The goals of the Mission: Impossible franchise are admirably limited in ambition: The lobby after the film ends is meant to ring with commentary such as “It was cool when the wrecked helicopter was dangling off the cliff by a hook.” “Yeah, and then it fell!” You don’t get to grumble about plausibility; this isn’t Mission: Unlikely. What nettles me is how fantastic the combination of coincidence and luck must be to keep saving Hunt, Ethan, bacon of. I want him to maneuver his way out of everything. He does a fair amount of that. He has a few aces up his sleeve. Half of them just come straight from the dealer, though. Which is another way of identifying lazy screenwriting.
Still, I’ll give Mission: Impossible: Fallout, which hits theaters July 27, a passing, slightly higher grade than the previous two entries, Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation, mainly on the basis of a terrific triple-cross in the middle of the movie that actually gives Alec Baldwin something better to do than bark at Ethan that this time he’s really on his own. Another selling point: When Ethan (Tom Cruise, still sparkly fresh at age 56) climbs into a helicopter to go after a nuclear detonator that is a few minutes from causing the deaths of a third of the population of the world, it turns out he doesn’t know how to fly it. I edged forward in my seat: There’s something Ethan can’t do? The series would be a lot more interesting if there were more of these moments. Alas, he figures it out too quickly. When the instincts of writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (who wrote The Usual Suspects and also some good movies) and Cruise (the producer and main engine of the M:I series) lean in opposite directions, Cruise wins. That’s also probably the way the audience likes it. Fair warning, though: This movie contains a significant dose of Wolf Blitzer. It’s an appearance that he will be dining out on for the rest of his life.
The film centers on a chilling question: What might be worse than terrorism? The answer is an anarchist outfit called the Apostles: They deride terrorists as “schoolboys.” The anarchists don’t want anything from you. They desire merely to kill as many human beings as possible, start a cleansing fire to restore the earth. To this end they go to a target-rich environment: Asia. The water resources in and around Kashmir, we’re told, sustain the lives of a couple billion people. A nuclear bomb detonated there would kill a lot more people than one in, say, the United States or Europe. The terrorist’s response to this prospect would be to shift uneasily in his boots and picture such an out-of-town episode disappearing from CNN the next time a White House press secretary quits. The anarchists, though, don’t care about media coverage.
When Ethan (Tom Cruise, still sparkly fresh at age 56) climbs into a helicopter to go after a nuclear detonator that is a few minutes from causing the deaths of a third of the population of the world, it turns out he doesn’t know how to fly it.
Since Kashmir is a bit dusty for cinema purposes, first we’re off to Paris and London for some motorcycle chases and shootouts. Ethan, aided mightily by his teammates (Henry Cavill, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames), hopes to subdue and impersonate (by making a mask out of his face) an anarchist named John Lark who may or may not be meeting in person with a posh mayhem broker nicknamed the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby of Netflix’s The Crown) with an eye toward buying three stolen plutonium spheres. Things go wrong and Ethan winds up impersonating the anarchist, but then things go right because the White Widow doesn’t know what the guy looks like. Lucky Ethan! Also, together he and the White Widow kill a dozen or so heavies chasing her: In other words, the good guy teams up with a bad girl to mow down a bunch of the latter’s enemies. Shouldn’t there be a spy equivalent of the parable of Chesterton’s Fence? Maybe you shouldn’t kill people unless you know exactly who they are. Otherwise you might just be eliminating allied CIA or MI6 types.
The plutonium is not for sale; it can be purchased only with a trade for Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the leader of the diabolical Syndicate, who is currently in police custody. Ethan must “extract” him without killing any of the good guys holding him. Cue chase scene: motorcycles racing the wrong way against traffic around the Arc de Triomphe. Meanwhile, Ethan is under suspicion of secretly being the anarchist he’s trying to capture, and his assassin frenemy Ilsa is being ordered by MI6 (okay, this movie is M:I 6, but they mean British intelligence) to foil Ethan by capturing or killing Lane. In the effort, she misses several potshots that a gentleman grouse hunter, let alone a trained super-assassin, would easily have made, but as mentioned, Ethan is a lucky fella. (So is Lane: He survives more varieties of assassination attempts than Rasputin.)
It’s all pretty much as usual, maybe with a tad less of the truly eye-rolling moments, such as Ethan hanging onto a flying jet by his fingernails, as he did in Rogue Nation. The action scenes (especially that motorcycle chase) are for the most part more frenetic than exciting, with the exception of that spectacular helicopter finale over the cliffs of Kashmir, which is a ripping good time. The M:I franchise is now 22 years old, but it isn’t folding anytime soon.