Mission: Impossible – Fallout understands exactly what an action movie starring Tom Cruise should be

Look at this maniac hanging off a real helicopter. Are you not entertained? (Paramount Pictures)

What is this strange creature called Tom Cruise? Who can explain why a 56-year-old man with a half-billion-dollar net worth insists on putting himself through hell doing outlandish stunts to amuse the masses every few years? Why are the results so entertaining?

Mission: Impossible – Fallout mainly exists as an opportunity to turn this human dynamo loose in various scenic locales to chase antagonists by any means of conveyance available. There is also a plot. Early on, we’re shown that Cruise’s Ethan Hunt isn’t very good at math or planning more than one step ahead: If someone he cares about is in danger, but saving that person puts millions of lives at risk, he’ll save his friend and deal with the consequences later. 

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Pitted against him are The Apostles. They have a plan to unite humanity through mass devastation of their own making. “The greater the suffering, the greater the peace.” Their math is dismal: trade perhaps a few hundred million lives for an end to all wars and a united planet. They think that’s what it would take to bring us together; presumably the consequences of international disunity on a warming and nuclearized planet would be worse. 

This is the best kind of villain: Not a megalomaniac seeking world domination, but a group with an ostensibly worthy goal whose cold logic would make the means to that end unspeakably horrific. The Apostles would have no trouble with the classic ethical dilemma: They’d push the fat man off the platform to stop the runaway trolley and save the innocent persons in its path. Ethan Hunt would first ensure the man was safe before flinging himself down onto the trolley, crash through the roof, and, through an instant and intuitive mastery of trolley controls, somehow jump the track and crash into a nearby depot, saving all involved – though breaking several ribs and puncturing a lung in the process. 

Mission: Impossible – Fallout might be the best installment yet in the big-screen reboot of the ’60s television series. The action is thrilling and the direction and performances hit the right notes. Cruise’s Hunt is the perfect character for the actor to play at this stage of his career. He is Cruise. A super-high-functioning, self-actualized workaholic with a mysterious inner life who wants to make you happy. Don’t buy him as a romantic lead anymore? That’s fine. He gets it. His longest sustained interaction with an actress with any hint of emotion is with a former love who has found a balanced and meaningful life with a new guy. Hunt endorses this, and she endorses his maniacal need to save the world. Not sure if you can trust him, with the whole Scientology thing and the backlash he’s experienced from it? The movie uses that too, with Hunt’s weird life and repeated betrayal by the government given as possible reasons that he may be the shadowy villain the Mission Impossible team is seeking. 

Cruise always does his own stunts. Some say that shouldn’t influence how we watch a scene, that the measure of a film is only what’s on the screen – that is, if a scene is shot with a stuntman or on a green screen, and you can’t tell the difference, then it doesn’t matter. Whether or not it should matter, it does. If you know that Cruise really broke his ankle jumping from a building – and that take is in the movie – or that he and co-star Henry Cavill completed more than 100 high-altitude jumps during the three minutes per day of available light for a sunset skydiving sequence, or that it’s really him on a BMW motorcycle threading the needle through precisely choreographed traffic in Paris – this elevates the film above the typical modern CGI spectacle. 

It’s the anti-superhero movie. Superheroes fly gracefully and collide with the force of megatons, but never really hurt one another. The movies, when they work, are interesting because the characters, like Greek gods, represent archetypal human conflicts on a supernatural stage. Their battles are ritual – a necessary, formalized part of the drama needed to advance the story.

Ethan Hunt is all too human. He’s in great shape for a guy in his 50s, but watch him run at top speed for what seems like several minutes, or climb a rope suspended from a helicopter, fall and painstakingly make his way back up  – these are scenes no one would think to use CGI for. They’re not graceful, but they work. There’s blood, sweat, pumping lungs, the collision of hard bone on unyielding concrete. You watch with sweaty palms and vertigo. The comparison of action movies to amusement park rides is a cliche, but apt. Genre movies work when they induce an involuntary emotional and/or physical response: laughter (comedy), fear (horror), enchantment (fantasy), and so on. If they marshal all the tools of film to create the intended effect, then they succeed. Fallout does this with style. Catch  it if you want to see big budget spectacle done right. 

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