Credit: Chiabella James/Paramount Pictures

Much like its ageless star, the Mission: Impossible series shows no signs of running out of either breath or gas (laughing or high-octane) six movies in. As a professional tribe, we critics are supposed to hold our cards close to our vests. But I’d be lying if I didn’t cop to the fact that Fallout was the blockbuster I was most looking forward to this summer. Now, after seeing it, I can say that I’m not even remotely disappointed. It delivers. More than that, it’s proof that this has become the rare franchise that seems to just get better, twistier, and more deliriously fun with each installment.

By now, we’ve become accustomed to the M:I films’ signature million-dollar money shots — that one hairy, show-stopping sequence in each movie where Tom Cruise risks life and limb for our unquenchable appetite and armchair amusement. 2012’s Ghost Protocol had Cruise’s Ethan Hunt scaling the tallest skyscraper in the world, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, with nothing more than a pair of glitchy adhesive gloves. In 2015, Rogue Nation had the star fearlessly hanging by his fingernails from a Russian cargo plane as it sped down the runway and took flight. Fallout has a half dozen of those scenes. At 56, Cruise won’t be satisfied until the audience cries “Uncle” or he winds up in traction — or worse. He’s still Hollywood’s hungriest movie star.

Of course, what makes the M:I movies so wildly entertaining is that they offer more than just daredevil, without-a-net thrills. They’re as narratively ambitious and clever as Cruise’s death-defying stunts (his broken ankle might disagree), loaded with a cerebral workout’s worth of double- and triple-crosses. Twenty-two years after he first reinvigorated the hokey TV espionage series, these movies still fit the actor like a glove, defining him in a way that the Jack Reacher ones can’t and the Top Gun ones probably won’t. It’s time to at least start the conversation whether the M:I films have now eclipsed the Bond movies. It’s not as heretical an idea as it may seem.

Speaking of 007, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s Fallout is the closest the series has come to Ethan Hunt’s own Skyfall or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — the sequel that fills in the IMF agent’s personal backstory and the emotional sacrifices he’s made chasing the lunatic villains of the world. It’s a film with not just action, but stakes. Hunt’s rubber mask drops long enough to give us a glimpse of the humanity underneath. McQuarrie, who also helmed Rogue Nation, has an innate feel for the franchise and the character that matches Cruise’s while also tapping into the sort of Byzantine plot switchbacks he first showed off in his script for The Usual Suspects at the dawn of his career.

Briskly hopscotching from Belfast to Berlin and Paris to London as well as points East, Fallout pairs an uber-creepy old foe, Rogue Nation’s half-mad anarchist Solomon Lane, with a brand new threat. Played by Sean Harris with a shaggy Unabomber beard, a maniacal sadist twinkle in his eyes, and an insinuatingly weaselly Peter Lorre rasp of a voice, Lane literally haunts Hunt in his dreams. In a torrent of overly thickety exposition provided by Hunt’s boss (Alec Baldwin), we learn that Lane has hooked up with an anonymous terror zealot named John Lark. Lark plans to get his hands on a cache of plutonium and detonate a nuclear attack on the world with the help of a syndicate of doomsday operatives called The Apostles. Why would he do this? Well, why not since he already unleashed a plague of smallpox in Kashmir. Hunt’s mission — should he choose to accept it — is to stop Lark with the help of his trusty sidekicks Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg).

I realize that this set-up may sound fairly pedestrian. What, another psycho wants to nuke the Earth’s population? Again? But there’s so many terrifically smart gotcha fake-outs along the way and the pacing is so relentless, there’s no time to stop and parse any of it long enough to raise an eyebrow or an objection. Plus, you’re too busy trying to figure out the new characters’ angles and allegiances to care very much. One of them is Henry Cavill’s Walker (replete with non-CG mustache!) — an ice cool brute CIA operative whose been assigned to tag along with the IMF posse. Another is Vanessa Kirby’s White Widow, a shadowy femme fatale who’s as deft with a butterfly knife as she is mysteriously motivated. And then there’s Rebecca Ferguson’s returning Ilsa, who may or may not have switched sides.

The plot of Fallout is too elaborate to possibly spoil. At times, I could barely make sense of all of its moving watchworks parts. Thankfully McQuarrie and Cruise just keep tightening the vise and throwing jaw-dropping set pieces at you like confetti: skydives through lightning storms, adrenalized Ronin-like car chases, hand-to-hand brawls in toilet stalls, and the sort of vertiginous, cliffhanging scrapes with certain death that elevate it all above any of its tentpole peers. At this point in Hollywood’s franchise-fatigue cycle, it’s rare to see a sequel (nevermind a fifth one) one-upping itself. Fallout is a unique exception that defies our seen-it-all cynicism. It’s the kind of pure, straight-no-chaser pop fun that not only keeps taking your breath away over and over again, it restores your occasionally shaky faith in summer blockbusters. A

Mission: Impossible — Fallout
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