MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT | ★★★★½

It should come as no surprise that there are now six entries in the “Mission: Impossible” series. It also shouldn’t surprise you that franchise frontman Tom Cruise has found even crazier methods of topping himself for this round of world-saving. What should surprise you, however, is how Cruise’s unflinching commitment, the efforts of the cast, crew, stunt teams, and influences from within and without the franchise all come together to exhilarating effect as you watch what is, without question, the year’s finest blockbuster. True to its name, “Mission: Impossible - Fallout” delivers what most might consider (*ahem*) impossible: a sixth(?!) adventure in the now-22-year-long action series that makes about 90% of blockbusters today, let alone the rest of the “M:I" pantheon, look like student films.

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Almost every franchise that endures for a decade or more is built upon trial and error, and “M:I” is probably a few leagues behind James Bond when it comes to changing tastes and reworking formulas. The first film cemented Cruise as a bonafide action star, who commanded every nail-biter with dynamic intensity. “Mission: Impossible II” then capitalized on Cruise’s inflated godliness with Hollywood’s newfound machismo at the turn of the 21st century. Needless to say, this did not work, but it was enough to pave the way for “Mission: Impossible III,” the series’ first truly great installment. However, it was when “Ghost Protocol” was unleashed that the franchise finally hit its stride, exchanging frantic, hand-held grit for a classier, more elegant approach to physical grandeur.

Christopher McQuarrie, returning to the director’s chair after the fifth entry, “Rogue Nation,” continues to expand and develop this new penchant for large-scale practical stunts and effects orchestrated with old school flair. As with each new “M:I” flick, “Fallout” outdoes its predecessors, but rather than settle for getting Cruise to perform wilder, more death-defying stunts than last time and stitch them into a relatively cohesive plot, McQuarrie aims higher. “Fallout,” moreso than the previous films, blends action, character, story, and technical bravura seamlessly, fueling white-knuckle tension and knee-shaking bombast that is up there with genre classics like "The Dark Knight,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

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If any gripes are to be made, it’s that “Fallout” barely inches audiences closer to understanding who Ethan Hunt (Cruise) really is when stripped of his duty to protect people from danger. This was hinted at in the third film when his wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), who appears in this film, was introduced. Nevertheless, the film does chart new emotional territory for Hunt when he is forced to choose between the life of his longtime partner and friend, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and the safeguarding of plutonium from the hands of extremists. Hunt’s decision is the catalyst for the entire film, forcing him to grapple with the choices he makes as he races against the clock once again. In “Fallout,” we’re not just on the edge of our seats with our jaws on the floor because Cruise/Hunt does one badass thing after another, but because of what his intentions and actions could and do mean for himself, his companions, and the world at large. It may not be a humanistic film, but “Fallout” scores points for pushing the series into a darker territory that measures up to its fun factor.

Through this examination of Hunt’s morality, Cruise finally achieves the godlike status he mistakenly assumed by the second film. His is a physical performance for the ages, recalling the triumphs of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Jackie Chan with a stark realism matched by the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Aleksey Kravchenko in “The Revenant” and “Come and See,” respectively. He isn’t trudging through muddy bogs or chewing through raw bison liver, but his resolve to make a HALO jump, ride a motorcycle through oncoming traffic, leap from one rooftop to another (breaking his ankle in the process), climb up a rope to an airborne helicopter, and then fly said helicopter, is no less astonishing than one might expect. If Cruise ever actually dies while shooting one of these movies, I’m sure his spirit would still wish for us to see the fruits of his labor and ultimate sacrifice.

(9/10)