Tom Cruise has at least done the improbable. With the release of Mission: Impossible - Fallout on Friday, the aging movie star will have played the same action role for 22 years.
No reboots, no decade-long gaps; Mission: Impossible has a revolving door of secret-agent team members, but Tom Cruise and Ving Rhames have both appeared in every installment in what's now today's longest-running, same-continuity film series. Cruise even survived the brief moment when 2011's Ghost Protocol looked like an opportunity for him to hand the reins to Jeremy Renner.
But you can't outlast Cruise. Renner appeared in the fifth film, Rogue Nation, but is absent from Mission: Impossible – Fallout, the new sixth entry. Much of the rest of the Rogue Nation cast is back — as is director Christopher McQuarrie, the first Mission director to re-up in what had been a seemingly intentionally ever-switching franchise. As talented as McQuarrie is, his return to the series doesn't make it his baby. Mostly it reaffirms the power of Tom Cruise, now somehow 56 years old.
Cruise is not the movie star he was from his astonishing 20-year run, that period from 1986 through 2006 where he could do very little wrong at the box office, and worked with some of the industry's most talented filmmakers. Ironically, it was Mission: Impossible III that first dented his box-office armor, as that movie underperformed in the aftermath of his couch-jumping press tour the previous summer.
Since then, he has, to some degree, retreated into his star persona, making far more genre films than he did in his prime. Some of the movies aren't as big, but he's made the Mission: Impossible series the centerpiece of this strategy. After working on some of Cruise's best later-period movies (co-writing Edge of Tomorrow; directing Jack Reacher), McQuarrie's loyalty has been rewarded with two Mission: Impossible pictures in a row, helping Cruise work out new ways to endanger his life on a film set.
That's not to say that Fallout is ghost-directed by Cruise (though McQuarrie will tell stories of a helicopter sequence where logistics led to Cruise operating both the helicopter and the camera that's filming him). McQuarrie has his own style, giving his Missions a more shadowy, European texture than the pop of Brad Bird or the paranoid angles of Brian De Palma. Fallout goes even darker, with strategic bursts of color or brightness courtesy of new cinematographer Rob Hardy, who also shot Ex Machina and Annihilation.
But with its resurgence, the series has also gradually become more serialized. Fallout reunites Cruise with his standard sidekicks Rhames and Simon Pegg, alongside wild card Rebecca Ferguson and even past bad guy Sean Harris; the only major addition to the field team is Henry Cavill, a welcome presence whose role nonetheless feels slightly utilitarian. To a far greater degree than normal, storylines from several previous installments are continued and (vaguely) resolved; the movie even revives the third movie's attempt to give Cruise's super-agent Ethan Hunt some inner emotional life. This is the first Mission: Impossible movie that features dream sequences.
It is not, of course, the first Mission: Impossible movie to trade on Cruise's willingness to do anything for an impressive stunt, though that was not part of the original sell back in 1996. As the movies have become more frequent and serialized, they've also turned Cruise's stunts into a major attraction, his own impossible missions that the movies are constructed around. Here, he drops from an airplane, pilots and dangles from a helicopter, motorcycles through the streets (again), free-climbs (again), and, as ever, runs.
This is not a complaint. McQuarrie stages these chases, fights, and literal cliffhangers with enough dazzling skill to put this summer's other live-action set-pieces to shame (the animated exception being series alum Brad Bird, dazzling in his own way throughout Incredibles 2), and Cruise commits to them with gusto. Even better, the movie is not wall-to-wall sensory overload; McQuarrie has the confidence to step back and let some scenes, like a meeting between Cruise and Ferguson or a pause before a hasty getaway, play out deliberately and carefully. For that matter, many of the action sequences have an ebb and flow, even in their excesses. Though long at two-and-a-half hours, the movie is beautifully orchestrated.
If there's ever any muddle to Fallout, it comes not from the twistiness of the plot or the sometimes shadowy photography but rather the sense that Cruise is grasping for something his rapt audience can feel beyond the simple awe of watching eye-popping action scenes. It's to his credit as a movie star — as well as to the fine work of Ferguson, Rhames, and Pegg — that the movie even comes close to locating any humanity underneath the latex masks and espionage plotting. But it's not a strong point of the series. Cruise's Ethan Hunt remains relatively opaque, no matter how much he's supposed to love his ex-wife. His vulnerability comes not from a love story but the fact that he's a human dangling from a helicopter or jumping from rooftop to rooftop.
Ultimately, the Mission: Impossible movies are not emotional experiences, but a visceral expression of Cruise's dogged desire to remain an action star. Even with top-notch filmmakers at the helm, he's become the true auteur of this series, a living monument to what he will do for his audience. It sounds arrogant on paper. But one of the movies' sharpest tricks is making the perpetual-motion machine of stardom so crazy exciting.