'Mission: Impossible – Fallout'

The Mission: Impossible franchise spent July of 2018 being slobbered over by movie blogs and fanboys (and girls) worldwide. If life as we know it ends tomorrow, intergalactic archaeologists will one day wonder what M:I 6 is and why we didn't build more churches in its honor. That said, though the hype may not be justified and writer-director Christopher McQuarrie hasn't reinvented the wheel here, he has righted the ship with Mission: Impossible – Fallout and kept what might be Tom Cruise's final cinematic baby afloat.

For what feels like the first time in forever, Ethan Hunt (Cruise, duh) hasn't gone rogue. He's still viewed warily by CIA chief Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) and her assassin companion August Walker (Henry Cavill), but mostly he's in everyone's good graces. His mission is to find three missing plutonium cores before the returning Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) and the mysterious John Lark use them to contaminate a huge chunk of the world's water via nuclear weapons. And of course Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg) and Ethan's ex-wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) are back for varying levels of more as well.

For this sixth installment, Cruise and company have made the slightly odd choice to embrace continuity. Beyond some recurring cast members (Rhames chief among them) there had previously been what felt like a conscious effort to separate each entry. Fallout is the first M:I where seeing the last one matters. Harris and Rebecca Ferguson both reprise their roles from Rogue Nation, despite neither character being particularly memorable. It's not a necessity to revisit McQuarrie's first foray into Mission: Impossible; it just feels odd to mentally squint during an Ethan Hunt adventure, given how well these movies have rebuilt the world around our hero every other time.

Speaking of McQuarrie, Fallout does rise above the ho-hum Rogue Nation to assert him as a more-than-competent steward for the series. Going from J.J. Abrams to Brad Bird to McQuarrie, and then back to the The Usual Suspects writer, felt strange when announced. But though the movie sputters a bit at the end, a few inspired choices (including removing the music for several early fight scenes and focusing on the action) up both the realism and the intensity when it counts. It's a shame McQuarrie couldn't maintain those levels throughout, but the work as a whole is a step in the right direction.

Most of that is because of Cruise. It's remarkable what the 56-year-old puts himself through, insisting on performing many of his own stunts and—against all odds—powering what has become his franchise to continued relevancy. Ethan Hunt remains a blank slate, even after six movies. He's like a very small Terminator who is programmed to save the world and do the right thing, even if the two appear utterly at odds. Maybe this works because Cruise seems like an automaton in his own right; even though his star has faded in many ways, his deep-yet-unsettling charisma powers the emptiness of Hunt just enough to make all the pieces fit.

It may not surprise you to hear that Cavill ends up being one of the weak links. He's mostly meant to look large and menacing, making it even more absurd when he and Cruise go blow-for-blow, but any moments where he's forced to emote prove subpar. Without giving too much away, Superman is asked to bite off more than he can chew, and it's not exactly proof that there's life after the Justice League for Cavill.

Still, it's a Mission: Impossible movie. Though the recent praise was extreme (best franchise ever?!) few series are consistently this entertaining. Rogue Nation was a step back, for sure, but Fallout does just enough to regain our trust. To Cruise's immense credit, he seems to get how clever tweaks here and there—subverting a classic spy trope, or setting up a few good false-face reveals—can create at least the aura of freshness. It's the little things that count.