DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Tom Cruise takes on the role of secret agent Ethan Hunt for the sixth time in "Mission: Impossible - Fallout," the latest in the long-running spy series inspired by the original TV show. Like the previous film, "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation," "Fallout" is written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: There's a moment in the new "Mission: Impossible" movie when Ethan Hunt, leaping across the rooftops of London, misses his target and slams into the side of a building. The impact is enough to make you recoil, especially given the fact that Tom Cruise, who famously does his own stunts, broke his ankle last year while filming this very sequence. By the end of the movie, which boasts some of the most sustained and exhilarating large-scale action scenes in recent memory, you'll wonder how Cruise survived the shoot at all - or maybe you won't. By now, Cruise seems nearly as indestructible as Hunt himself. And at 56, he shows no sign of slowing down or softening up. The same goes for this durably entertaining series, which hit its stride a few sequels ago and just keeps on gaining momentum. "Mission: Impossible - Fallout" is the sixth installment and the second one written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie after 2015's "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation."
Most of these stories have been pretty self-contained, but "Fallout," as its title suggests, is closely tied to its predecessor. You might want to watch or even re-watch "Rogue Nation" before seeing this one. Then again, you could just go in cold and let the ridiculously impenetrable plot wash over you. Don't worry - I won't spoil anything. I don't think I could even if I wanted to.
A shadowy terrorist network is plotting to dismantle the current world order by detonating three nuclear bombs. Hunt, working for the International Missions Force, or IMF, heads to Berlin to foil the scheme. But while trying to save his trusty teammates, played again by Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg, he lets a deadly stash of plutonium fall into the wrong hands.
One of the running questions in "Fallout" is whether Hunt's refusal to allow for even minimal collateral damage might be endangering the lives of millions. In one scene, Hunt's hard-nosed boss, played by Alec Baldwin, defends him against the combative director of the CIA, played by Angela Bassett.
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ALEC BALDWIN: (As Alan Hunley) What do you think you're doing, Erica?
ANGELA BASSETT: (As Erica Sloan) It may be your mission. But this is the CIA's plane. It doesn't take off without my say-so.
BALDWIN: (As Alan Hunley) We need reliable intelligence, and we need it now. This scenario is precisely why the IMF exists.
BASSETT: (As Erica Sloan) The IMF is Halloween, Alan - a bunch of grown men in rubber masks playing trick-or-treat. And if he had held on to the plutonium in Berlin, we wouldn't be having this conversation.
BALDWIN: (As Alan Hunley) And his team would be dead.
BASSETT: (As Erica Sloan) Yes. They would. That's the job. And that's why I want one of my own men on the scene - to appraise the situation.
CHANG: And so Hunt and his team are saddled with a CIA agent played by Henry Cavill, who gets to be as dashingly handsome here as he is in the "Superman" movies and a lot more morally ambiguous. In classic "Mission: Impossible" fashion, "Fallout" keeps your head spinning as to where everyone's true allegiances lie. Rebecca Ferguson is back as Ilsa, the wily British agent who stole Hunt's heart in the last movie and whose motives are equally hard to figure out here. Even more of a mystery is the White Widow, a deviously alluring arms dealer played by "The Crown's" Vanessa Kirby.
Even Hunt himself comes under suspicion of going rogue. And given the number of times he's been persecuted and disavowed by his own government, who would blame him if he did? Just about the only character whose intentions are unambiguously evil is the deadly anarchist Solomon Lane, whom Sean Harris played in "Rogue Nation" with such a mesmerizing scowl it's no surprise they brought him back for more.
Christopher McQuarrie may not be as flamboyant a stylist as past series directors like Brian De Palma and John Woo, but his visual command here shows breathtaking confidence. He knows exactly how to pile stakes upon stakes, how to push a simple set piece to almost "Looney Tunes" levels of absurdity. Give him a setup and a blast of Lalo Schifrin's immortal "Mission: Impossible" theme, and there's nothing he can't do.
McQuarrie doesn't just have Hunt leap across buildings. The guy gets to jump out of a plane over Paris and dangle from a helicopter in the mountains of Kashmir. The high-altitude stunts seem almost sane, however, compared with the scene where he rides a malfunctioning motorcycle against traffic around the Arc de Triomphe. Cruise has seen one attempt at star vehicle after another splutter and fail. But more than 20 years after his first big-screen adventure, Ethan Hunt is still going stronger than ever. He's the Energizer Bunny of espionage.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic at the Los Angeles Times. On Monday's show, kidnapped by Somali pirates - Michael Scott Moore talks with Dave Davies about his two and a half years of captivity. He was beaten, considered suicide, attempted escape and was eventually released after his mother raised $1.6 million in ransom. He has a new memoir, "The Desert And The Sea." Hope you can join us.
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BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAROLD LOPEZ-NUSSA'S "CIMARRON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.