I just don’t get it. How can almost every element in a movie be something we’ve seen before — over and over, since practically the dawn of the movies — and still convince audiences they’re experiencing it for the first time?
The rubber masks. The frenzied global datelines. Mad motorized scrambles through the capitals of Europe, the lack of knocked-over fruit carts the only visible sign we’re not watching this in 1946 or 1972. And of course a bomb or two that needs defusing, a countdown clock, and a red wire — or is it a green wire? — that needs cutting at just the right last second.
“Mission: Impossible — Fallout” has bits so old you practically have to scrape the moss off them, but that’s what writer-director Christopher McQuarrie has done. The sixth installment in the now-venerable movie series — it began way back in 1996, lifting off from the beloved 1960s TV show — is not just one of the best but, at its best, an exercise in pure action-movie propulsion and an essay in how to get from Point A to Point B in the most ingenious and exhausting way imaginable.
One of the series’ better jokes by now is that secret agent Ethan Hunt is finally showing some wear and tear, as is the man who plays him. Tom Cruise has been cast as Teflon Tom for so long that it’s cheering to see him get the worst of it in a fist fight or end a chase scene looking as though he has to vomit. “Fallout” saddles Hunt with a tagalong in the form of August Walker (Henry Cavill), a strutting (and, honestly, pretty dull) CIA operative for whom every interaction with his rival is a game of “Quien es mas macho?” In the movie’s various shoot-outs and dust-ups, Walker proves better than Hunt at the short game, and the question becomes whether our hero can even last to see the long game.
Of course he can. You know how these movies work, and larger narrative surprise is not their concern. Instead, McQuarrie understands that a “Mission Impossible” movie is made of pearls on a string — that their disposable pleasure lies in putting in Hunt and his fellow agents in a box with no exits and then watching them get out. Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the mad genius from “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” (2015), is in custody, but his evil minions, the Apostles, are still out there wanting to bring down Western Civ, and they’re abetted by an anonymous mastermind code-named John Lark, who’s angling for three stolen croquet balls of plutonium so he can fulfill Lane’s dark vision of nuclear disaster on the cheap.
Too much plot? I entirely agree, and so, I think, does McQuarrie. “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” will give us a bit of dialogue to orient the movie in the next required direction and then uncork an action sequence that relies equally on fluid camerawork (Rob Hardy), smart editing (Eddie Hamilton), scrupulous stunt choreography (Wade Eastwood), the judicious application of digital effects, game actors and stunt players, and a guiding directorial intelligence that allows audiences to hold the larger picture in its head while quietly goggling at the individual moments of mayhem and giggling at thematic variations.
This is a rare treat in our era of CGI excess and lazy storyboarding. To see an action sequence done cleanly and well — to be manhandled by experts in the service of nothing more than raising our collective pulse-rate — is to witness collaborative craftsmanship nudge closer to art. And it’s why, despite Cruise remaining the mechanical heart and battered soul of the “Mission: Impossible” films, despite old reliables like Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames as Hunt’s IMF teammates and Rebecca Ferguson returning as Ilsa, the badass super-agent sort-of-love-interest and Alec Baldwin and Angela Bassett as two of the most hands-on high-ranking government officials you’ll ever meet, despite the bewitching presence of British actress Vanessa Kirby (Princess Margaret on TV’s “The Crown”) as a character on loan from a James Bond film — how, despite all these fine human beings, the stars of “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” are as such:
The sequence in a gleaming white men’s room, seemingly designed as a fight club, in which Hunt, Walker, and an extremely capable subsidiary villain (Liang Yang) try to dispatch each other using only a detached P-trap from a bathroom sink.
The long, multi-leveled chase scene that unfolds across Paris as Hunt and company pretend to want to free Lane from an armored vehicle while simultaneously enacting a complicated 3-D high-speed chess game that involves cars, trucks, motorcycles, and other lovingly deployed vehicles going the wrong way around the Arc de Triomphe.
A desperate yet quite funny dash across the rooftops of London — and through the upper stories of office buildings — during which Cruise apparently fractured an ankle and you can practically hear the snap.
A thing with Wolf Blitzer that’s too good to spoil.
A climax that takes place amid the high snowy wastes of Kashmir (as played by New Zealand) that includes a delicate pas de deux of mangled helicopters, some hand-to-chair combat, a near-hanging, a few surprise appearances, an actual emotional payoff or two, and a cliffhanger so preposterous and so literal that you either willingly hand the filmmakers your disbelief or swear off action movies forever.
I know which side I’m on. “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” manages to make an antiquated property and an aging star look up-to-date by insisting on the adrenaline of the Right Now. It don’t mean a thing, but it sure has that zing.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — FALLOUT
Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Starring Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Rebecca Ferguson, Alec Baldwin, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Kirby. At Boston theaters, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX (Reading and Natick). 147 minutes. PG-13 (violence and intense sequences of action, and brief strong language)