Please, Tom Cruise, never stop running

In 2010, Tom Cruise was 48 years old. He was three films into the Mission: Impossible franchise, and was working on the fourth. He was also reportedly involved in replacing himself as the franchise’s lead, the idea being that Jeremy Renner would take over in future films. It only made sense, right? Someone had to replace for the aging star.

In hindsight, of course, this transition would have been insane. Cruise has carried three more Mission: Impossible installments, and Renner isn’t even in the franchise anymore. With every scene of Cruise scaling the Burj Khalifa or clinging onto the side of an airplane, it became more and more apparent that no one else could pull this off. No matter what the mission is, it’s only ever possible because Cruise is at the center of it.

It’s good, then, that he still is at the center of it in Mission: Impossible - Fallout, because there is a lot going on in this mission. An international group of anarchists known as the Apostles are committing acts of terror to disrupt the world order, led by an anonymous man named John Lark. Cruise and Co. are trying to stop the terrorists from getting the plutonium they need to build nuclear weapons.

Oh, and the villain from the last M:I film, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), is involved too. Oh, and Cruise crosses paths with MI6 agent/love interest Ilsa again. (Rebecca Ferguson is again a welcome addition to the franchise, and remains criminally underused.) Oh, and a CIA director (Angela Bassett) interferes with Cruise’s team by forcing one of her own agents (Henry Cavill) onto his team. Oh, and there’s some character named the White Widow? The IMDb description doesn’t even bother trying with Fallout, saying the film is about a “mission gone wrong.” Um, yeah, that’s what all of these movies are about.

The film takes a lot of time to pack all of this in, clocking in at a whopping 147 minutes. It never feels like it. The film breezes by, and there aren’t really any spare moments: everything is either necessary exposition or wild action. I could barely find a time to get up and pee.

Maybe Fallout doesn’t feel bloated because, with the M:I movies, the plot has never really been the point. These movies have never been *about* what they’re about; as long as the stakes are clear (the world is going to end, and Tom Cruise has to save it!), the plot couldn’t really matter less. All that truly matters is Cruise and the action sequences.

Let’s start with Cruise, who I have trouble believing is 56 years old. He remains the quintessential action hero, because no one gets what makes an action scene work quite like Cruise. Unlike many other action-spy prototypes like Jason Bourne or James Bond, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is enthralling because he is so rarely in control. In a repeated line in Fallout, Cruise responds to questions about how he’ll accomplish his plan with a shrug, saying “I’ll figure it out.” He’s not just saying it: where other action films feel tightly scripted, Cruise always feels improvisational; it really does seem like he’s figuring it out on the fly (this is the same quality that makes John McClane the best action hero to this day).

Ethan Hunt makes up for this lack of forethought with a relentless work ethic, wily attitude, and abundant empathy. A Cruise action scene is defined by his glorious running strides, in which it seems as if his arms are making full 180 degree arcs and his legs are trying to escape the rest of his body. When Tom Cruise runs, he isn’t just trying to catch the bad guy; he’s trying to set a new personal best time. Cruise flings himself onto buildings and zips through traffic without a care for his well being, a crash test dummy of a hero.

Through it all, he manages to maintain that indomitable smirk and a reckless compassion for others. In many actions films, a moment of weakness befalls the hero when they choose to save the life of a friend over the lives of millions. Here, that flaw is turned into a strength: Hunt is only able to save the world because he cares about his friends. Hunt is different than other heroes, because it’s apparent that he’s just a man.

And, of course, the action scenes that Hunt is thrust into are riveting. Fallout is a case study on what makes action scenes work, and what so many other films get wrong. First: the action scenes are few and far between. For a two-and-a-half-hour movie, there are just a handful of defining action set pieces: the bathroom fistfight; the motorcycle chase; the helicopter battle. But this scarcity heightens the impact of each one, and allows director Christopher McQuarrie to go all out on each time. The action is utterly ridiculous, and it’s giddy fun.

Second: the action scenes have a refreshing clarity. Unlike the cacophony of explosions and dimly lit battles that befall many action flops, you always know precisely what is going on in a Fallout scene. (Note to action directors: just because the scene takes place in the dark doesn’t make it cool. Put your action in broad daylight!) And third: we never lose track of the characters during the action. Hunt and Co. never become mere punching bags; instead, the action scenes serve to accentuate the aspects that make their characters interesting.

Cruise broke his ankle while filming Fallout, while he was leaping from one rooftop to another. He performs all his own stunts (he says he trained for a year and a half to fly a helicopter). The actor broke multiple bones and was expected to need months off to recover, but he came back 11 weeks later, sprinting on that same ankle. I know, logically, and physiologically, that Tom Cruise must stop this one day. He’s a human, I think. But there’s no sign of him slowing down, and it seems impossible that he’ll ever age out of this franchise. Please, Tom Cruise, never stop running.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout: 3.5 stars