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mission: impossible- fallout David James/Paramount Pictures

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The ending of Mission: Impossible - Fallout feels like the franchise’s finale

Warning: this post contains major spoilers for the sixth (and final?) Mission: Impossible movie

There is no post-credit scene in Mission: Impossible - Fallout. There is no title card that promises “Ethan Hunt will return.” There is no cliffhanger ending, unless you count Tom Cruise literally hanging from a cliff as he stretches to hit the button that can prevent nuclear tragedy.

Fallout isn’t concerned with what’s ahead; after a hyperventilated grand finale, the sixth Mission: Impossible concludes with a deep breath and a group hug. The movie, and in turn, the audience, isn’t thinking about sequels. Everyone’s just happy to be alive.

When the dust settles on Fallout’s release, the question will arise: is there more life in the 22-year-old Mission: Impossible franchise? Each time Cruise’s ongoing, stunt-heavy passion project has appeared to slow down — be it from underperforming box office, unpredictable shooting schedules or the general changing tides of a blockbuster landscape that values caped crusaders over traditional movie stars — the series has sprung back to life. This time feels different. The industry has changed. The years are catching up to all involved. Fallout seems extremely aware. And if Cruise and his IMF cohorts were going to take their final bow, why not go out on a IMAX-sized high note?

With Fallout, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie becomes the franchise’s first filmmaker to return for a sequel, giving him the privilege to extend the story laid out in 2014’s Rogue Nation. At the top of the film, Ethan’s still dealing with the unraveling of the anti-IMF organization known as The Syndicate. A splinter terrorist group known as “The Apostles” intends to obtain three orbs of weapon-grade plutonium, detonate a trio of atomic bombs and reboot mankind for a better tomorrow. Ethan’s fails in his first attempt at stealing the plutonium back, saving the life of his longtime accomplice Luther (Ving Rhames) instead of picking up the payload.

Over the course of Fallout, Ethan’s mission to infiltrate The Apostles, recapture his Rogue Nation arch-nemesis Solomon Lane, and prevent the destruction of a large chunk of Earthly continent melds into a personal arc. Does his behavior endanger the planet time and time again? Is he jeopardizing the lives of people he loves for a greater purpose? Does the world really need Ethan Hunt as a savior?

In the end, Ethan tears through the sky in a janky helicopter, dodging machine gun fire and Kashmir’s snowy mountain peaks, to rip the nuke trigger out of the hands of Apostles ringleader John Lark (Henry Cavill). The water supply of Pakistan, India and China is at stake. So is the life of Ethan’s wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), lured to the blast point by The Apostles as the ultimate fuck you to its greatest adversary.

Mission Impossible 6 fallout helicopter finale Paramount Pictures

In Fallout, the past blindsides Ethan like a silver Peugeot 406 poking into an intersection during a high-speed motorcycle chase. Just as Skyfall did for James Bond, years of compartmentalizing one-off missions culminate in a single movie. What if Ethan Hunt’s acquisition of the NOC list in 1996, his eradication of the Chimera virus in 2000, his retrieval of the rabbit’s foot in 2006, his successful takedown of “Cobalt” in 2011, all took place in the same universe, and impacted his psyche? McQuarrie doesn’t let the thought experiment overwhelm the bigger picture — Fallout’s simple story is still a vehicle for Cruise to let his adrenaline-freak flag fly — but his savvy screenwriting adds echoes to the previous chapters in nearly every moment. the White Widow is clearly Max’s daughter from the first film; the finale set-piece nods to every major action beat — even the Mission: Impossible 2 rock climb.

The film delivers closure through meta-commentary and a final, heartfelt beat. After Luther, Benji (Simon Pegg) and Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) — with a little help from Julia, just like in Mission: Impossible III — rewire the two remaining atomic bombs hidden in the Kashmir aid camp, Ethan crash lands his helicopter, tosses John Lark off a cliff, and smashes the detonator at just the right second. He’s a bloody pulp by the end, the action finally taking its toll, and finds solace in the warm embrace of his makeshift family. After accepting his life-or-death mission two-and-a-half hours earlier (hidden in a copy of The Odyssey, no less), Ethan returns to his wife with nothing to fear.

