In “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” the sixth installment of the espionage-action franchise, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt receives his latest instructions by way of an old-fashioned tape recorder nestled inside an edition of Homer’s Odyssey.
It’s a quaint nod to the 1960s TV show on which the “Mission: Impossible” movies are based – movies that have become so expansively scaled, preposterously plotted and implausibly choreographed that they merit renaming. Presumably, “Mission: Irrational,” “Mission: Did He Really Just Do That?” and “Mission: OK Now You’re Just Messing With Us On Purpose” were taken.
Still, even its most irritating parts don’t fatally damage a whole that works amazingly well, despite its own excesses. It’s an efficient, attractive delivery system for the kind of spectacle we’ve come to expect from Cruise, who famously insists on doing his own stunts and most likely has a motorcycle chase permanently written into every contract.
As “Fallout” opens, Ethan is marking time in Dublin, waiting for his next assignment from the Impossible Mission Force and fighting the guilt that’s been troubling him since his separation from his wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan). But the brooding thoughts are banished soon enough, when Ethan is tasked with tracking down some errant plutonium, and bringing to heelhis arch-nemesis Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the leader of a freelance terrorist network.
It would all be easy-peasy if it weren’t for Ethan’s pesky moral conscience, which leads him to lose said plutonium, an error that leads Angela Bassett’s gimlet-eyed CIA chief to assign Ethan a minder, a ramrod-straight operative named Walker. Portrayed by Henry Cavill in a handsomely wooden performance, the mustachioed, perfectly tousled Walker makes an amusing foil both for Ethan’s competitive instincts and his altruism, which in the first hour of “Fallout” are played for laughs, but also thrills in the form of a daring midair parachute rescue. But that bit of business soon pales as bloody gun battles, car chases, a rooftop foot race, a helicopter chicken-fight and a literal cliffhanger ensue, all accompanied by bass-heavy “womps” that sound like outtakes from “Inception” at its most deafening.
The stunts, staged by writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, grow wilder as “Fallout” goes on. And, admittedly, they’re a hoot. But, as with all the “M: I” movies, the heart of the film lies with Cruise, who at 56 refuses to obey the laws of aging, logic or simple gravity. With just a bit of facial puffiness proving he’s not hiding a portrait in an attic somewhere, he exhibits the same all-out commitment in “Fallout” that he does in every film he’s in, whether it’s a slick blockbuster or semi-indie (check out “American Made”).
As a superspy with an irritating messiah complex, Cruise brings a work ethic as solid as the movie’s narrative ethic is hectic, generously and subtly conducting an outstanding supporting cast that includes “M: I” veterans Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson and Alec Baldwin. Some of “Fallout’s” most delicious scenes, though, feature Cruise and Vanessa Kirby, leaving behind her Princess Margaret persona from “The Crown” to play a fascinatingly saucy minx of indistinct motivation.
What makes “Mission: Impossible” beloved – and what has allowed it to supplant the James Bond brand as a destination for action-with-a-little-fun – is its playfulness; there are at least two amusing set pieces of misdirection that give “Fallout” extra fizz, even if they’re as clunkily obvious as who the real villain is. Set against some magnificent locales in Paris, London and Kashmir, this is a great-looking example of Hollywood cheese at its most voluptuous and toothsome.
Yes, “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” is big, brash and completely nonsensical. But, as someone once sang, that’s entertainment.