If America has a James Bond, it is Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), the persistently bouncy hero of the Mission: Impossible franchise, whose sixth entry, Fallout, hits theaters this week. Bond was framed as a paragon of British upper-class smoothness, a tuxedo-clad man’s man who felt most at home at a Monégasque casino, ordering martinis and killing bad guys with equal suaveness. Hunt is none of these things. He throws his whole body into every problem he encounters, crashing against walls and diving out of the sky with lunatic aplomb. His biggest strength is his brash confidence—his utter inability to conceive of failure even as it stares him in the face.
As his boss Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) put it in 2015’s Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Hunt is “the literal manifestation of destiny.” He’s a walking and talking copy of The Secret, who accomplishes tasks almost by magic, simply because they need to be accomplished. At a moment’s notice, he’ll scale the tallest skyscraper, drive his car off a cliff, or commit pages of bank-account numbers to memory, since the alternative is always the end of the world. As these films have gone on, they’ve become more and more fascinated with Hunt’s essential ludicrousness. Mission: Impossible—Fallout decrees him elemental—a crucial, indefinable component keeping the very fabric of humanity knitted together. The film is so dizzyingly fun that, at least while you’re watching, it seems like a sound conclusion.
Since 1996, the Mission: Impossible franchise has been passed around from auteur to auteur, with Cruise as its constant. There was Brian De Palma, then John Woo, J. J. Abrams, Brad Bird, and Christopher McQuarrie. Fallout upsets that pattern by bringing McQuarrie back, though it’s hard to object given his first-rate work on Rogue Nation. This film is thus a more direct sequel, bringing back several characters: Hunley; Hunt’s loyal team of Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames); the villainous Solomon Lane (Sean Harris); and the steely MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who so impressively matched wits with Hunt last time around.
Fallout also brings back the tried-and-tested narrative of Hunt’s incompatibility with his American-intelligence overseers, who again and again reject his go-for-broke derring-do as too risky and impetuous, and become convinced that he’s dangerous, crazy, evil, or a mix of all three. This time, the skeptical party is Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett), a cool-headed CIA chief who assigns her top assassin August Walker (Henry Cavill) to be Hunt’s shadow as they investigate the ongoing crimes of the Syndicate, a global terrorist cell made up of former secret agents.
To Walker, Hunt and his crew are charlatans, merry clowns “playing Halloween” and risking lives with their death-defying stunts and fondness for elaborate mask-wearing identity scams. Why have all that fun, Walker figures, when you could just mow everyone down with machine guns? As it winds through each elaborate action set piece, Mission: Impossible—Fallout doubles as a manifesto for the ridiculous spy thriller, pitting Hunt’s boundless optimism against Walker’s cold-blooded realism. Early on in the film, Hunt lets a bad guy steal a briefcase of plutonium to save the life of a fellow agent. To Hunt, lost plutonium is something he can always get back, but a lost life is impossible to stomach; to the CIA, his empathy is his weakness.
As such, this is a slyly political film at moments, with McQuarrie casting a pessimistic eye at the ruthlessness of America’s approach to espionage. Hunt and his fictional “Impossible Mission Force” are throwbacks, mascots for a kinder, increasingly imaginary-feeling United States. His deep love for his team is posited as a unique strength, something Walker just can’t grasp. Cruise, eternally energetic at the age of 56, leans into Hunt’s maniacal intensity, buttressed by each of McQuarrie’s incredibly staged action sequences (whether a soaring helicopter chase in the Himalayas or a cheekily intimate fight in a nightclub bathroom). Cavill plays Walker as a living wall, a menacingly strong clod with a head as thick as his biceps (and his admittedly lustrous mustache).
At 147 minutes, Fallout is the longest and loopiest of the Mission: Impossibles, building on the plot intricacies of Rogue Nation (which is worth a rewatch if you’ve forgotten the details of Solomon Lane and his Syndicate). Past movies like Ghost Protocol largely dispensed with storytelling sophistication in favor of globe-trotting action. But in Fallout, McQuarrie insists on weaving it all together, calling back to most of the franchise’s previous entries at one point or another, adding to his grand notion that Hunt is more than just a glorified stuntman. Either way, by the time Hunt is dangling off his umpteenth cliff and trying, once again, to save the world before a ticking clock hits zero, it’s hard not to salute his persistence in the name of giddy entertainment value.