Since launching as a fairly conventional action series with a couple gimmicky elements primarily included as a nod to its original network television source material, the Mission: Impossible series of films have progressed as an escalating dare. Over six films, the scenarios have grown increasingly preposterous, drifting further away from logic and plausibility. Simultaneously, the aging movie star at the center of the franchise combats the AARP solicitations that are starting to hit his mailbox by putting himself in greater danger for the amusement of the masses, proving his perpetual virility by banging himself off of solid objects and hanging perilously from various ropes and pulleys.
The latest outing, Mission: Impossible — Fallout, is blissful nonsense. The plot unravels at the gentlest scrutiny, and yet it is delivered with such verve and conviction that the problems don’t matter a whit. The plot turns are rarely, yet the ride doesn’t slow enough to allow for even a single discontented eye roll. As usual, there are sleeper agents and nuclear threats and a vast conspiracy network of secret bad guys intent on demolishing the world for some wobbly concept of a greater good. The Impossible Missions Force — or at least a small subset of the organization that Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) trusts in this moment of heightened threat — darts all over to globe to retrieve three orbs of plutonium, bring down terrorist zealot Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), and generally engage in spirited action mayhem, preferably with a countdown clock ticking away.
Christopher McQuarrie becomes the first director to return to the film series for an encore engagement, after taking his first turn with the dandy Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation. He’s also the sole credited screenwriter, and the film clicks along with the confident assurance of a filmmaker who completely understands the task before them, and carries that solid sensibility over to the characters. With each spectacular set piece — and they are truly all wonders in their own right — the stakes are laid out clearly, as are the major impediments that must be overcome. That the espionage efforts proceed with an energy and internal logic closer to a Chuck Jones Road Runner cartoon than the solemn spycraft of John le Carré is precisely what makes Mission: Impossible — Fallout a consistent pleasure.
And I now feel compelled to circle back to Cruise. Whatever commitment to deeper acting he was approaching around the time of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia is long gone by now, replacing by a genial willingness to trade on his own slightly unhinged public persona. No matter how much time the film expends on the anguished personal compromises Ethan has made over the years, there’s barely a character there. Instead, Ethan has become a mere personification of Cruise’s lunatic bravado, and in that Cruise has finally found the perfect role. Other performance in the film are effective, either because they’re good (Vanessa Kirby, as a sly, seductive broker of villainous trade) or bad in a useful way (Henry Cavill, notoriously mustachioed as a lumbering CIA agent coupled to the IMF squad). Cruise’s work is invaluable while careening off the spectrum of thespian acumen altogether. More than ever before, he comes across in Mission: Impossible — Fallout as the last movie star, getting by on pure personality and a compulsion to entertain which the broader movie landscape shifts to game performers buried under CGI super-suits. He’s Errol Flynn with a death wish, and I find myself oddly grateful for his headlong service to a frivolous cause. As the saying goes, not all heroes wear capes.