Tom Cruise gets his Bond on in a big way for daring 'Mission: Impossible – Fallout'

Brian Truitt

Six “Mission: Impossible” movies in, Tom Cruise’s various globe-trotting, death-defying antics – hanging from a helicopter in Kashmir, sprinting across the tops of buildings in Paris – seem like missions pretty possible.

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) zooms through Paris with police in hot pursuit in "Mission: Impossible – Fallout."

What’s more impossible about "Mission: Impossible – Fallout" (★★★ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters nationwide Friday), and what gives the franchise more depth than the usual nonstop action of similar fare, are the moral quandaries faced by secret agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his crew. They have to wrestle with what is the greater good and whether  a friend’s safety is worth potential nuclear annihilation. 

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The rare direct sequel (at least in this series) to 2015’s “Rogue Nation,” “Fallout” brings back the bad-guy Syndicate but with a more extremist terrorist splinter group that wants to nab three spheres of plutonium, ostensibly bringing the world to its knees. Ethan and his core IMF (Impossible Mission Force) team – cool hack master Luther (Ving Rhames) and high-strung tech specialist Benji (Simon Pegg) – are tasked with getting the plutonium themselves, but when Ethan literally takes his eyes off the ball to help a pal, the villains run off with radioactive treasure.

The CIA has some serious trust issues with the IMF, so they send in mustached brute August Walker (Henry Cavill) to join the team as Ethan goes undercover to recover the nuclear material and figure out the big bad at the center of it all. Ethan wheels and deals with a black-market arms dealer named the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), former MI6 operative/love interest Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) gets embroiled in the affair, and there’s also a return appearance by “Rogue Nation” antagonist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris).

CIA agent August Walker (Henry Cavill) gets sent on a mission by his boss (Angela Bassett) in "Mission: Impossible – Fallout."

While the movie on the whole isn’t quite the caliber of the last two missions (“Ghost Protocol” and “Rogue Nation”), director Christopher McQuarrie’s action-packed “Fallout” set pieces are outstanding, finding great character moments in the middle of the explosiveness. Two early situations with Ethan and Walker, from a machismo-laden parachute jump into a French nightclub to a wall-breaking row in the men’s bathroom, do wonders to evolve the relationship between two frenemies.

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Double- and triple-crosses convolute the spy narrative, and Ethan’s ex Julia (Michelle Monaghan) returns under all-too-convenient circumstances. Otherwise, McQuarrie’s female contingent is top notch: Angela Bassett’s CIA chief Erika Sloane is an enjoyably shifty sort, Kirby’s White Widow is a femme fatale with a great look and not nearly enough screen time, and Ilsa remains a hypnotic, leather-clad cross between Boba Fett and Wonder Woman who's arguably the best character in the franchise. 

Not that Cruise doesn’t own these movies. Akin to a human rubber ball, the A-lister runs like the wind, careens off walls, takes many spills but bounces back to do some other crazy thing most 56-year-olds would balk at. What’s interesting in “Fallout” is the good-hearted grounding he gives Ethan. There are no innocent casualties if he can help it, and there's real moral consideration behind every rogue act and deadly encounter. 

With its combination of spycraft, intrigue and insane physicality, “Fallout” again proves “Mission: Impossible” is the gold standard for international action-adventure and that Cruise is this generation's James Bond.