Come to think of it, there might not be any franchises with five or more movies that are as consistently good as the Mission Impossible series.
Mission Impossible: Fallout, which is out at theatres now, is the sixth movie in the film franchise adaptation of the TV series from the late '60s and early '70s. And with the exception of Mission Impossible 2, which still surpassed Gladiator to be 2000's highest grossing film, every film has been a consistently entertaining, over-the-top cloak and daggers popcorn flick.
It would be too much to describe Fallout as the best in the series. That honour still belongs to the original MI, which began with a cracking double cross as Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise)'s team worked to recover a list of non-official cover CIA agents. The original also had a good mix of low tech, like the explosive chewing gum, and just enough absurdist gadgetry and Hollywood-style hacking.
But something that's been a hallmark of the series is balance: having enough of humour to offset the fanciful tech, with just enough motivation to fuel the inevitable double crosses. And more than most in the franchise, this is what Fallout nails the hardest.
Fallout arrives three years after Rogue Nation, where Hunt and his team were persona non grata as they attempted to unmask the criminal group called the Syndicate. The leader of that was former MI6 agent Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), and he becomes a central figure again after information broker White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) marks him as a bargaining chip in a trade for three plutonium cores.
Fun fact, and one easily missed amidst the action: White Widow, along with her irascible bodyguard brother, is actually the daughter of Max, the arms dealer from the first MI.
The plutonium cores are where the story starts, with Hunt, Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg) losing them after their late-night exchange was ambushed. It's actually the weakest part of the movie, with the audience learning about the mission by watching Ethan listen to a lengthy exposition through a projector. But after those early few minutes, Fallout's pacing is spot on.
Cruise's insistence on doing the stunts himself pays off, too. Not having a stunt double means the action can be encapsulated in a single shot, rather than having to rely on multiple cuts. And the commitment comes through in one of the early sequences: Cruise leaps from one building to another, but just fails to clear the gap and has to climb up the edge.
The force of the impact, as it turned out, shattered Cruise's ankle. Different angles of the shot were shown on the Graham Norton Show, but if you missed that (and need extra appreciation for the stunt) the clip is below.
It's far from the most impressive stunt or action sequence, and there are plenty throughout. Liang Yang, a stunt performer on Rogue Nation and the recent Star Wars movies, puts in a solid turn belting the shit out of Hunt and Walker (Henry Cavill) in a satisfying fight. It's got a good dose of humour as well: Hunt and Walker are trying to steal Yang's identity to get closer to the White Widow, but Walker's lack of tact results in the three of them having to occupy the same bathroom stall.
Underpinning all of the stuns and the long location shots is a good hark back to the older MI films. Julia Meade (Michelle Monaghan) makes a brief return; her and Hunt had split at the end of MI4, after the two came to the acceptance that Hunt would never really be able to stop saving the world. In Fallout, Julia's role is mostly to bind Hunt to the antagonists, partially through flashbacks, and physically when all the main parties converge in the film's climax.
Julia's presence also allows Luther to, rather neatly, explain why the franchise is still going. In a quiet moment, while the fate of the world is in the balance, Luther explains to Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson, reprising her role from Rogue Nation) that Julia couldn't comfortably sleep if Hunt wasn't there to prevent the worst from happening. It's simple, but in the context of everything else that happens in a MI film, it works.
Movies like Fallout, at the end of the day, are designed to be popcorn flicks. And ultimately what makes them work are a matter of framing, set pieces and special effects. Everything else is really filler, the putty that gives the film a place to rest so audiences don't get exhausted with a constant barrage of action.
Fallout's triumph is that it does everything very well. There's no one scene or stunt that will leave you breathless. There's no moment that will linger in the memory, such as the flaming guitar from Mad Max: Fury Road.
But Fallout is reliably good from start to finish, with every actor and each set piece playing their part efficiently. As a Mission Impossible film, it might be the most consistently entertaining, scene to scene, since the original. And when you've got an action film that does very little wrong, it's easy to see why it's one of the best blockbusters so far this year.