‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’ Review: Masterful Action Takes Ethan Hunt to Mythological Heights

Mission: Impossible – Fallout opens grungy, with Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) sleeping rough in a safehouse, suffering apocalyptic dreams of his wedding, interrupted by a mushroom cloud. From the start, Fallout picks Hunt apart, trying to peer inside a character resistant to examination after five movies of mythic labors.

James Bond has gone through this introspective impulse before, most recently with Daniel Craig’s 007, who exposed the superspy’s tuxedoed sophistication as a thin veneer covering a wrecking ball. But where the Bond series has gotten down in the muck, exposing the brutality of its protagonist’s methods—MI6 not so much assigning him, as letting him off a leash—Mission: Impossible has taken the opposite approach, deifying Hunt as mankind’s unbreakable savior. At several points, Fallout presents dark possibilities, alternate scenarios for the consequences of failure. How (not if) Hunt defies fate and rewrites, with sheer will, the world’s future, becomes the primary narrative tension—the question not so much whether or not Hunt will triumph, but just how high a scenario can be stacked against him.

The plot is flimsy—we’re chasing nukes again—but writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, returned from Rogue Nation (PSA: unlike the rest of the series, Fallout is in close-continuity with the previous entry), is by now expert at knotting new complications into straightforward plot points. He stacks body doubles, mask twists, assassination attempts and goons, then resolves them all in the next spectacular action sequence.

Fallout has several signature action stunts, including a HALO jump over Paris and bone-breaking jumps, all helpfully included in the opening credits so you know what you’re getting. But it’s a fight in a well-lit bathroom that most had me clenching my hands like angry Arthur. Pitting Hunt and a partner against one man, the fight is body-slamming, tile-destroying carnage, with a choreographic intensity rarely seen outside of The Raid movies. The action throughout is of a similar caliber. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is an unrelentingly consistent action movie, with not a single sequence wasted before the next big stunt.

Fallout may not have a sequence to match Hunt’s Burj Khalifa climb in Ghost ProtocolCruise kicking off the face of the world’s tallest skyscraper into an escape trajectory arc is the signature stunt of this decade at leastbut it has substantial advantages over the fourth Mission: Impossible (often declared the series’ best), most notably its abundance of worthy opponents, including the return of Rogue Nation’s The Syndicate leader, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), now sporting a frazzled detainee beard. But more than villains, Fallout throws up human obstacles, including kill-first-questions-later CIA chief Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett), MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), still trying to work her way back into the good graces of MI6 after the events of Rogue Nation, and Sloan’s right-hand assassin August Walker (Henry Cavill).

Fallout is downright labyrinthine in its shifting loyalties, with only Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) providing an unswerving core. Even Hunt is called into question, though Fallout treats it more like a fun counterfactual than daring to try and trick us. In one satisfying aside, we get a glimpse of a Hunt who’s thrown away his moral code and rampages freely. Sometimes Fallout can get more confusing than it actually is, especially when it indulges in a taste of the Shakespearean dramas playing out within the household of White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), an enigmatic philanthropist at the center of every deal.

But more often, because Hunt is an unstoppable, smiling battering ram, human nuance is outsourced to secondary characters to excellent effect. For much of the movie, Faust exists to disrupt Hunt’s plans—even if they seem to share some of the same objectives—popping up at inopportune moments, perhaps with a submachine gun. New character Walker becomes a more immediate foil, his pretty-boy mustache barely covering a brutalizing efficiency. Cavill and Bassett combine to become the perfect embodiment of the CIA, portrayed in Fallout as an organization at-odds with IMF and a parody of realpolitik prone to moral compromise, if not outright subversion, in the name of a compromised pragmatism—spywork adrift of Hunt’s holy mission.

mission-impossible-cia Henry Cavill and Angela Bassett play CIA agents impatient with Hunt's methods. Paramount Pictures

After six entries,  Mission: Impossible has certainly earned a little introspection, even when Hunt giving up a normal life to save humanity takes on an almost messianic aspect, largely because Fallout is open in its ambition. The interplay between Cruise, an actor who will do anything to entertain, and Hunt, who will do anything to save the world, is mingled cannily; the conflation of Hunt and Cruise performed to the extent that it improves the verisimilitude of the stunts, particularly in a climactic helicopter chase with Cruise at the stick.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout can feel a little more complexity-flavored than nuanced, but there’s no questioning its effectiveness as an action movie. Unlike the characterful, family reunion feel of the Fast and Furious movies, with their shaggy dog adventures, Mission: Impossible is as laser focused as an action movie can get.

“Your mission, should you choose to accept it. I wonder… did you ever choose not to?” Lane asks. He isn’t the only character to prod Hunt with the IMF assignment boilerplate, looking for some motivation behind a man who literally throws himself off buildings to get the job done. But how do you crack the interior life of a character who averts plagues and nuclear wars, whose existence is the single pivot point of world events, over and over?

Hunt gives one possible answer early in the movie, when Benji, shaking with nervous energy before a clandestine meeting, asks Hunt if he gets scared. Hunt doesn’t answer, just smiles. His indifference would be sociopathic if we didn’t know better: Hunt is a human-scale cipher not because there are hidden depths, but because he is wholly defined by action, a figment of IMAX psychology.