Tom Cruise has been starring in “Mission: Impossible” movies for 22 years, and his character, un-killable super-spy Ethan Hunt, has been on the job for about the same length of time. Hunt isn’t an archetype like James Bond, kept forever young(-ish) by recasting the role and disregarding continuity. The things that happened to thirtysomething Ethan Hunt in 1996 (and since) have shaped the fiftysomething man he is now.
The deliriously exciting sixth chapter, “Mission: Impossible — Fallout,” isn’t the first episode to acknowledge the events of a previous one, but it’s the first to really consider their weight and bring all the chickens home to roost. A direct sequel to “Rogue Nation” (and again written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, the only repeat customer in this franchise), “Fallout” also has significant references to “III” and minor references to “I” and “Ghost Protocol.” Even “2,” everyone’s least favorite entry, is represented in the form of rock-climbing.
And Ethan? Oh, he’s pluggin’ away, running faster, falling farther, and clinging longer than ever before, as if trying to convince us (or himself) that he’s still got it. But it’s taking its toll. He has guilty nightmares about ruining the life of his one true love, Julia (Michelle Monaghan). When faced with a choice between saving one life and saving millions — which happens to him with alarming frequency — he’s still always unable to make the “correct” choice and save the millions. Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), the former CIA boss now heading the IMF, sees this as one of Ethan’s strengths: a savior of the world who cares about the one as much as the many. The new CIA boss, Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett), sees it as a weakness.
That’s partly why she insists on sending a CIA operative, August Walker (Henry Cavill), with Ethan and his team on the latest mission, which involves recovering plutonium from an anarchist group affiliated with the last movie’s baddie, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), who’s in custody getting the crap interrogated out of him. The only reason the anarchists have the plutonium is that Ethan let it out of his sight while saving Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg) — and yes, Ethan feels very bad about this, you don’t need to rub it in, ERICA SLOAN.
Ethan and Walker go to Paris in search of an enigmatic weapons dealer named John Lark, resulting in a slam-bang two-on-one fight that destroys most of a pristine white nightclub bathroom. Then it’s off to meet with a broker, called the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), who lays out her plutonium-possessing clients’ terms: They won’t sell it, but they’ll trade it for Solomon Lane. And you know who else wants Solomon Lane? Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), the kickass MI6 agent who was first introduced to us while working undercover for him.
So it’s business as usual, plotwise. But from the pre-titles vignette to the cliffside climax, McQuarrie and Cruise are determined to entertain us to within an inch of our lives, or die in the attempt. They pack the film with one adrenaline-charged sequence after another — a terrifying skydiving mission; a breathless motorcycle chase; close-quarters knife fights; abundant running, leaping, and climbing — and none of it ever feels extraneous to the story. McQuarrie favors long, unbroken takes, the better to show off that it’s usually Cruise himself and not a stuntman. In the chase scenes, the camera swoops in and out of Paris traffic in a way that made me fear for the camera operator’s life.
While Ethan Hunt’s psychology is at issue, the film isn’t dour or introverted, though it does have fewer lighthearted touches (and cool gadgets) than “Ghost Protocol” and “Rogue Nation” did. McQuarrie has found a way to bring the elements of the series together — despite each chapter having been conceived separately, with no master plan — and to provide satisfying resolution for the main character without adopting a grave tone. This would be an appropriate finale if the series ended now, but I suspect Cruise (who’s also the producer) has more ideas for how to nearly kill himself for our pleasure. I can’t wait!
B+ (2 hrs., 27 min.; )