, but the question is better put before Cruise, the film’s bright, shining star. It’s a question that hangs over this dependably mind-blowing action flick more obviously than any installment to come before: How long can 56-year-old Cruise keep doing this before he, truly and irrevocably, snaps?
Fallout never offers an answer, most likely because Cruise won’t have one until his body just completely gives out, answering for him by default. Fallout shows no real signs of that happening any time soon. What it does show is a kind of blockbuster intuition for what makes our enormous action brands—from Fast and the Furious to the MCU—thrive, behind only Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol as the best of the now 22-year endeavor. Where Bird leaned into the franchise as a literalization of its title, redefining the series by balancing the absurdity of what Cruise was impossibly doing (the Burj Khalifa scene is one of the greatest action sequences ever) with the awe of bearing witness to what a human person could accomplish if devoid of all Thetans, McQuarrie considers the two pretty much the same thing. The only reaction worthy of such absurdity is awe—and the only American tentpole films worth our awe anymore are those deemed Mission: Impossible.
Due of course to Tom Cruise, probably a terrible man but definitely a cinematic treasure, giving his all, flesh and bones and functional social relationships and reasonable belief systems, to whatever movie he’s making. His goal is nothing less than transcendence, and isn’t that what going to see a movie like this is all about? Throughout Fallout, McQuarrie’s script characterizes the often chameleonic Ethan Hunt as an idealist, a person who considers one life as important as 1,000, a pure protector of all that is good and right in the world. “I won’t let anything happen to you,” he tells both Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames), his closest allies/best friends, seemingly every day. Ethan Hunt is himself an ideal, declaring more than twice that he’ll “figure it out” as he confronts one belligerently hairy situation after another. McQuarrie may be the first M: I director to get Tom Cruise because he bends his M: I films to cater completely to Tom Cruise’s quest for perfection. There is no flawless plan to follow, there is only the corpus of one man keenly aligned with the hidden machinations of this complex universe. He’s like Domino (Zazie Beetz) from Deadpool 2, were luck to deign it necessary for her to be able to hold her breath for six minutes under water.
As has been the case in the previous five films, Fallout’s plot—while unsurprisingly coherent if you pay the least amount of attention (seriously, it’s not that bad; god forbid a script not feed the audience endless exposition)—has little bearing on pushing us from one spectacle to the next. Still, McQuarrie has alloyed J.J. Abrams’ need to too-thoroughly explore Ethan Hunt’s backstory with Bird’s reliance on Hunt as a vessel for action as opposed to a real human being. He’s done this in Fallout (as he did to a lesser degree in Rogue Nation, which in retrospect feels like a stage-setting) by aiming the film’s climactic action sequence solely at Ethan Hunt. Our hero is not just saving millions of lives, he’s (perhaps more importantly) saving the lives of the only people he loves. It’s such a pure distillation of blockbuster moviemaking that one might miss it: The action is both in service of itself, for its own sake, and in service to the development of this character, Ethan Hunt, who is really just Tom Cruise’s idealized version of himself, which means that all we need to know to care about him is that all he cares about is protecting the people he loves. For Ethan Hunt, that’s Benji, Luther, his ex-love Julia (Michelle Monaghan) and his maybe-new love, MI6 agent Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson). For Tom Cruise, the only people he loves are his audience. He protects us by giving himself whole cloth to his art, which at this point in his career is full physical sacrifice. He faces death so that we may glimpse what comes after. So that we may behold a small man soar through lightning-streaked clouds.
The plot of Fallout involves three very movie-friendly spheres of plutonium, traded amongst terrorists to the eventual service of building two nuclear bombs under the world-shaking purview of previous villain Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), all while the CIA still warily oversees Ethan Hunt’s exploits. Though Jeremy Renner’s out of the picture, the ever-invasive governmental watchdogging provides the opportunity to introduce Agent Walker and his prodigious biceps, the perfect foil(s) to Ethan Hunt’s good guy persona. An early fight scene in a men’s bathroom in a Parisian club, bereft of music and scored only by the thuds and cracks of fists and plaster, contrasts the two characters with balletic precision: Walker punches his way out of any situation, while Hunt prefers to be less blunt with his spycraft and/or government-sanctioned murder. Double-teaming a man they believe to be the aforementioned John Lark, the two navigate a geography McQuarrie lays out almost effortlessly. Our initial impressions of Walker—that he solves everything through force and carries no sense of loyalty with him on his missions—resolve predictably, but satisfactorily, because everything we need to know we can gather from the way he “thanks” Hunt for saving his life, or the way he “reloads” his arms before socking ersatz John Lark in the ribs. To his credit, Cavill relishes the violent, moral ambiguity of Walker, his mustache and the menacing face shadowed by it worth every ludicrous dollar Paramount made Warner Bros pay to have it digitally removed.
So it goes with every action scene in the film, from the immediately proceeding motorcycle chase through the streets of Paris to the final helicopter battle (which is exactly as that sounds). McQuarrie’s sense of building a scene on the barest of elements, communicating the most empirical of information, is so breathlessly impeccable, the plot barely seems to matter aside from creating easily understood stakes and giving Ethan Hunt a reason to keep, in the parlance of the film, figuring it out.
But how long can this last? The most protracted of the Mission: Impossible movies by something like 20 minutes, Fallout does bear the weight of time, and the audience can begin to feel it. “The end you always feared is coming. And the blood will be on your hands. The fallout of all your good intentions,” Lane creepily warns Hunt. Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt as Tom Cruise has no words to suffice, no real way to answer. He can only work harder, push his body further, shatter his ankle but keep going, keep trying to figure out how to live forever, if only to keep protecting his audience from the desperation and sadness of this real world. By giving them something to believe in. It’s all so goddamned beautiful. I love these movies.
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Writer: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Henry Cavill, Angela Bassett, Alec Baldwin, Sean Harris, Michelle Monaghan
Release Date: July 27, 2018
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.