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Mission: Impossible - Fallout - Ethan Hunt hanging on to a cliff face Paramount Pictures

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The action of Mission: Impossible - Fallout will have you gasping for air

Tom Cruise and writer-director Christopher McQuarrie were born to make this movie

Mission: Impossible - Fallout shatters every bone in the body, crashes aircraft in blazes of glory, smashes pristine porcelain sinks to jagged bits, singes Henry Cavill’s mustache hairs, rips French infrastructure in two and defies the laws of physics with the glee of the Jackass crew.

What the sixth installment of Tom Cruise’s stunt-heavy spy franchise doesn’t break are the rules: Executed by Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, Fallout uses film conventions, page-turner dialogue and precision action to write an IMAX-sized textbook on how to have a hell of a good time at the movies. Past Mission: Impossible sequels have looked to aspects of the TV show and modern spy thrillers to find ways to subvert expectations. McQuarrie adapts the series’ lit-fuse title treatment into a two-hour movie, and every second thrills.

Previously, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has dealt with the pressure of life-or-death missions and the government’s constant scrutiny of the IMF, his off-the-books intelligence organization. In Fallout, Hunt deals with hang-ups normally reserved for Superman: Is it more important to save one person or a million people? Must a hero always say yes to the job? What if it means putting people you love in the line of fire? McQuarrie leans harder into the franchise’s history than ever before — marathon M:I one through five if you have time — to ask big questions about the spy’s role on this planet.

True to the movie’s style, the filmmaker also finds a clever way to blurt out the thesis. Hunt’s arch-nemesis Solomon Lane — bearded, bruised, and bound in straps — gets under the spy’s skin with a simple question: “‘Your mission, if you choose to accept it’ ... have you ever said no?”

He has not, and his suffering is the audience’s gain.

henry cavill, tom cruise, and rebecca ferguson in mission impossible fallout Paramount Pictures

As we learn courtesy of an 8 mm film reel tucked inside a copy of The Odyssey, Hunt’s latest task is to eliminate “John Lark,” the code-named leader of a terrorist group known as The Apostles, who intend to annihilate humanity and spawn a New World Order. Unfortunately for Earth, The Apostles are in possession of three loads of weapons-grade plutonium, which Hunt lost in a botched deal intended to sniff out Lark. With a cloud of failure hovering over his head, the CIA intervenes and pairs the IMF veteran with bruiser assassin August Walker (Cavill), who prefers punching baddies’ heads over interrogating them for answers.

Aided by Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames), and later Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust, who returns from Rogue Nation with unfinished business, Fallout follows the Mission: Impossible beats as Hunt’s IMF squad delves deeper and deeper into the criminal underbelly — and rips off plenty of face masks in the process — to uncover the answers it needs before the clock ticks its final tock.

McQuarrie engineers the franchise’s simplest plot with the most complicated heist plans. The movie’s keystone sequence, a prisoner extraction set in the streets of Paris, involves a foot-soldier ambush, car-smashing stunts, multiple motorcycle chases and an unexpected coda of unnerving, close-proximity gunplay. Fear is the backbone of Fallout, summoned in the grand possibilities of nuclear holocaust and the gushing blood of an untreatable wound. It’s a movie that knows just how to turn the dramatic knife to maximize pain.

I don’t want to make Fallout sound too delicate. While the movie treats espionage as a tango, McQuarrie rivals Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol’s layered, large-scale visuals, with Cruise as the Wile E. Coyote answer to James Bond. A simple HALO-jump-to-the-landing-point operation becomes aerial hell as an electrical storm comes barreling through Ethan and August’s trajectory. The much-touted helicopter duel — which the trailers have obfuscated and preserved through trick editing, and which I certainly won’t spoil the beats of here — is shot in IMAX, which creates distance, momentum and diesel-laced sweat that practically splashes off the screen.

And while every M:I movie gives Cruise the chance to run, Fallout takes the athleticism to new heights. Specifically, to high-rise rooftops, where the star bursts across the London horizon like a T-1000 playing QWOP. McQuarrie beats the living shit out of Cruise because Cruise can take it.

tom cruise and henry cavill halo jump scene mission impossible fallout Paramount Pictures

Though Fallout is one gasp-worthy stunt after the next, McQuarrie treats Ethan Hunt more like a rag doll than a superhero action figure, letting his face turn tomato-red and his blood vessels pop as he screams “NONONONO!” during every close call. The brutality is crucial to the movie’s meta success. Cruise is our most complicated movie star. Each time he throws himself into a new project — literally, in the case of the Mission: Impossible sequels — we’re forced to weigh his relentless commitment and charisma against a history of troubling off-screen behavior. McQuarrie’s relentless pace vacuum seals the experience of watching Fallout, as does the self-deprecating performance Cruise has been honing since Edge of Tomorrow (a movie McQuarrie rewrote for him).

Mission: Impossible - Fallout has its flaws: It’s slow to ascend, flimsy in more dramatic moments that hope we’re invested in long-term relationships, and a little too “Nolan-esque” for its own good (the worst offense: Lorne Balfe’s Hans Zimmer-lite score). But McQuarrie’s movie also seems aware, confident that minor sacrifices are what it takes to make set pieces pop, clever gags suspend our disbelief, and end this six-episode series with a bang.

While it’s not official, Mission: Impossible - Fallout feels like the grand finale of a mission that started in 1996 — complete with references to Brian de Palma’s original. Ethan Hunt is old. Tom Cruise is old! How many more times can the singular persona evade machine gun fire, crash a motorcycle, get up, then save the world? Fallout feels like the answer, and yet, Ethan Hunt can’t say no. Neither can we.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout hits theaters on July 27.