An oft-relayed and perhaps apocryphal anecdote in entertainment circles involves Tom Cruise possessing the power to make whomever he’s speaking with feel like they’re the most important person in the universe, if only for an ephemeral, shining moment. It’s the kind of charisma that’s kept him improbably high on the star pecking order for decades; at this point he’s less a remnant of another era than a portent of some transcendent, posthuman future that only he can see. On screen, both as a star and producer, he’s lived out that mythically inclusive social skill: scores of performers have been invited to bathe in his star light, but Cruise is always the last man standing. “Why won’t you just die?!” his exasperated co-star, and current movie Superman, Henry Cavill, grumbles at Cruise in the new Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Oh Henry, you’ve so, so much to learn.
It’s startling that Cruise could be that last super star standing, of course, given his very public fall in the wake of 2005’s infamous “couch-jumping”, which made him an early Hollywood victim of YouTube’s remorseless viral power. And yet, here we are. (Turns out those zillion early career profile headlines that read “Cruise Control” were onto something.) The Mission: Impossible series serves as a handy marker of his unusual longevity and image determination: his boyish, one-of-the-team charm of 1996’s first instalment pivoted to hubristic, ill-advised action movie heroism in 2000’s sequel, before a clever display of humbler domesticity in 2006’s series-resetting third chapter cleared the way for the all-conquering superhuman machine he piloted, to resounding favour, across 2011’s Ghost Protocol and 2015’s sparkling Rogue Nation. The latter capped a decade of breathtaking image rehabilitation, though the visible, franchise-centric effort came at the expense of anything resembling a riskier acting project. Meanwhile, Cruise’s quest for immortality took him to fascinatingly ludicrous extremes: saving the day by flying into an enormous, cosmic space womb containing multiple Cruise clones in 2013’s Oblivion, and literally being reborn over and over in 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow. If he appears to have settled into his middle-aged heroism since then, it’s not by anything resembling conventional standards.
The sixth and latest Mission: Impossible might not be the greatest action movie ever made, as some hyperbolic pundits would have you believe (nor is it close to the series’ peak), but the Hollywood action movie bar remains so low that this energetic, craftsmanlike piece is certainly an antidote to the joyless, CGI-reliant slogs of the American summer’s to-date wan offerings. Directed, again, by Rogue Nation’s Christopher McQuarrie and shot through with a small handful of genuinely exhilarating sequences, Falloutworks as hard for your vicarious thrill-seeking dollar as does its tireless star. How many times have the Avengers twisted an ankle leaping off their 10-centimetre green-screen ledges? Cruise would eat the Marvel Cinematic Universe for breakfast.
The plot, such that it matters, might as well be transposed from a rustic Bond scenario, or at least every recent 007 adventure that’s attempted to justify its anachronistic existence in a post-Cold War world. Rogue Nation villain Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) returns with a terror group known as the Apostles, who’re attempting to overthrow world order but are basically just giving anarchists a bad name with their second-rate incel ramblings and a plot, straight out of 1965, to steal nuclear weapons and wreak havoc. The casing of the plutonium in question even calls to mind a juvenile gag from The Naked Gun. This is a good thing.
Wouldn’t you know it, the situation puts Cruise’s IMF agent Ethan Hunt once again on the treason suspect list (you’d think he’d find more appreciative employers by this stage), and CIA director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett, who deserves her own action franchise) assigns a him a shadow spy: August Walker (Cavill), an assassin with a moustache and quiff who looks like a combination of dishevelled 1930s swashbuckler and ’70s gay pin-up. You can practically feel the locker-room eroticism of Walker and Hunt’s mano-a-mano game of wits. Threaded throughout are Hunt’s dreams of his former wife Julia Meade (Michelle Monaghan), and intimations of his accountability for her disappearance, and the vengeful return of MI6 operative Ilsa Faust (the great Rebecca Ferguson, mostly squandered this time around). The two play a round of tag in Hunt’s emotional landscape, the film’s women, as ever, gathered in weird supplication around Cruise.
Fallout lacks some of the personality and elegance of its predecessor, but in the tradition of Brian De Palma’s original, it neatly adheres to Howard Hawks’ maxim that “A good movie is three good scenes and no bad scenes” – and damn are they good ones here. Both the film’s brutal, and hilarious, bathroom fight and an extended, breakneck car chase through the streets of Paris would be highlights of lesser movies, but it’s Fallout’s final stretch that’s really something to behold: between Cruise’s reckless London rooftop acrobatics and a thunderous helicopter joust that’s set among the snowy peaks of Kashmir, McQuarrie and Cruise dazzle less with imagination than sheer force and scale.
Throughout, it’s a never-ending source of wonder that Cruise, now 56 and notoriously older than some cast members of Cocoon, continues to freefall, leap, and run that famous run, bolt upright and sprinting like a battery-powered rabbit pursued by some unseen, terrifying adversary. When Bassett’s character dismisses the IMF as “a bunch of grown men in rubber masks playing trick or treat”, it’d be easy to find an analogy to ageing action stars, yet something about Cruise’s commitment has reshaped the playing field to his design. While others of his vintage had long vanished into obscurity or, worse, politics, Cruise is wearing his crumpled, tough-guy youthfulness with a degree of credibility; if nothing else, he’s still theaspirational icon for middle-aged men in dubious leather jackets. What he doesn’t do much of is act; one misses the devious charm of that once-ubiquitous megawatt smile, or the complexity he was never given enough credit for in his roles playing the seedier fringes of humanity.
Even as Fallout marches to a surprisingly generic ticking-clock-and-explosive climax, the action is energised by Cruise’s wild zeal, whether he’s hanging from a cliff face, turning a helicopter chase inside out, or facing down a foe on a mountain top, the overhead camera one rotation short of ushering in the opening bars of “November Rain”. (It’s fitting that Kashmir looks suspiciously like Middle-earth; New Zealand, in fact, doubles for northern India.)
It’s on this grand plateau that Cruise reasserts his own abstracted model of masculinity, standing again as the final boss of Hollywood’s alpha men – despite being anything but a traditional one. A quick survey of Cruise’s career offers a glimpse of those who’ve stepped into his arena and been summarily dispatched: Val Kilmer, demoted to wingman in Top Gun; Brad Pitt, taunted and emasculated in Interview with the Vampire; Emilio Estevez, killed off sans credit in Mission: Impossible; Jeremy Renner, relegated to sidekick status in its sequels; the list goes on. (Non-threatening regulars like Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg get to stick around, affording Cruise the status of munificent team captain, the quarterback who’s friends with the geeks.) True to form, Fallout allows Cruise to put none other than the upstart Superman in his place. “That’s right, prick”, Hunt sneers while taking the upper hand over Cavill mid-chopper duel, sounding both the weary relief of a beleaguered screen hero and an affirmation of middle-aged superstardom. The bravado is even more curious when you consider Cruise’s increasingly asexual screen quality, making his dismissal of the film’s villainous masculinity – and surfeit of moustaches and beards – strangely satisfying.
If there’s always been something maniacal about Cruise’s pursuit of perfection, then no one has ostensibly given as much to their audience, either. “The world needs people like you,” Bassett says over Fallout’s closing moments, as the IMF gang both old and new gather around to bathe in Ethan Hunt’s aura, his selflessness, as though an otherworldly prophet walked among them. It’s a bit much, to put it mildly, but when Mission: Impossible is at its best, it’s hard not to feel like we, too, have been graced by Cruise’s presence.