The plot may be as indecipherable as The Big Sleep, but the action is insane in this sixth installment of Mission: Impossible. Loaded with extended sequences that show Tom Cruise doing what look like real — and really dangerous — stunts all over central Paris and London, in addition to more far-flung destinations and on almost any means of transportation you care to name, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie's second outing on the series tops what he did with Cruise three years ago with Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, which is saying something. That film pulled in $682 million worldwide (71 percent of that outside the U.S.), and there's little reason to believe that this new ultra-amped-up extravaganza shouldn't pull in that much or more.
You get the feeling that Cruise and his frequent partner in crime McQuarrie made a pact to go for broke here. Especially in light of his serious injury suffered in jumping a good distance from one London building to another (it does look awfully precarious when seen onscreen), it wouldn't be a total surprise if Cruise decided to make this outing as Ethan Hunt his last. If he does, he'd certainly be signing off on a very good note.
Unlike with other installments in the series, there is carry-through from the last one to this. In Rogue Nation, MI6 agent Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) went over to the dark side and joined the Syndicate, a terrorist organization bent on the idea that the status quo must be destroyed before a new world order can spring up. Lane's possession of three small plutonium bombs and his intention to use them springboard all the action.
In a tricky and winning opening sequence, Cruise's Ethan Hunt and his buddy Benji (Simon Pegg) try to nab the caps in Berlin, but the botched operation triggers the wrath of Angela Bassett's CIA director and forces Ethan and perennial helpmate Luther (Ving Rhames) to be saddled with a sidekick, August Walker (Henry Cavill, a good and welcome presence out of his Superman suit), whose ongoing relationship with Ethan is as uneasy as his real intentions are unclear.
An even more ambiguous figure is the “White Widow,” a wildly wealthy philanthropist and apparent part-time arms dealer played with a mix of elegance and frisky abandon by Vanessa Kirby, so great as Princess Margaret in The Crown. Needing to get to Paris in a hurry to see her at a giant shindig, Ethan and August arrange a rather novel means of transportation; they jump from a high-flying jet transport to a low altitude before opening their chutes and landing directly on the Grand Palais, a grand entrance no doubt unprecedented in Paris society.
In short order, they mix with some of the Widow's muscular goons in a deliciously protracted and bloody action scene in a large, gleaming men's room before Ethan starts negotiating with the provocative Widow, who plays a high-low game and wouldn't mind combining big business with a little pleasure involving the straight-arrow American.
McQuarrie, the first director ever asked to return for seconds behind the camera on this franchise, succeeds in establishing and more or less maintaining the ideal tone, one that fuses sufficient self-aware humor with the ever-more-outlandish set pieces so as to encourage the audience to enjoy them for what they are — some of the most extreme, sustained and dangerous-looking stunt-reliant action scenes ever assembled. Even at 56, Cruise is well-known to push these boundaries, and here he has two eager accomplices in McQuarrie and stunt coordinator/second unit director Wade Eastwood.
So even as the narrative becomes more perplexing — as before, realistic masks conceal true identities, characters' actual agendas remain hidden — the fast-moving spectacle unfolds in extraordinary fashion. Probably never has Paris been availed so extensively as the setting for such spectacular action, which encompasses not one but two breathless motorized chases, one involving cars and a second on motorcycle that has a helmet-free Cruise zooming through congested streets and, in the most amazing interlude, speeding against traffic in the busy circle around the Arc de Triomphe. In scenes like this, any sense of dramatic necessity or real purpose is obliterated by the sheer sensation of it, which is significantly enhanced in the Imax format. Lorne Balfe's sharp reorchestrations of Lalo Schifrin's original themes nicely further the cause throughout.
One way or another, McQuarrie spins just enough of a narrative line on which to hang the big set pieces. Having exhausted Paris, these characters who never sleep move on to London, where Rebecca Ferguson's former MI6 agent from Rogue Nation, Ilsa Faust, steps more to the fore, with intentions that muddy the waters even further. To figure out who's on what side and why and what they're all trying to pull off becomes an impossible mission of its own after a point. So the impulse is to just let this go and ride with it, a worthwhile decision because of the extraordinary level of visceral and realistic-looking action cinema the team here has achieved.
A chase that takes Ethan through a jammed church funeral service is pretty amusing, while the prolonged footrace atop some scenic London roofs (during which Cruise was badly injured) makes you catch your breath at times; as much as any other scene, this one provokes real wonderment about how it was pulled off.
Eventually, the journey's end brings everyone to Kashmir (doubled by Norway and New Zealand, it would seem), which the amazingly still-living Solomon Lane has determined will be the best place to launch the destruction to trigger the eradication of the known world and the birth of the new. Lo and behold, Ethan here runs into his ex-wife, Julia (a returning Michelle Monaghan), who was thought to have died after M:I 3. The fact that Julia and Ilsa bear more than a passing resemblance to one another is subtly acknowledged by the looks the two actresses give each other and adds to the resonance of these late scenes, which pivot on the Goldfinger-like countdown to a doomsday explosion Ethan's partner Luther (Rhames plays a bigger role in the proceedings this time) desperately tries to help prevent.
But even here, McQuarrie, Cruise and Eastwood (no relation to Clint) find a way to vastly up the ante, sending Ethan out on a desperate helicopter pursuit of August through the mountains. As has been the agenda throughout the film, this episode needs to top the one that has come just before and, to everyone's credit, it does just that. The action here represents the mainstream cinema's version of extreme sports, and these guys have staked their claim at the summit. Now someone will have to try to top this; either someone else will take on the mission, or these guys will again, if they choose to accept it.
Production companies: Tom Cruise/Bad Robot
Cast: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Kirby, Wes Bentley, Frederick Schmidt, Michelle Monaghan, Alec Baldwin
Director-screenwriter: Christopher McQuarrie, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller
Producers: Tom Cruise, Christopher McQuarrie, Jake Myers, J.J. Abrams
Executive producers: David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger
Director of photography: Rob Hardy
Production designer: Peter Wenham
Costume designer: Jeffrey Kurland
Editor: Eddie Hamilton
Music: Lorne Balfe
Stunt coordinator/second unit director: Wade Eastwood
Casting: Mindy Marin, Toby Whale
Rated PG-13, 144 minutes