When Tom Cruise dangles from yet another precipice or does that special copyrighted ultra-fast run of his, it’s easy to forget that the Hollywood stalwart’s been making these Mission: Impossible films since the middle of the 1990s. Twenty-five years. That’s far longer than the original television series ran for in the 60s and 70s.
Cruise’s puppyish enthusiasm – which may or may not mask some deeper death wish buried in his soul – is part of the reason for the Mission: Impossible franchise’s seemingly immortal spirit. In each movie, Cruise has found new ways to test his skills as a physical performer, and his high-wire stunts in past entries, like his fingertip Burj Khalifa climb in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, have kept audiences coming back for more of his break-neck spy adventures.
As important as Cruise’s passion for stunts, though, is his taste in filmmakers. From the very first Mission: Impossible in 1995, he’s worked with some great directors, writers and technicians, who’ve helped bring out the best in his action scenes. Brian De Palma, JJ Abrams, Brad Bird and finally Christopher McQuarrie have all bought their own flavour to the franchise – and Mission: Impossible – Fallout, directed by McQuarrie, is arguably the best movie since De Palma kicked things off in 1995.
The plot is so convoluted that it almost defies description, but let’s at least try. A terrorist group led by a mysterious figure called John Lark is in the process of acquiring three nuclear bombs, which it wants to use to upend the status quo. Super-spy Ethan Hawke (Cruise, of course) attempts to retrieve the bombs from the bad guys, but an operation involving his long-term partners Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) sees the explosives move far beyond his grasp.
Chastened, and knowing that thousands could die within days, Hunt embarks on a second mission that brings in an imposing CIA agent, August Walker (Henry Cavill, sporting the moustache that famously helped send Justice League’s reshoots into disarray), and involves snatching Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’s anarchist villain, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) from captivity.
It’s another lurching thrill-ride that whisks us from Berlin to Rome to Paris and beyond, its twists and turns just barely staying on the right side of plausibility. Cruise gets to ride motorcycles, jump across vertiginous gaps and so forth, but once again, Fallout somehow manages to avoid feeling like an action thriller going through familiar motions.
McQuarrie’s a big reason for this. This is his second M:I film, and you can see how he’s grown as a technical filmmaker since 2015’s Rogue Nation. Fallout brings with it a renewed devotion to in-camera action, and aided by cinematographer Rob Hardy (who worked with Alex Garland on the wonderful Ex Machina and Annihilation), the results are frequently astonishing. A chase set-piece in a European capital is shot with the clarity, suspense and expert sense of timing of John Frankenheimer’s Ronin. McQuarrie and his collaborators also appear to have been studying the more grandiose moments of Michael Mann and Christopher Nolan, with Fallout’s moments of slow-build-up giving way to satisfying crashes and bangs.
A sequence in a nightclub bathroom, which takes in Cruise, Cavill and a target who flatly refuses to do as he’s expected, is another example of McQuarrie’s increasing assurance. Eliding effortlessly between bruising action, comedy and back, it’s a masterclass in tone timing.
We should also take time to single out Lorne Balfe’s monster of a score, which takes Lalo Schifrin’s familiar Mission: Impossible theme and twists it into a cantankerous, thundering backwash that recalls the ominous impact of Hans Zimmer’s work on The Dark Knight. Just how pivotal the music is to Fallout’s suspense shouldn’t be underestimated – but then again, nor should McQuarrie’s understanding of how and when to simply shut up and let the pictures tell the story.
In too many mainstream action movies, the cast chatter and bicker to one another in the thick of a car chase or gun fight – perhaps because the filmmakers behind the camera worry that audiences will tune out if the heroes aren’t interacting at all times. There are key moments in Fallout where Hunt and his compatriots simply grit their teeth and do their jobs; all we hear are the whine of engines or the chatter of gunfire, and the dramatic effect is mesmerising.
As it turns out, Cavill is also a magnificent addition to the cast. While most will know him as the Man of Steel by now, Fallout lets Cavill stretch out in a role that’s more dangerous and enigmatic. Equally good is Rebecca Ferguson as the mysterious spy Ilsa Faust; it’s not hard to imagine her taking up the Hunt mantle if Cruise ever decides to hang up his boots. Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames have somewhat less to do, but they’re welcome support as always. (Jeremy Renner, who appeared in the previous two movies, has apparently decamped to the same farm that Clint Barton retired to in the Avengers franchise.)
A startlingly indulgent running time of almost 150 minutes tells on Fallout at times, with a few scenes of exposition going on a little too long for comfort. But when the movie finds its stride, it’s often astonishing: suspenseful, thrilling, funny and absurdly grandiose in equal measure. It’s to Mission: Impossible – Fallout’s credit that, six films in, we can easily imagine Cruise returning to the Hunt role a couple more times.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout is out in UK cinemas on the 25th July.