There’s an important question at the heart of “Mission: Impossible - Fallout”: When, exactly, did Tom Cruise become the American Jackie Chan?
Chan made his reputation in Hong Kong, and later in Hollywood, for doing his own death-defying stunts. Once, he nearly did die, filming “The Armour of God,” when he jumped to a tree branch, which broke and sent him falling 40 feet onto his head.
With the “Mission: Impossible” franchise — this one’s the sixth since the series started in 1996 — Cruise keeps raising the bar for outlandish stunts that are captured in a way that shows he’s the one doing them. Even in an age of computer-generated effects, where anything can be fudged or faked, Cruise’s dedication to keep it real is admirable, if a little bit insane.
But it’s all to the good, if it means white-knuckle entertainment like this latest installment, possibly the best of the lot, and certainly the one that captures the team dynamic and smart pacing of the original TV series.
The mission Cruise’s Ethan Hunt accepts at the start of “Fallout” is a continuation of the one that ended the last movie, “Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation.” That movie’s baddie, anarchist mastermind Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), is in custody, thanks to Ethan — and being bounced from country to country for interrogation. But his followers, who call themselves The Apostles, are working around the world, and have gotten hold of three spherical canisters of plutonium, with which they aim to carry out Lane’s master plan to build nuclear weapons.
Early on, Ethan gets his hands on the plutonium, but loses it — because he opted to save the life of his IMF teammate, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames). His boss, The Secretary, Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), wants to give Ethan and his team another chance to retrieve the plutonium. But the CIA director, Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett), will only approve if Ethan takes along her top assassin, August Walker (Henry Cavill), a mustachioed brute with a reputation for killing first and asking questions later.
Ethan, Luther and tech genius Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) are pursuing the never-seen controller of the Apostles, known only as John Lark, first in Paris and later in London. The Paris sequence is dominated by a hellacious vehicle chase through the streets of Paris, which reunites Ethan with Isla Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), the seductive MI-6 agent from “Rogue Nation,” who wants Lane for her own reasons.
Throughout it all, Ethan is plagued by demons. At night he dreams of his ex-wife, Julia Meade (Michelle Monaghan), dying because Ethan couldn’t protect her. And Walker is becoming convinced that years of being disavowed by his government has made Ethan snap, and that Ethan is the mysterious John Lark, in league with Lane.
Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, who directed “Rogue Nation” and Cruise’s first “Jack Reacher” movie, keeps the movie humming at peak performance. The plot delivers plenty of twists and turns, which come at the viewer at a rapid pace. The movie clocks in at just under 2-1/2 hours, but never feels stretched.
Of course, the fun of a “MIssion: Impossible” movie is the action sequences, and McQuarrie sets up some doozies, Cruise throws himself into the stunt work, trading punches with Cavill, jumping between rooftops, performing his own high-altitude skydiving, and learning to fly a helicopter for a hell-for-leather aerial chase scene. (Cruise broke his ankle during one of the rooftop jumps, and the shot's still in the film.)
The realism of Cruise’s stunt work — that gasp when you realize he’s doing these things himself — is what makes “Mission: Impossible - Fallout” so invigorating. It’s great to see a performer of Cruise’s stature risk life and limb for our enjoyment, and he seems to get a kick out of doing it.
‘Mission: Impossible - Fallout’
Opens Friday, July 27 in theaters everywhere. Rated PG-13 for intense action sequences, violence and brief strong language. Running time: 147 minutes.