To my eyes, easily the best film in the series. Easily. Director Christopher McQuarrie breaks tradition by being the first returning director of the series, mounting two instalments instead of the traditional one. He can’t exactly reinvent the series the way a director shake-up can, but instead iterates it and perfects it, identifying all the components with the most potential (namely Tom Cruise’s mania and breathtaking daredevil insistence on performing his own increasingly dangerous stunts) and pushing them as hard as he can.
It’s not just in the stunts, the best of the series, but the entire film that McQuarrie exerts expert control and precision. Where his previous film, Rogue Nation, made a tremendous impact with the opening stunt of Tom Cruise gripping the side of a plane in flight before petering out into plot-heavy low-drama repetitive stunts with little air, Fallout continuously pushes stakes higher and higher in ways that actually matter for the characters (much more grounded and well-handled here, particularly the two principal women cast members that return, Rebecca Ferguson as fellow superspy and Michelle Monaghan in a deftly reconfigured performance taking her and Tom Cruise’s character’s past seriously) and in ways that play directly off the massive verisimilitude the knowledge that Tom Cruise himself really did perform all these stunts creates. The climactic stunt, a dizzying helicopter battle, revels in its glory and insanity, McQuarrie using the widest lenses he could to keep showing off it really was Tom Cruise alone in a real helicopter (who, of course, learned the skill just for the film) navigating through treacherous, dangerous terrain.
The movie isn’t a strung-together series of setpieces with plot as connective tissue, because McQuarrie worked out a way to make the setpieces the story itself, he made them inseparable, unifying them with a more spy-oriented focus on continual deception and reevaluation, and the real-world escalation of Cruise’s desire to push himself in such insane ways reflects in the text through the increasingly observed and commented-on escalatory madness of Ethan Hunt and those he engages with. This reaches an fever pitch in an operatic tracking-shot sequence of the character dipping out of his morals, a dreamy indulgence so elegant that the almost-bragging opulence of it feels well-deserved.
The uncharacteristic deployment of continuity (character relationships from the first film fairly pivotal in the story), the rare self-awareness about the nature of Cruise’s character, the seriousness (but not flatness) with which the story and the relationships of the characters are within it, it’s all stuff done in shades in the last film, but executed at such a higher level and with so much more meaning here. The film doesn’t have an auteur sheen of recognisability the way the first three films did, but it’s because McQuarrie seemed to identify Cruise as the real auteur of the series, and make it his mission to channel that in the most effective way possible. Extended sequences of two characters meeting at a park linger in a way the earlier films never would have done, and yet the relentless pacing and taut writing of the film makes its one-hundred-and-twenty-seven minutes feel like ninety. Somehow a completely legitimate HALO jump on Cruise’s part (filmed by a cameraman performing the same jump, all in one shot) doesn’t even feel like it cracks the top two of the film’s most impressive setpieces. The film is the perfect channelling of Cruise (who essentially is the series) and distillation of what has worked, and can work, in this series. Four helicopters and a HALO jump.