In the short period of time that Mission: Impossible - Fallout has existed out in the world, the claim "it's the best action film since Mad Max: Fury Road" has gone from being a fun bit of hype-raising and a useful comparison to a lifeless cliché to a symptom of unmitigated critical groupthink, and yet here I go again: because it is the best action film since Fury Road, at least in the English language. That doesn't honestly tell us too very much: in the three years in question, the only films that I'd even consider its competition are John Wick: Chapter 2, Atomic Blonde, and Fallout's immediate predecessor, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation.* But the comparison gets at something deeper than just providing pullquotes for movie posters. Fallout is, like Fury Road, a whole fucking lot of movie, hitting full speed fairly early on and never really easing off the gas until its final scene. In the meanwhile, there are many stunts, mostly done practically with some CGI embellishments, that make a mockery out of every stunt you have ever seen otherwise in a motion picture. And while I of course cannot predict that anybody else will have the same response, I personally left both movies feeling totally exhausted and overstimulated, the way that happens when you crash really hard after a caffeine high. In a good way.

The sixth entry in the 22-year-old film franchise based on the 52-year-old television series is, against all good sense, the best and most enormously ambitious one so far. It's also the first one made by a returning director, and I think this is no coincidence. Part of the pleasure of the movies to date have been seeing how different filmmakers have interpreted the same basic material: Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), agent of the Impossible Mission Force, a top-secret U.S. intelligence organisation, has to do ludicrous things in beautiful places all over the world in order to stop a megalomaniac from destroying things. When it was first announced that Rogue Nation director Christopher McQuarrie would be coming back for Fallout, I was one of those people slightly disappointed that we weren't going to get yet another perspective on the series. But instead, we've gotten somebody with experience, somebody who's figured out how to play with these toys, and now gets to start going crazy with them. The result is the first Mission: Impossible with the training wheels off, and I had never had the slightest clue that there were training wheels on the other films, but this really is operating at some wholly unimaginable level. I offer as an example: the big "isn't this AMAZING" stunt that was foregrounded in the marketing for Rogue Nation involved Cruise clinging to the side of a plane as it took off. There's a stunt late in Fallout - God damn me if I give away any of the details - that also involves clinging precariously to an air vehicle, and it is a stunt that in and of itself is better than that plane scene. It is also such a small, throwaway moment within the overall context of Fallout's final act that it hardly registers as being very impressive in the scheme of things.

If I have so far implied that Fallout is basically just a bunch of stunts lined end to end, well, that's kind of accurate. I do not agree with those who hold that the film has a bad script; I truly don't know what the film would do with a better script, given that it's only really looking to do one thing: glue together enormous-scale action sequences with some snazzy international espionage twists and turns. Even the eruption of twists and turns and double-crosses that pile up in the middle is less about "the story" as such. It's there because movies like this have elaborate, confusing twists - it's basically narrative spectacle to go along with all of the jawdropping action and stuntwork. Certainly, I can think of no other reason for the film to dump so many reveals into one dense scene, and particularly since it has rather gone out of its way to tell us in advance what the single biggest reveal is in the whole story (I won't say what it is, only that there's a close-up that can only conceivably serve to make sure the audience knows that somebody is lying fairly early on - it's never spelled out in dialogue, but it's otherwise completely unsubtle). It's basically the Vertigo trick: spoil the surprise for the audience so we get to enjoy the "how" of things rather than the "what". It's a celebration of the fact that spy movies are convoluted that never pretends that we don't know that Ethan Hunt is going to save the day, and so who really gives a fuck about the details, as long as the story has enough gas in the tank to keep moving forward?

And oh, move it does! Two years after Hunt and his IMF team captured terrifyingly smart, implacable megalomaniac Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), Lane's international criminal group The Syndicate has rebranded itself The Apostles, and has devoted itself to securing Lane's release. They may be working with a mysterious terrorist calling him- or herself John Lark, who wants to kill off a huge portion of humanity in order to usher in a new golden age of peace. The CIA wants to stop Lark, and to that end, that agency's Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett, making the very most of a small role) has forced August Walker (Henry Cavill), who wears a perpetually odious smirk below his '70s banker mustache, into Hunt's team, over the objections of IMF secretary Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin). This rankles Hunt, and it also rankles his guys, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg). But deal with it they must, so deal with it they do, as Hunt makes contact with a public philanthropist & private underworld power broker known as the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), while disguised as John Lark. This is made complicated by the presence of Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), the British intelligence agent who was compromised by Hunt's actions two years ago, and now must work against him to get in the good graces of MI6 once again.

