Starring Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg and Henry Cavill. Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie.

“Julia Roberts not smiling is like Tom Cruise meditating,” cracked the legendary Pauline Kael in one of her more gleefully nasty bon mots. And though I admire both of those actors far more than Kael ever did, the quip crossed my mind somewhere around the second time Cruise’s Ethan Hunt snapped awake from a nightmare during Christopher McQuarrie’s impressive, if unnecessarily laborious Mission: Impossible – Fallout. I’ve enjoyed watching this beautifully performed cipher of a character pull off absurd stunts for the past twenty-two years, but I’m not exactly invested in Ethan’s dreams.

According to a dear colleague of mine, “this is the first Mission: Impossible that makes it feel like the other movies have consequences,” which probably explains why I wasn’t all that crazy about it. Cruise’s grand franchise began as a director’s showcase, where the superstar producer allowed looney tune talents like Brian De Palma and John Woo to run wild with his patented persona and the remnants of a barely-remembered television program. (De Palma’s cool, clammy first film killed off the whole crew and spun the show’s hero, Jim Phelps, into the villain. It was a move akin to Captain Kirk murdering everyone on the U.S.S. Enterprise and unthinkable today in a creative climate where artists are obligated to indulge and genuflect before the dull wishes of pathetic “fans” at conventions.)

The fun thing about these Mission: Impossible movies was that they all had different directors and blessedly little to do with one another. We could just check in every few years or so to see what sort of ridiculous shit Tom Cruise found to dangle himself from this time, without worrying about world-building or serialized storytelling. (You could even pretend, like I do, that J.J. Abrams’ shockingly shoddy-looking third picture never happened.) I especially enjoyed Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol and McQuarrie’s Rogue Nation because they were essentially comedies — the slapstick adventures of a Nietzschean Superman versus the laws of physics. 

As the first direct sequel in the series and the first to be helmed by a returning director, Fallout is primarily concerned with the erm, fallout from Rogue Nation, which from a story standpoint probably isn’t such a hot idea considering how I’ve seen that picture six or seven times and I’m still a little iffy on particulars of the plot. 

Anyhow, there’s a deflatingly lame early standoff during which Ethan loses track of three plutonium globes while trying to rescue his team. (Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames are back, but Jeremy Renner must be taking a gap year from his franchises as he’s AWOL like in Infinity War.) The rest of the movie sticks Ethan and company under the supervision of Henry Cavill’s surly, magisterially mustachioed CIA agent, running and jumping and punching their way around all sorts of exotic locales trying to get their nuclear balls back.

More than any other installment, Fallout is interested in what makes Ethan run. His psychology remains a subject of precious little interest to me, despite the return of Rebecca Ferguson’s mysterious Ilsa, who in Rogue Nation elicited a spark from Cruise that he seldom shares with actresses. Alas, she’s overshadowed here by the smoldering sexual tension between Cruise and Cavill, something McQuarrie slyly kids by setting their first fight scene inside a Eurotrash disco men’s room. This knock-down, drag-out bout is probably the movie’s best set-piece, the grace with which Cavill sheds his sport jacket and cocks his arms like shotguns providing the most iconic moment in a movie strangely short on them.

The other action sequences are breathtaking on the level of execution, if not inspiration. Cruise’s face is so clearly visible during the most insane stunts a friend of mine spent the entire movie muttering in awe, “Do you believe this fuckin’ guy?” There’s nobody who works harder to entertain you than Tom Cruise, and he’s gonna make sure every bit of that exertion is up there on the screen. You can’t not appreciate the effort, long may he run.

Yet this all makes me feel like a bit of a spoilsport for pointing out the movie is lacking any single image as indelible as its star hanging from the Burj Khalifa in Ghost Protocol’s centerpiece sequence or from the side of that airbus in Rogue Nation’s can-you-top-this opening. (There’s also nothing nearly as left-field funny as the way he got out of that plane.)

The film’s final set-piece features callbacks to all the other installments, in keeping with a valedictory emphasis on continuity that includes Vanessa Kirby playing the granddaughter of Vanessa Redgrave’s character from the first film and the return of Michelle Monaghan, who played Cruise’s wife in the third. As has become fashionable in franchise films, Ethan Hunt is weighed down by his history like 007 in Skyfall and Spectre. I also felt a distinctly Nolan-esque ponderousness creeping into the proceedings, with Lorne Balfe’s Hans Zimmer-knockoff score forsaking Lalo Schifrin bongos for Dark Knight droning.

At two-and-a-half hours Fallout is a good deal heavier and more imposing than it needed to be, missing the two previous pictures’ sense of play. (These aren’t the kind of films that should be killing off funny characters.) Gone is the tongue-in-cheek glory of Alec Baldwin referring to Hunt as “the living manifestation of destiny,” replaced here by more earnest and pedestrian testimonials, delivered with a frequency suggesting the star-producer may not actually be in on the joke.

Sigh, but if only every disappointing genre picture existed on such an impeccable level of craft! In many respects Mission: Impossible – Fallout is what I wish every ordinary action movie would strive to be. I just wish this one wasn’t striving to be such an ordinary action movie.

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