Whatever the origins of Tom Cruise’s insatiable life force — a billion-odd years of purging extraterrestrial Thetans or 50-odd years of purging terrestrial self-doubt — it shows no signs of slackening, not even after several big flops (one deserving, The Mummy, and one very much undeserving, American Made) and the Mission: Impossible-worthy escape of his third wife, Katie Holmes. His sixth Mission: Impossible movie, Mission: Impossible — Fallout, isn’t the best of the bunch (that would be number four, Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol), but it’s easily the second-best and certainly the Cruise-iest, meaning it’s nearly as entertaining as it is strenuous. Which is a mighty high bar!
The writer-director Christopher McQuarrie is now Cruise’s house writer-director, and he’s a smart man. I’m not sure how much natural talent he has for action, but with Cruise lighting a fire under him, he’s learning. For the big-deal fights and chases in Fallout, he has obviously worked with great storyboard artists and a crackerjack editor (Eddie Hamilton). A fight in a blindingly light men’s room (featuring Liang Yang) is smashingly well done — a riot of broken mirrors, burst stalls, and blood on white tile. Even when Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson on a motorcycle, and assorted stunt drivers posing as bad guys smash through Paris’s Arc de Triomphe traffic circle while Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames in a high-techie boat sail beneath them, we never lose our bearings, though the number of variables approaches the exponential. (Having just returned from a vacation in Paris, I can report that the driving here is only moderately more insane than in life.)
McQuarrie needs that whiplash action — and that incomparable Lalo Schifrin theme, which gives the illusion of momentum even when nothing much is happening — because the script is Mission: Impossible to Follow. Gobs of exposition pour from the mouth of Alec Baldwin as Cruises’s superior and what registers is yak-yak-McGuffin-yak-Apostles-yak-plutonium-McGuffin-the Widow-yak-yak-McGuffin. The thing to hold onto is the baddies, the Apostles, aren’t terrorists but apocalypsists — they want to destroy the world and rebuild — and that the twisty-faced Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), mysteriously left breathing at the close of the last film, is bent on blowing everything to hell.
Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has to spring the hated Lane to trade for the plutonium he let slip from his grasp because he couldn’t sacrifice Luther (Rhames), so he has to dodge not just Apostles, but Angela Bassett from the CIA, her smug agent (Henry Cavill), a deadly mole whose identity isn’t much of a surprise, and Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust, who loves Ethan but has MI-6 on her ass. No, I couldn’t diagram it. But all you really need to know is that it comes down to a ticking clock; many amplified kicks and punches; and a bunch of actors grimacing at multicolored wires along with numbered dials approaching the single digits.
Cruise and McQuarrie have another agenda: to make the cocky, generally unlovable star into a figure of poignancy. Rhames’s Luther repays Hunt for saving his life by delivering a speech to Ilsa along the lines of, the man loves you but the man has been through so much with his ex-wife and saving the world and he’s alone and he’s hurting so be kind, be kind … Marcellus Wallace, R.I.P. The gist is that poor Ethan — and, by implication, poor Cruise — has suffered for us and will suffer still more, which I’m happy to report that he does, with bells on, heaving himself up the face of a cliff after a helicopter crash that would have killed a lesser-paid actor. We’re also sympathetic to Cruise because Cavill is so much prettier than he is and flaunts it.
Cruise doesn’t do love scenes, but as his nominal soul mate, Ferguson is as sleek and wittily self-contained as in Rogue Nation, which made her a star. She upstages everyone in the movie, possibly in the universe. Also a treat is Vanessa Kirby as the enigmatic but plainly fun-loving Widow. Cruise’s name might be high above the others in the credits, but he has the smarts to surround himself with actors we want to see and to drive his colleagues and crew to a finale that’s positively nuclear. Though not an especially attractive character, he leaves you no doubt as to why he’s a star.