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It's usually a foregone conclusion that when a Hollywood blockbuster movie franchise gets to a sixth entry in the series, it probably won't be that good. It's the sequel law of diminishing returns: At the very least you can expect new thrills amid predictable formulaic beats and the comfortable familiarity that lured you out of your living room to the big screen. But a popcorn-munching optimist can still hope for a sequel that can surprise in unexpected ways. Mission: Impossible — Fallout is that sequel in spades. It elevates the franchise to next-level status — and then some.

Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (who first teamed up with Cruise for 2012's Jack Reacher), Fallout is a superb action movie of the highest caliber. It's like someone gave them a jolt of Red Bull inspiration. I think it's the best film of the series, and I don't say that lightly.

A direct sequel to 2015's above-average Rogue Nation (also directed by McQuarrie), Fallout finds Cruise's IMF agent Ethan Hunt haunted by visions of nuclear armageddon and unable to shake the guilt of abandoning his former love, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), to protect her from the crossfire. His new mission, which we all know he will accept: Track down black-market plutonium before it gets into the hands of a splinter group of spies from the Syndicate that emerged after the capture of Rogue villain Solomon Lane (the returning Sean Harris). If they obtain the plutonium, they will detonate three nuclear devices around the globe in an effort to tear down the world order. “The end you always feared is coming,” a wide-eyed, manacled Lane breathes to Hunt. “And the blood will be on your hands.”

What follows is a crackerjack exercise in taut storytelling and filmmaking craftsmanship. Using many of the pieces set up in Rogue Nation, McQuarrie's new, faster-paced chess game plays out in a less complicated manner than previous Impossible installments (which often get caught up in their own technobabble), resulting in a more coherent and emotionally charged storyline that reunites Hunt with/pits him against deadly MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (the brilliantly capable Rebecca Ferguson) and puts Julia back on the board. Also in play is CIA operative August Walker (an imposing Henry Cavill), an unreadable assassin assigned to shadow Hunt in babysitter mode by CIA director Erika Sloane (Angela Bassett); the “White Widow,” an ambiguous arms dealer (Vanessa Kirby); and, of course, loyal IMF teammates Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) under the direction of new IMF chief Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin). As a variety of factions jockey for the plutonium and the scalp of Solomon Lane, the action travels to such locales as Berlin, London, Paris and Kashmir.

Tom Cruise did most of his own stunts in Mission: Impossible — Fallout.; Credit: Paramount Pictures

Tom Cruise did most of his own stunts in Mission: Impossible — Fallout.; Credit: Paramount Pictures

Ironically, while high-altitude free-fall stunts and helicopter chases make for incredibly exciting elements of the film, it's the visceral nature of McQuarrie's expert handling of the running, jumping, driving and close-quarters fighting that really clinch Fallout as a top-notch action film. There's a bravura, bone-crunching battle in a bathroom stall between Cruise, Cavill and a formidable foe that itself is almost worth the price of admission. The choreography of a desperate car-and-motorcycle chase up and down the streets of Paris, muscular engines loudly growling and revving, clearly draws inspiration from some of the best car-chase films ever made, including The French Connection, Ronin and Bullitt.

And when Hunt finally goes into full sprint mode (something he does in pretty much every Mission: Impossible film), the basic fact that Cruise himself is actually booking at top speed along the rooftops of London is exciting in an absolutely primal way. Now 56 years old, the laser-focused star remains as dedicated as ever to entertain. Performing most of his own stunts, he broke his ankle while filming a running jump from building to building yet still kept going. The moment is in the final cut. Give this man the Jackie Chan stunt medal of honor.

The Mission: Impossible franchise is known for switching directors every film to bring a fresh, individual take on a familiar formula. The first two entries in the series, directed by Brian De Palma and John Woo, were stand-alone films with no real connective story. Ever since J.J. Abrams got involved with the franchise (as director of Mission: Impossible III and producer of the last four films), a more definitive arc has been introduced and Hunt has been accorded more grounded emotional stakes that give his world-saving exploits deeper meaning. McQuarrie has picked up on that cue, giving Hunt a more personal two-film storyline that is also a satisfying culmination of all the previous films in the series. When you see him scale an impossible cliff wall, you know he's been there before.

Ah, yes, the old hall of mirrors trick! Vanessa Kirby, Henry Cavill and Tom Cruise run for their lives in Mission: Impossible — Fallout.; Credit: Paramount Pictures

Ah, yes, the old hall of mirrors trick! Vanessa Kirby, Henry Cavill and Tom Cruise run for their lives in Mission: Impossible — Fallout.; Credit: Paramount Pictures

It's also interesting to watch the progression of Cruise's Ethan Hunt character over the course of six films. At first young and cocky with a hint of Maverick bravado in his 1996 debut, the gum-chewing Hunt quickly evolved into an impervious force who could practically defy the laws of physics in 2000's Mission: Impossible II. But after a six-year break (and time for Hollywood to process the effects of 9/11), Hunt was seemingly humbled, valuing true love and the loyalty of friendship over the game. Ever since then, even though we've seen him perform outrageous, superhuman stunts — scaling the heights of the world's tallest building in Dubai, clinging to the side of a plane, base-jumping from high-rise to high-rise — he has steadily developed a vulnerability that effectively humanizes him. We now see a much more world-weary and relatable Hunt who still throws himself into harm's way in order to save the day, but the expression on his face has moved from one of confidence to one of dazed bewilderment, often transmitting, “I can't believe I just pulled that off.” Fallout's message is that we all need not only a man of Hunt's bravery and resolve for the good of the many but also one of compassion and conscience who can empathize at the individual level. That humanity is demonstrated in Fallout, and is part of the depth that helps to elevate this particular action extravaganza.

Going all the way back to the '60s TV show, don't forget that Mission: Impossible was inspired by the popularity of the iconic and long-running James Bond franchise. Like many other 007 wannabes, Cruise's Impossible movies have always mimicked the Bond template of glamorous globe-hopping locations, outrageous stunt set-pieces, ticking clocks and spy-vs.-spy gambits. But despite the sequel odds, the Impossible franchise has truly come into its own, improving with age and giving the likes of Bond and Jason Bourne a serious run for their money. It's a formula that works, having reaped more than $2.8 billion worldwide to date. And after two decades of Impossible films, it appears that the franchise has finally found its secret weapon with the multifaceted talent of Christopher McQuarrie. There will undoubtedly be more missions to come, and I hope McQuarrie returns again to bring the charm and prevent the franchise from self-destructing.

Mission: Impossible — Fallout explodes into theaters and IMAX July 27.

David Weiner is a Rondo Award–winning writer who was executive editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and senior editor at ETonline before that. For fun he runs the genre pop culture site ItCameFrom and spends too much money on eBay trying to reclaim pieces of his childhood.