The summer is supposedly the time of year for “dumb action movies.” Some films these days even seem to wear that description as a badge of honor. “This stuff’s not supposed to make you think! Just turn your brain off and enjoy!”

Not the Mission: Impossibles. They stand out in a crowded summer marketplace because they are smart action movies: Cleverly plotted and ingeniously constructed, with sharp dialogue, surprising twists, and inventive set pieces that flow effortlessly and relentlessly from one to the next. The last two Missions have been directed by their writer, Christopher McQuarrie, and they feel like the work of a filmmaker with a screenwriting background. They are not just vapid excuses for explosions and gunplay; they’re actual stories with real characters, and the action builds organically from their struggles. If you turn your brain off in one of McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible movies, you’ll miss some of the best stuff.

His latest is called Mission: Impossible – Fallout, although Mission: Suicide would have worked too given how absurdly dangerous the stunts look and how high the stakes are this time for Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his Impossible Mission Force. They’re on the trail of a trio of nuclear weapons stolen by a group of evil spies known as “The Apostles.” They want to tear down society in order to build a new, better world. Hunt and his IMF backup Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) will need to locate the warheads, along with the Apostles mysterious leader John Lark, all while being shadowed by a CIA agent (Henry Cavill) who distrusts Hunt and thinks the IMF’s unorthodox methods and old-fashioned morality represent the real threat to world peace.


There is something charmingly retro about Ethan Hunt and his refusal to sacrifice even one innocent life to preserve millions of others  as is the earnestness with which McQuarrie and Cruise put forward their message about saving the world without sacrificing your principles. A movie based on a 50-year-old TV show is the perfect delivery vehicle for that sort of message, and Cruise, who’s been making Mission: Impossible movies for 20 years, adapting each one to the tastes of their time without adjusting Hunt’s values even an iota, is its perfect messenger.

The first Mission: Impossible, directed by Brian De Palma, was largely a stylish update and expansion of the old television series about a loose collection of covert operatives. Around the fourth Mission the film franchise began to mutate into something different, one in which the title seemed to refer equally to Ethan Hunt and to Cruise himself, along with his insatiable need to one-up himself with new death-defying feats. It’s hard to believe he could ever top dangling off the side of the tallest building in the world, as he did in the centerpiece sequence of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, but Fallout’s bravura finale might actually do it.

It features three different threads of parallel action, including Tom Cruise dangling from a helicopter’s skids hundreds of feet off the ground and piloting a chopper in a breathless chase. The fate of the entire world is at stake, along with the lives of several crucial characters we care dearly about. From top to bottom, it is spectacular. And that’s not even the part of Fallout where Tom Cruise actually jumps off a building, breaking his ankle in the process. (That shot’s in the movie, as is the next shot, where Cruise drags his broken body onto the roof and clears camera before collapsing so he wouldn’t have to do another take on one leg.)


While Fallout is still very much The Tom Cruise Does Reckless Things For Our Amusement Show, the film’s ensemble is superb as well. Cavill is a great foil for Cruise, and Rhames and Pegg have cultivated a perfect banter rhythm after years of making these movies. Alec Baldwin has most of Fallout’s best lines as Hunt’s new boss, and Angela Bassett is lovably stern as the latest in a long line of bureaucrats who distrust the IMF (the last one was played by Alec Baldwin; he eventually had a change of heart). Rebecca Ferguson, who joined the franchise in McQuarrie’s Rogue Nation as the mysterious British agent Ilsa Faust, also makes a welcome return to perplex and tantalize Hunt again.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation was McQuarrie’s biggest project as a director to date, and at times he seemed a little overmatched by the demands of a gigantic action spectacle. His direction of Fallout feels far more comfortable and confident, not to mention much more clear; a bathroom brawl between Hunt, Walker, and a key bad guy, for example, might be the best fistfight in any of the six Mission: Impossibles. And McQuarrie’s uncommonly good at parceling out plot information. He knows precisely what to tell you and what to hide, what to let you think you know, and when to surprise you by revealing you were wrong all along. (He is the guy who wrote The Usual Suspects, after all.)

McQuarrie’s control of pacing is impressive too. Almost every previous Mission: Impossible peaked early; their best action sequences typically came at their midpoints, and their finales became a little anticlimactic. Fallout starts relatively slowly and builds to that nail-biting, jaw-dropping helicopter climax. While Cruise is known for his onscreen sprints, Fallout is more of a marathon; once Hunt gets his mission briefing, the film rarely lets up for the next two and a half hours. You have to be pretty smart to put together this kind of intricate puzzle, and to sustain it in such shamelessly entertaining fashion.

Cruise and his legendary intensity have now sustained the Mission: Impossible franchise for over 20 years. And after two decades, Fallout might be the finest film in the series. (To me, it’s a toss-up between this and Ghost Protocol.) Either way, Mission: Impossible is clearly the best ongoing action franchise in the world. And nothing else even comes close.

Additional Thoughts:
-Between Ilsa Faust, Hunt’s long-suffering (but largely absent) wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan), and returning bad guy Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), Fallout is probably the most direct sequel in the franchise. You don’t need to see Rogue Nation to follow it, but it helps.

-If you can see Fallout in real IMAX, do it. The helicopter stuff alone justifies the cost of the ticket.

-Movie pitch: A remake of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, starring Tom Cruise as himself.


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