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The Indestructible Tom Cruise

'Mission: Impossible – Fallout' is a raucous delight, helmed by a 56-year-old who can still climb rock faces with the best of them.

Paramount Pictures

There are eleven actors credited as “rowdy Frenchman” in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, and they all appear in a single bathroom. With abundant Frenchmen, a three-noun-two-punctuation-mark title, two love interests, several double-crosses, and three principal locations, the sixth movie in the Mission: Impossible series is a truly maximalist work of art. The plot is stupid but the stunts are terrifying, the tension vibratory, the muscles rippling. In short, it’s a masterpiece.

That isn’t to say that it’s a subtle movie. The first post-title scene is pure exposition. That’s the great thing about those “your mission, should you choose to accept it” messages. They explain the entire premise of a movie, completely out of the blue, and events just play out from there. Three lumps of plutonium have gone missing, the tape message says. An arms dealer named John Lark and his global gang of evil thugs want to use them to bomb the Vatican, Jerusalem, and Mecca. They are equal-opportunity loathers of religion, keen to knock out all the Abrahamic hotspots at once. Our hero Ethan Hunt uncharacteristically bungles an interception of the plutonium lumps, however—and then the fun really begins.

We get all the classic ingredients. Hunt has to apologize to mourners as he runs through the funeral of a loved one. He dangles from plunging helicopters. The rubbery masks make a great comeback, for once as part of a genuinely cool switch-up rather than a convenient plot twist.

The cast is a medley of old and new faces. The villain from Rogue Nation Solomon Lane (the eerie Sean Harris) crops up again, still hellbent on his mission to destroy Hunt and all he holds dear. Sidekicks Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) are still around, providing some crucial humor to pad Cruise’s muscle. New-ish love interest Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) gets to meet the old one Julia (Michelle Monaghan). When they stand next to each other it’s very clear that Ethan Hunt has a type.

But the brand-new cast members are what distinguish this movie from its forebears. Whichever casting director thought to pair Angela Bassett and Henry Cavill as CIA director and her obedient, musclebound henchman deserves an Oscar. She is elegant and severe, sexy and dominant. He is gorgeous and huge, always wears a beautiful suit, and lives to do her bidding.

Their vaguely D/s relationship sets the tone of the movie, which is the most erotic of the franchise yet. The soundtrack gets a deep and languid treatment. And the much-trailered bathroom scene is one of the hottest things to grace the summer blockbuster screen in a long time. Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, and Liang Yang spend significant time in a bathroom stall together, which is what provokes the gang of Frenchmen. Gay sex, get it? In their time outside the stall, however, the trio just beat each other up in their expensive, well-cut suits. I could watch it for hours.

Paramount Pictures

It took a while to realize that Cruise was not only sort of attractive but totally credible as an action hero. He looks younger, if that’s possible, than he did in the last Mission: Impossible film. How is Tom Cruise doing this? His first appearance as Ethan Hunt was in 1996. To clarify, that’s 22 years ago. And here he is at 56 doing all his best moves: free-climbing a terrifying rock face, finessing a motorcycle, running extremely fast in his signature stiff-torso and scything-forearms style. Whatever work he’s had done is masterful. The man is a devotee of a maniacal cult that harms people, but it’s just so easy to forget that when his eyes fill with tears or he yells “I’m jumping out a window!” before jumping out of a window.

In between his stunts, it’s hard to tell whether Cruise is really acting. In his defense the script is wobbly. When impersonating an evil terrorist, for example, he has to say “I murdered women and children with smallpox” as a conversational aside. But as I sat watching old Mission: Impossible movies in the office this week, my colleague Alex Shephard made an excellent point. Whenever Tom Cruise is being Tom Cruise, he’s outstanding. He can run and jump and kiss the girl with total plausibility. But when Tom Cruise has to be a regular guy, he comes across like a mannequin puppeteered by Brian De Palma.

The best example of this is the final scene of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. The job is done and the gang comes together for a drink at a bar. Tom Cruise drinking a beer and saying “Go figure!” is just not something that should ever happen in a movie again. It’s so wooden as to be nearly inhuman.

Director Christopher McQuarrie has amped up the hand-to-hand combat, the majestic outdoor scenes, and the gut-churning vertical drops. The movie takes place largely in Paris and London, where Hunt takes the opportunity to stroll the Tuileries and run frantically around the gallery of St. Paul’s Cathedral. But the final set piece plays out in Kashmir. I won’t spoil the way that cliffs and helicopters interact in that climactic section, but it’s very, very tense. I came out of the cinema with a gnawed notebook and weak knees.

If there’s a politics to this movie, I couldn’t catch my breath long enough to figure it out. The terrorists are the bad guys, enemies of the “world order.” There’s something almost comforting about that lazy device. This isn’t the Cold War or a clash of civilizations. It’s a good guys-versus-bad guys punch-up. That’s not the way our world is threatened now: American foreign policy is a mess, and all the old geopolitical narratives are scattering into a chaos of late night tweets from the president. It feels good for things to make sense for an hour or two, to step out of the hot garbage summer into a cool, dark space that reminds us of 1996. It feels good to watch the world get saved, the old-fashioned way.