Except for the next mission. There will always be one. Though it’s a little shaky in the emotional landing, McQuarrie lands on a psychological profile for Ethan Hunt: his purpose on this planet is to endure whatever physical brutality is necessary to prevent ideologues from deciding the fate of the planet through violent, unquestionable means. He will always accept the mission, and the job will perpetually test his rogue personality — the IMF works best when they’re not following protocol.

Ethan also wants to be on a leash. He wants to be tied down by friendship, and pulled back when he gets too close to the moral edge. His problem is he also wants to dispel his nightmares — visions of a blast blowing his wedding to bits — so he has to quit a life he thought he could have. That means letting his wife go, and getting his ass back out into the field. His crippled smile at the end of Fallout suggest a revelation. He’ll be safe and have love in his life because his mission-seeking pals all keep the same hours. He can break every rule... except the ones that keep the team together.

Fallout promises more Ethan Hunt adventures without promising more on-screen Ethan Hunt adventures. Retiring is not an option for the super spy. It’s an inevitability for Cruise, who at 56 is still HALO jumping out of planes and nose-diving in single-seater copters. The Evel Knievel will catch up with him, or already has; Cruise famously cracked his ankle performing Fallout’s skyscraper jump sequence, an injury that ballooned the budget while becoming a selling point for the marketing team. What insurance company would be brazen enough to shell out for Cruise’s junket habits as the man enters his golden years? The star may never slow down, but the business around him might.

Like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Mission: Impossible - Fallout is a confluence of old-fashioned blockbuster philosophies that seem almost implausible to replicate in a future of movie multiverses and fantasy-driven, CG imagery. Cruise is a genuine movie star, able to command big budgets and push the limits of personal stuntwork. McQuarrie is a rare writer-director whose vision for the film is allowed to unfold without invasive studio notes or sequel-setup demands — and, as reported throughout both Rogue Nation and Fallout’s productions, he’s protected by Cruise. Together they’ve made a globetrotting action movie, shot on location with practical effects and crisp 35mm film photography. The gentlemen are getting away with the kind of crime that usually takes hyper-realistic face masks to pull off.

Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise on the set of Mission: Impossible - Fallout
Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise on the set of Mission: Impossible - Fallout
Chiabella James/Paramount Pictures

Even if Cruise can physically go another round, the economics might not make sense. The box office receipts of Mission: Impossible will never compete with your Marvel sequels or your Jurassic Worlds. Studios are catering less and less to the visions of filmmakers and stars, preferring a producer’s touch and a 10-year-plan. Pushing the thriller-mystery conceit of Mission: Impossible to compete with sci-fi epics may cause the machine to break — or worse, turn into Fast and the Furious. There are few ways to enlarge an Mission: Impossible villain’s agenda than “two nukes threatening the fabric of society” save for shooting Ethan Hunt to the moon. Unless Cruise is actually allowed to go film in space, it’s not worth entertaining.

More Mission: Impossible could mean Cruise finally passing off the torch — a la Creed — or seeing the actor slide into a producer role for new incarnation of the series, which could take a Bondian sidestep. Still, it’s hard to imagine. The series is Tom Cruise. Paramount Pictures could enlist Michael B. Jordan to be Ethan Hunt’s protégé, or even pivot to a series led by Rebecca Ferguson, but without Cruise demanding the high-stakes stunts, without his particular reactions to malfunctioning gadgets and miscalculations, the soul of the franchise is gone. They even tried this before: Jeremy Renner was intended to be the Ethan Hunt replacement in Ghost Protocol. When everyone realized that was a terrible idea, the studio hired McQuarrie to rewrite the script on the fly and tailor the action to Cruise. Mission: Impossible started as a star vehicle and, based on Fallout, should end as one.

McQuarrie has said, with two Mission: Impossible movies under his belt, he wants to return to independent film. Cruise is currently shooting the long-awaited sequel to Top Gun, and after that… maybe an Edge of Tomorrow sequel? Or an original action-comedy from some Hollywood hotshot whose only credit includes an unproduced Romancing the Stone remake? It’s unclear. The schedule is clear for him to return to Mission: Impossible. But Fallout satisfies in a way that anything more would have to dramatically up the ante or settle in for a three-picture arc. It’s a definitive ending — and like most of the choices in Fallout, keeping it as such would throwback to a blockbuster era that doesn’t exist.

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