Mission: Impossible — Fallout is, like every other entry in the M:I series, a well-paced action-thriller providing ample fodder for its ageless star, Tom Cruise, to wow us with virtuosic stunt work wrapped up in a modestly complicated plot.
Unlike every other entry in the M:I series, Fallout is a direct sequel, taking place after the events of 2015's Rogue Nation and bringing back familiar villains. While the last few films in the series have featured callbacks to Ethan Hunt's (Cruise) ill-conceived marriage to Julia Meade (Michelle Monaghan) in the third entry in the series, Fallout is a bit different in that its villain is more concerned with personal revenge than world-ending destruction, more interested in making Hunt pay than making the world a worse place.
Maybe this shift in focus would feel less abrupt if the plot weren't entirely predictable from the get-go. Hunt is trying to track down a batch of plutonium that will be used as nuclear bombs by the remnants of the group of ticked-off undercover agents from Rogue Nation. When Hunt and his team are unable to obtain the nuclear material, they are forced to make a trade: the bomb cores for the release of spy-turned-terrorist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the baddie from the previous film.
Hunt is paired up with stone-fisted spook August Walker (Henry Cavill), who promptly suggests that Hunt is actually an undercover mastermind criminal siphoning secrets out of the American intelligence community in order to pursue his evil plans. The CIA, you see, has been aware of a mole for some time and Walker, the new guy on the scene, is dead set on pinning it all on Hunt and well if you can't see where all this is headed then bully for you but boy howdy is the resolution to all this kind of obvious. So obvious, in fact, that I almost wonder if the lack of a twist isn't a twist in and of itself.
I don't generally have a ton of patience for the "well this was so predictable" critique—no one cares that you guessed what was coming, sparky—but in a spy thriller there should be some element of mystery, something that makes you go "huh." I mentioned this complaint to a critic friend, who replied that I was missing the point: The M:I movies don't really exist to make you go "huh" so much as "whoa." The plots, such as they are, exist solely in service of the stunts, the action, and the set pieces.
Judged solely on that level, Fallout is a success, and a rousing one at that: Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie delivers a fantastic fistfight, a superb car chase, and a vertigo-inducing helicopter pursuit while intermingling scenes of cunning espionage work of the mask-pulling sort. McQuarrie's development into a sure-and-steady action filmmaker is one of the more pleasant surprises of the last six years: even when the pace is frenetic his camera is never unfocused and he rarely resorts to jittery motion as a stand-in for excitement. I was, frankly, nervous while watching Cruise wrestle on the edge of a mountain cliff: the danger felt immediate, the scale of the IMAX screen onto which it was projected crushing.
The cast is charming—Simon Pegg has settled fully into his career as the slightly-overmatched-best-friend-who-always-has-a-bemused-look-on-his-face; Rebecca Ferguson's return as an undercover British operative whose moral flexibility is matched only by her physical flexibility is welcome—and the movie just zips along, feeling far shorter than its 2.5 hour running time.
And yet, despite the charm of the cast and skill of the stunts, I can't shake the feeling that dismissing the plot as beside the point—or suggesting it exists only to serve as an excuse for action, a reason to get Tom Cruise on top the Burj Khalifa or suspended from the floor of a touch-sensitive vault—renders the M:I flicks a more critically palatable version of the Transformers series, a stitched-together collection of set pieces that feel a bit hollow after the fact.
Then again, there's nothing wrong with a more coherent, more competent, more charming iteration of the Transformers movies. You could ask for much worse from your end-of-summer entertainment.