Is the "movie star" dead? It is a concept that's seemed on the way out as our crop of unattainable A-listers are brought down to earth with the advent of social medium, or replaced by the trendy actor of whatever moment and celebrities spawned from Instagram and YouTube and what's next? LinkedIn? Then there's Tom Cruise, one of our last undeniable movie stars, in whose case it's increasingly likely that the Mission: Impossible franchise will be what actually kills him. But he's going to make sure you have the time of your life until then.
The latest Mission: Impossible sequel, Fallout -- the sixth in the series since he chose to accept his first mission in 1996 -- finds Cruise's Ethan Hunt racing around the globe to stop a widespread nuclear attack. See, following the downfall of anarchist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) and the Syndicate in 2015's Rogue Nation, a new terrorist group, The Apostles, has sprung up in its stead, with the anonymous zealot, John Lark, attempting to collect a trio of Russian plutonium cores to build nuclear weapons. (Lane remains in play still, still pulling strings.)
The plotting of Fallout can feel a bit recycled -- crossings and double-crossings and plans that everybody has thought through infinite steps ahead -- but it twists and turns enough to accommodate this rat pack of buddies bantering and doing spy stuff. Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames, returning as tech guy Benji and IMF stalwart Luther, get some especially fun and funny scenes to play. Ditto to Alec Baldwin's often-exasperated IMF secretary. Rebecca Ferguson, fortunately, is also back as shifty MI6 agent Ilsa Faust. Fallout adds a philanthropist socialite-slash-weapons broker called The White Widow (played by The Crown's enchanting Vanessa Kirby) and Angela Bassett as a CIA director, introduced while barking "Make the call!" into a cell phone as her right-hand man, Walker (the brawny, mustached Henry Cavill), dutifully follows in tow.
Where Fallout most improves upon that which came before it (and especially Rogue Nation) is with Hunt himself. Cruise and returning writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (who helmed Rogue Nation, along with scripting and/or directing numerous other Tom Cruise vehicles, including Edge of Tomorrow, Jack Reacher and The Mummy) return to the human behind the hero. Hunt is still swaggeringly cool, but of course, and a physical marvel, but he is not infallible anymore. He is no longer all-knowing, almost god-like. In fight sequences, especially one bathroom brawl alongside Cavill's Walker, Hunt gets the stuffing knocked out of him and, at 56 (that's Cruise's age, at least) feels it. Maybe for the first time ever, there's a slight apprehension as he enters the ring for more.
The film also unravels a subplot involving Michelle Monaghan's Julia, which I will not talk about at length here, at the risk of spoiling any of the movie's reveals, but which provides an unexpected emotional core to the action and adventure and provides much-appreciated shading and complexities for Hunt.
Nevertheless, if you cannot tell your Ethan Hunts from your Jack Reachers from your Nick Mortons, the draw of the Mission: Impossible franchise, the reason you hand over your cool, hard cash for a ticket, is and always has been because this franchise prides itself on one-upping its increasingly mad, physics-bulldozing stuntwork. In previous outings, that saw Cruise scaling the tallest building in the world, or hitching a ride on the outside of a cargo plane as it took off. If you've seen any of the myriad trailers promoting Fallout, you've glimpsed most of the set pieces here -- that HALO jump and a haymaker of a helicopter setup -- but the sequences are two, three, four times as long as they'd dare be in any other action movie, an extraction turning into a getaway turning into a shootout turning into a high-speed chase. The adrenaline is infectious, worthy of the hooting and the hollering that happened in my theater. I could only turn to my neighbor after each, shaking my head, amazed and amused, equally exhilarated and flabbergasted, always wanting more. Fallout may feel like the payoff of so many Mission: Impossible threads, but there will be more. And my thoughts and prayers go out to Cruise as he tries to out-do this.
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