For a moment there, the “Mission: Impossible” franchise appeared to be getting a little long in the tooth. This was perhaps a decade ago, between the third and fourth films, when audiences weren’t sure whether they were dealing with a trilogy or an open-ended series. Its star, Tom Cruise, was being a little too emphatic about his Scientology convictions in public. He had made a brilliant, self-effacing cameo in “Tropic Thunder,” showing up in a fat suit and a bald cap, then retreated in the other direction in real life via a series of unconvincing age-defying procedures, as if refusing to let go of his image as an eternal twentysomething. All signs pointed to it being time for Impossible Mission Force operative Ethan Hunt to gracefully retire.
How lucky for us that he didn’t. Not only have the films gotten better since, with each one surpassing the last as the most exciting and ambitious of the lot, but Hunt himself has acquired a gravitas along the way that distinguishes the series from its most obvious inspiration, the James Bond movies of the 1960s, back when Sean Connery was that franchise’s first and only star. Now playing to an audience that’s forgotten (if it ever realized) that these films were inspired by a knockoff TV series from the same era, “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” isn’t just another stunt-driven save-the-world bonanza. Of course, it is that, offering a whirlwind tour of Paris, London, and Kashmir this time around, but writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, on board for more, after making slick work of the previous movie, “Rogue Nation,” smartly ties this sixth installment back into what has come before. This time, it really is personal.
Ethan Hunt looks his age, even if that makes him the fittest 55-year-old on Earth, sporting distinguished little wrinkles at the corners of his eyes that subtly underscore he’s no hot-shot rookie, and this isn’t his first rodeo. If anything, that’s what sets “Fallout” apart: It’s aware of Hunt’s previous experience and incorporates that into the narrative. The villain is someone we’ve seen before (Sean Harris’ Lane, who made it his mission to eliminate the IMF in “Rogue Nation”). There’s a veiled reference to Vanessa Redgrave’s character from the first movie, a poignant coda to the romance with Michelle Monaghan from “M:i:III,” and an extension of that sexy spy-who-loved-me dynamic with MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) from the last movie.
And the masks are back in a big way — a silly, credibility-straining contrivance in the 1996 movie, in which any character could rip off his face at any time to reveal someone else underneath. Now, they function as a kind of nostalgia. When CIA director Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett) snipes, “IMF is Halloween — a bunch of grown men in rubber masks playing trick or treat,” she’s not wrong, and yet, that cheeky ability to impersonate anyone is basically the thing that sets “Mission: Impossible” apart. These are movies that dare you to believe your eyes, doubling down by insisting on doing many of the risky maneuvers practically, in camera.
Maybe you thought you’d seen it all. Hunt has climbed sheer rock faces, driven high-speed motorcycles, and dodged exploding helicopters. But the scenery has never been more spectacular, whether he’s standing atop the chimney of the Tate Modern with all of London laid out before him or parachuting onto the glass roof of Paris’ Grand Palais — whose pristine white bathrooms supply the more memorable scene. The latter provides a strangely homoerotic encounter between Hunt and CIA assassin August Walker (“Man of Steel” star Henry Cavill, looking chiseled, if not terribly charismatic) as they attempt to corner a nefarious arms dealer named John Lark in the cruisey men’s room.
In “Fallout,” the mission is clear: Recover three plutonium cores before Lark and a terrorist organization known as the Apostles can use them to target the Vatican, Jerusalem, and Mecca in a single coordinated attack. But McQuarrie makes things complicated quick, allowing the payload to go missing and putting Hunt and his team — Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg) — in a desperate race to recover the nuclear devices before they can be used. The trick is to steer the action through scenic locations, orchestrating outdoor chases whenever possible (there’s one through Paris that rivals the breakneck pursuit of the elevated train in “The French Connection,” this time on French soil) while finding creative ways to keep the stakes grounded in relationships that have been firmly established in the previous films.
Although Cruise’s character never comes right out and says the words, “I’m getting too old for this shit,” the film demonstrates why he simply can’t stop accepting impossible missions, going as far as to explain why his marriage to Michelle Monaghan’s character from the third movie couldn’t last (during their brief period of bliss, she was left to wonder, “Who’s watching the world while he’s watching me?”). Hunt may be almost maniacally suicidal in his stunts — leaping off rooftops without looking, rushing through intersections at top speed, dangling from heights where the slightest miscalculation would mean certain death — but as long as she’s alive (and that now goes for Ilsa as well), he’ll risk it all to protect them.
Just when you thought you knew who Ethan Hunt was, McQuarrie goes and redefines what makes him tick. And ticking is what the “Mission: Impossible” movies are all about, after all, from those self-destructing assignment messages to the series’ signature, pulse-quickening score (reinvented here in brilliant ways by composer Lorne Balfe, with completely surprising instruments and orchestrations that barely allow a moment’s calm) to the 15-minute countdown clock on a pair of nuclear devices that comprises the film’s finale. Compared with Cruise’s other franchise antihero, the thoroughly grizzled and relatively nihilistic Jack Reacher, Hunt is a regular Boy Scout, a clean-cut, against-all-odds action star who hesitates when forced to decide between sparing one life or saving millions.
As far as Hunt’s IMF boss (Alec Baldwin) is concerned, that’s an asset. But it also fits with Cruise’s image as a moralistic matinee idol, a figure whose unrelenting perfectionism ensures that he’ll save the day, even with one second to spare. We elect movie stars the way we do world leaders, buying tickets instead of casting ballots, and the reason Cruise has remained on top for more consecutive terms than Vladimir Putin is that he represents a kind of best-case American: homecoming-king hunky, a hero with a conscience, unwavering in his convictions.
Here, the villain is cynicism itself — not just Lane but the mysterious Lark, who has written a manifesto that insists the world has become so corrupt, it must face an act of great tragedy in order to bring about newfound peace. There are those within the government who agree with him, including rival/partner Walker, who clearly holds less regard for human life than Hunt does. They are an exciting pair, each tasked with recovering the plutonium, yet plenty distrustful of one another — Walker belongs to the “Make America great again” school, while Hunt may as well be asking, “Who said it’s not great as it is?” — and that creates a sense of anticipation as we brace ourselves for the moment in which these two uneasy comrades will ultimately have to face off in a fight that’s every bit as philosophical as it is physical.
McQuarrie and “Annihilation” DP Rob Hardy mesh well together, establishing the least intrusive technique the franchise has seen so far. McQuarrie has the confidence to let the material speak for itself instead of imposing his style the way someone like John Woo did. A decade ago, around the same time the “Mission: Impossible” series was starting to feel tired, director Paul Greengrass pioneered an aggressive, almost disorienting handheld template for the Jason Bourne movies that threatened to render classical action obsolete. But McQuarrie believes in creating coherent set-pieces: His combat scenes are tense, muscular, and clean, shot and edited in such a way that the spatial geography makes sense. He places audiences just over Cruise’s shoulder, or staring into the actor’s face as he grimaces with exertion. Ethan Hunt has never met an impossible mission, and yet, for the thrill to work, audiences need to believe that this one could get away from him. Here, with everything that he’s ever cared about on the line, Hunt proves why he’s summer’s most valuable action hero.