Hyperbole isn’t hyperbole if it’s true and calling Mission: Impossible – Fallout, the sixth entry in the seemingly never-ending spy-action films starring the ageless Tom Cruise, one of the best, if not the best, action film of the last decade isn’t hyperbole (because it’s true). Comparing Mission: Impossible – Fallout to The Dark Knight, rightly considered one of the best action films of the new millennium, isn’t out of bounds either. It’s not inaccurate to call Mission: Impossible – Fallout the equivalent of The Dark Knight in the Mission: Impossible series. It just took six films and two decades to accomplish what Christopher Nolan did in two films spread across three years. That’s not a knock on Mission: Impossible, Tom Cruise, the fittest 56-year-old in human history, or his manic, otherwise questionable willingness to risk life and limb to deliver CGI-free (mostly) physical stunts without equal in modern moviemaking, but simply a recognition that the Mission: Impossible series, for all of their commercial and critical success, have leaned too hard on Cruise’s charisma and risk-taking personality.
Action wise, Mission: Impossible – Fallout delivers 7-8-9-10 different set pieces, each one building on or leading to the next, with scattered quiet moments set aside to deliver plot exposition and move the story forward. Each set piece, however, has been meticulously planned, choreographed, and executed, from the opening scene, a tense, suspenseful exchange between Cruise’s superspy, Ethan Hunt, sidekick No. 1, Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), sidekick No. 2, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and a black market arms dealer selling three plutonium spheres. As expected, the exchange goes sideways. Hunt, Benji, and Luther barely escape with their lives, but the plutonium falls into the hands of a radical, anarchist splinter group, the “Apostles,” created and presumably led by Hunt’s bearded nemesis, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), captured at the end of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation and held in isolated detention at super-secret black sites since.
Like the TV series that loosely inspired its big-screen counterpart, the Mission: Impossible films have been more or less standalone features, minus recurring characters like Dunn or Stickell. The return of Lane marks the first time a (super) villain has made a second appearance in the series. He’s still the villain, though his imprisonment makes him a passive villain, dependent on his ultra-secret agents in the field, including the mysterious “John Lark,” to execute his plans to take down the old world order via violence and chaos and replace it with a new, never defined world order. Look closely enough at Lane, a master manipulator of men and minds with a creatively destructive agenda, and you might see echoes of The Dark Knight’s interpretation of the Joker (the late Heath Ledger) minus the grease paint, of course. Like the Joker, Lane (rhymes with “Cain”) sees himself as an agent of chaos. He also sees Hunt not just as his arch-nemesis he wants to defeat, but an arch-nemesis he wants to see suffer by targeting those closest to Hunt.
One particular set piece, a daring daylight kidnapping attempt also contains echoes of the police convoy scene from The Dark Knight, but before we get too lost in playing the compare-and-contrast game between the two films, it’s important to note that Mission: Impossible – Fallout actually gives Hunt a meaningful, if surface-deep, character arc. Hunt has to repeatedly face what he considers a weakness: When push comes to shove (in a knife- or gun-fight), Hunt can’t make the anti-Spockian choice: For Hunt, the needs of the many (millions), doesn’t – and never can – outweigh the needs of the few (his inner circle). That weakness plays out repeatedly (he saves Luther early on, only to lose the plutonium), leaving the world at risk and IMF boss Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) with little choice but to give in to Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett), the new CIA director, and the decision to add a fourth, unwanted member to the recover-the-plutonium mission, August Walker (Henry Cavill), a blunt, brute-force CIA operative with orders to contain and/or eliminate Hunt and his team if needed to recover and safeguard the plutonium. Along the way, Hunt crosses path with the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), an international broker with a purely self-interested agenda, and ex-MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). Faust has a mission and agenda of her own.
Like previous entries – and the James Bond template that inspired the big-screen Mission: Impossible series – Hunt and his team never stay in one location for too long in and around Europe (mostly London and Paris) and Kashmir, the site of the extended, third-act climax that involves every spy- and action-film cliché imaginable, including the proverbial ticking time bomb, a helicopter chase through the mountains, and ultimately, a literal cliffhanger (because two of Cruise’s major talents involve running all-out and hanging precariously from natural and non-natural objects). Clichés, though, are clichés for a reason: They often work and between returning writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s (Edge of Tomorrow, Jack Reacher, The Usual Suspects) storytelling and set-piece skills, Cruise’s obsessive, compulsive desire to sacrifice everything to entertain moviegoers, Rob Hardy’s (Annihilation, Ex Machina, Boy A) carefully composed cinematography, and Lorne Balfe’s (Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, Crysis 2) propulsive Han Zimmer-inspired score (not to mention an All-Pro cast of supporting players), the result is nothing less than the best entry in the series, the best movie of the summer, and quite possibly one of the best action films of the last decade.