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Cruise in control with ‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’

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Come with me, won’t you? Come with me to a simpler time. To 1996, when sequels were considered mildly profitable punchlines and the idea of constructing massive cinematic franchises was largely contained to the Spielbergs and Lucases of the world.

That was the year we got “Mission: Impossible,” an adaptation of the 1960s television show of the same name. It was a Tom Cruise action vehicle that did well both commercially and critically and that could have been that. A pair of sequels that caught top-tier directorial talents either after their prime (John Woo for MI2 in 2000) or before it (J.J. Abrams for MI3 in 2006) made it seem like maybe we should stop.

Instead, the franchise has carried forward with three of the best action movies of the past decade. This unlikely wellspring has given us “Ghost Protocol,” “Rogue Nation” and the latest installment “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” … which might be the best one we’ve seen so far. It once again relies on coherent, well-executed action set pieces, a few moments of winking dialogue and – most importantly - Cruise’s complete willingness to hurl himself headlong into harm’s way if it might allow him to win our love.

Cruise is once again Ethan Hunt, noted IMF agent. He and his team – Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames, “Con Man”) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, “Ready Player One”) – are hard at work trying to take down the remains of the massive crime organization known as the Syndicate that they took down in the previous film. This includes tracking down some stolen plutonium before it can be used by one or more of these Syndicate outliers.

There are suspicions that former Syndicate head Solomon Lane (Sean Harris, “Possum”) may still wield some influence – particularly over a mysterious ideologue named John Lark and his so-called Apostles. Despite the support of his boss IMF Director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin, TV’s “The Looming Tower”), the US government doesn’t trust Hunt to come through this time, so CIA Director Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett, “Black Panther”) sends her own elite agent August Walker (Henry Cavill, “Justice League”) to accompany Hunt and his team.

He’s to meet with an arms dealer known as the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby, TV’s “The Crown”) to facilitate the plutonium handover. Of course, it isn’t that easy – the enigmatic Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson, “The Greatest Showman”) is also in the mix for reasons of her own … reasons she’s not necessarily all that anxious to share.

Deals go off the rails and alliances are forged and shattered. Friends become enemies and enemies become friends. Are there disavowals? YOU BEST BELIEVE THERE ARE DISAVOWALS. In the midst of it all, Ethan Hunt has to sprint and jump and drive and shoot and fight his way toward saving the world.

The last three “Mission: Impossible” entries have been excellent action movies, but it’s very possible that “Fallout” is the best of the bunch. There’s a depth of storytelling that exceeds that of most action fare, but it also avoids unnecessary complexity. Action films work best when their action is both well-made and in service to the plot; this movie weaves them together as well as any we’ve seen in the past decade.

A lot of that comes from Christopher McQuarrie, the film’s writer/director. He’s the first filmmaker to sit in the director’s chair more than once for this franchise, having written and directed 2015’s “Rogue Nation” as well. That continuity seems to have led to comfort, which in turn has led to confidence. He has lived in this universe for a while and so has a much stronger sense of what makes it tick. That, along with what is clearly a solid relationship with Cruise, has captured and enhanced the basic spirit of the films.

As for Cruise … what can I say? He somehow remains operating at peak or near-peak capacity despite the steady creep of years – he’s 56, which seems unbelievable – and still willing to lay everything out there to entertain the masses. His Ethan Hunt remains capable and engaging, full of charisma and prepared to break into a sprint at any given moment. His engagement in terms of the physical demands of the role is both impressive and vital; you can tell he’s actually doing a lot of this stuff. I honestly don’t know if there’s anyone in Hollywood who could do what he’s doing. He’s a marvel.

And the rest of the cast holds up their end. Rhames exudes an elder statesman-flavored cool that works wonderfully alongside Cruise. Pegg also brings his own vibe, leaning into his endearing twitchiness. Cavill is delightful as the dour and tough Agent Walker – nice to see him having fun for a change. Harris is even better as the baddie here than he was in the previous film. Ferguson is great and Kirby has some fun; Bassett and Baldwin are a couple of pros enjoying themselves and picking up a nice check.

Still, it’s all about Tom Cruise. And that’s good – more than anyone else out there, McQuarrie seems to have figured out the key to getting the most out of Cruise. They’ve made for a phenomenal team in the past; their collaborations just keep getting better – and “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” looks to be the best one yet.

[5 out of 5]

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