Tom Cruise may be the greatest cinematic runner of all time, but the secret of the Mission: Impossible series is that he never really gets anywhere. In 1996’s Mission: Impossible, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has to combat forces within his own government to uncover the identity of a rogue agent known only by a pseudonym, outwitting the CIA and forging an uneasy alliance with a female black-market dealer as he sacrifices what few personal relationships he has in pursuit of the truth. In 2018’s Mission: Impossible—Fallout, he does … pretty much the same thing, this time chasing down a shadowy anarchist known as John Lark who’s convinced the way to foment world peace is to set off a bunch of nuclear bombs. (The details are a little fuzzy.) Lark is aided by the traitorous former IMF agent Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), despite the fact that Ethan captured him at the end of the previous installment, 2015’s Rogue Nation. Governments come and go, but in the world of stateless actors that Ethan and the IMF inhabit, the players never really change, and all victories are provisional at best.
Fortunately, so are the defeats. The key to Cruise’s run, and of the action set pieces for which the M:I movies have become famous, is that he doesn’t make them look too easy. He wants us to see him sweat, to the extent that the first movie’s Langley infiltration—still the series’ highlight, despite some formidable competition—is nearly foiled by an errant drop of perspiration. What distinguishes Ethan, what keeps him alive, isn’t super-spy suaveness or elaborate counter-counterplots (although the series has plenty of both) so much as it is his brute determination to succeed. 2011’s Ghost Protocol, which revitalized the series after two scattered sequels, made a running gag out of Ethan being deserted by the nifty gadgets that had been the franchise’s stock in trade; and in Fallout, his mantra, uttered as he’s rushing into some half-formulated plan, is “I’ll figure it out.”
Although it’s the first film in the series to be credited to a single writer-director—Christopher McQuarrie, returning from Rogue Nation—Fallout often feels as if it’s being made up as it goes along. Provocative ideas, like the indication that the film’s villains are “fiercely antireligious” and slobber at the prospect of nukes being simultaneously triggered in the world’s holiest cities, are raised and apparently forgotten about, although a chase across London’s rooftops takes him on a brief detour through St. Paul’s Cathedral, followed by a scramble up the Tate Modern’s tower. The movie sets up in its first scenes a tension between saving individuals and saving the world, a choice Ethan tacitly makes when he lets three spheres full of plutonium slip away rather than sacrifice a teammate’s life. But that action-movie gloss on the trolley problem too slips away, even when Ethan is pitted against a CIA operative, played by Henry Cavill, who’s much more inclined to leave a trail of corpses behind him.
McQuarrie leans heavily on the relationships established in previous movies, especially Ethan’s bond with his ex-wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), and his smoldering but unresolved sexual tension with Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust, such a badass she very nearly lives up to her name. (Even the best the M:I movies largely function as delivery systems for action sequences, so following the plot is, in Fallout as always, optional, but at least a passing familiarity with Rogue Nation is recommended if you want to keep this one straight.) Perhaps there are people carrying around residual feelings for these characters beyond how fetching they look aiming sniper rifles and dangling over cliffs, and perhaps they’ll derive some pleasure from Fallout’s tangled middle section, a knot of misdirections and double crosses that eventually deposits us exactly where we thought we’d end up. You can’t help but feel for the character who spits, “Why do you have to make this so fucking complicated?”
Where it counts, though, Fallout is fiendishly simple. Although the series started out as a haven for visual stylists like Brian De Palma and John Woo, the films have become more solidly satisfying as they’ve passed into the hands of tempered technicians like McQuarrie and Brad Bird. The M:I films share with the Fast and the Furious series a preference for practically based stunts over computer-generated spectacle, and Fallout’s are consistently among the series’ best. There’s nothing here as ingenious as the Langley heist or as visually impressive as Ghost Protocol’s Burj Khalifa climb, and its thrilling three-part climax is tainted slightly when one of its strands ends by photocopying the best part of The Lost World. But for a massive summer tentpole, Fallout’s pleasures are gratifyingly straightforward, direct without being dumbed-down. It’s a meat-and-potatoes banquet, one that doesn’t need to be interesting to be satisfying.