That is no less than six different actors in the story (and there's kind of a seventh late in the game, though I think it wouldn't be nice to longtime series devotees to say who that is), and in any given scene, as many as four of them might be working at cross-purposes. This is, for example, the fuel of the film's magnificent motorcycle + car + foot chase sequence - calling it a "scene" hugely undersells it - in which what feels like the entire city of London is laid out as a stage for an extraordinarily busy but always comprehensible network of interchanges between who is tracking who and why, with the shifts between modes of transportation serving to break the overall action into smaller narrative units. It is one of the most beautifully-conceived chases I have ever seen, and it's not even the best chase scene in this movie.

Anyway, the plot exists to justify the action, and the action exists for the sake of pure kinetic art: Fallout is more or less openly a showcase for as many different kinds of action and thriller setpieces as can be stuffed into 147 minutes. There's the big "this stunt was ridiculous and dangerous, so appreciate it in all its grandeur gesture", the HALO jump (against a sadly overwrought CGI storm, one of the film's only missteps) that has figured prominently into the marketing; there's the aforementioned "every kind of chase all at once" sequence; there's an outstanding three-participant fistfight that reduces a sleek white bathroom to a pile of brown and grey rubble, all without a speck of non-diegetic music to get in the way of the amazing sound effects; there's the aforementioned cornucopia of twisty narrative reveals, which in context feels like a setpiece even though it's almost entirely dialogue-driven; and, having already given us an outrageously good multi-level chase scene, the film then invents a new kind of chase scene, which it then buries in a wonderful four-way cross-cutting climax that winnows its way down to three, keeping an impressive head of tension for I don't even know how long, as it cuts between stupidly over-sized aerial combat down to shots of wires trembling. And then it ends in what I can only describe as a bravura fade to white, finally giving the audience permission to start breathing again after some of the most well-managed action choreography, cutting, and cinematography that you will ever see.

McQuarrie is no George Miller: Fallout does not possesses the sense of epic poetry that makes Fury Road the greatest action movie of the 21st Century. But he is, or has become, a fucking faultless craftsman. Besides that CGI storm, I can name one shortcoming in the film's visual style: it has a lot of lens flares, all of them interiors, most of them in the first hour. I can name no shortcomings in the pacing, which is relentless and then allows us the space of one character scene to catch our breath and then goes relentless for another half-hour, or whatever, and thus do those 147 skip by like the movie's hardly even half the time (the only way the length can be felt is a good way: my response to all of the big setpiece sequences in the last two films in the series, Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation, was to be disappointed that they were over so soon, the same one one feels a little bit deflated when a roller coaster only takes 90 seconds. This feeling does not occur in Fallout). The characters are all treated as the bright, playful archetypes they are, and every returning member of the cast is better than they ever have been in this series as a result, leaning into the boldest strokes of their part with  high energy and a sense of urgent fun that pokes through all of the seemingly gloomy bits (this film draws on The Dark Knight's story beats while refusing to adopt its gravity; the result is like a popcorn movie opera, and it is hugely beguiling). It is sturdy classical filmmaking done with the manic spectacle of 21st Century scale, combining the strengths of both into one of the very best action epics ever made. And I suspect, one of the best that will be made for an extremely long time to come.

Reviews in this series
Mission: Impossible (De Palma, 1996)
Mission: Impossible II (Woo, 2000)
Mission: Impossible III (Abrams, 2006)
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (Bird, 2011)
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (McQuarrie, 2015)
Mission: Impossible - Fallout (McQuarrie, 2018)

*And I suppose Incredibles 2, as well, but for some vague, insistent reason, I don't want to count animation.