Complain, if you must, that your local cinema is stuffed with nothing but sequels. Just don’t kid yourself that the stuffing is anything new. As Tom Cruise guns his motorbike around the Arc de Triomphe (against the traffic, naturally), in his latest venture, “Mission: Impossible—Fallout,” you may tell yourself, “Yeah, nice, but didn’t he ride a similar machine in ‘Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation’?” Indeed he did. And don’t forget the bike-off in “Mission: Impossible 2,” when he and the villain did wheelies at each other, like stags locking antlers in the rutting season. But spare a thought for your great-great-grandparents, off to the pictures, more than a century ago. They, likewise, will have muttered, “Here we go again,” as Helen Holmes—every bit as determined as Cruise, and no less capable of performing her own stunts—mounted a motorbike and hared off in pursuit of a runaway train. That’s what she did in “The Wild Engine,” which was released in 1915. It was the twenty-sixth film in “The Hazards of Helen” series, and Holmes’s last in the leading role, yet the franchise was far from done. There were ninety-three episodes to go.
Movies, in short, picked up where serialized fiction left off. The idea that we should be rewarded for our loyalty with the promise of further thrills, or gags, may have been a marketing tool, designed to woo us back into the dark, but it continues to feed a fundamental hunger. We are storyvores, dependent on a diet of narrative, and the words “Coming Soon” are doubly tempting when we have already wolfed down an earlier portion of the product. Hence my appetite for “Mission: Impossible—Fallout.” Given that the franchise is now a sextalogy, or a six-pack, or whatever, it should long since have grown weary, stale, and flat. Yet it has never been unprofitable, and around the halfway mark it began, unaccountably, to improve. The last movie, “Rogue Nation” (2015), was the best to date, with a sequence set at the opera, in Vienna, that I still watch on a quarterly basis.
How can “Fallout” compete with that? To an extent, it can’t. There was an unexpected suavity to “Rogue Nation,” thanks to the tuxedos, the snatches of Puccini, and the stride of the plot, which suggested that saving the world might yet be achieved in style. The new film, though longer (it runs for nearly two and a half hours), somehow feels more rushed, while sticking to the belief that, in the search for the right kind of force, you can’t beat brute. Thus, we get Henry Cavill as August Walker, a homicidal slab of meat from the C.I.A. who could slice you open with a single swipe of his mustache. We also get a three-person brawl in a men’s room, which causes irreparable damage to the sanitary ware, and which is clearly indebted to the punch-up at the start of “Casino Royale” (2006)—the scene in which Daniel Craig, fresh to the role of 007, showed his credentials by destroying a toilet cubicle.
In more gratifying ways, however, “Fallout” maintains the good spirits of its predecessor. Many of the cast are back for more. Hello again to Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the villain who could use a moral conscience and a bottle of throat linctus; to Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), notionally a British agent, although you can never tell; and to Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), the middleman between the U.S. government and the Impossible Missions Force. Cruise, as usual, plays Ethan Hunt, the sharp end of the I.M.F., with Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) as his fixers. The director of “Rogue Nation,” Christopher McQuarrie, returns for duty, too.
The word “fallout” in the title derives not, as you might imagine, from Ethan’s pathological urge to tumble out of aircraft, or high windows, but from three hefty spheres of plutonium. Were they hung, perhaps, outside the shop of a radioactive pawnbroker? Anyway, they go missing, and Hunley suspects a sinister group called the Apostles. They could be the same Apostles who convene at Cambridge in semi-secrecy, for the purposes of intellectual discussion, and whose past members include Tennyson and John Maynard Keynes, but, on balance, I think not. What matters is that, with a nuclear explosion pending, Ethan has seventy-two hours to get those balls back. Intellectual discussion will have to wait.
At a certain point in any movie franchise, the self-references become less jaunty and more needling, with characters who jab at one another’s raison d’être. We all know the tape recording to which, at the outset of every tale, Ethan has to listen, complete with its gentlemanly caveat, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it.” On this occasion, that offer is roundly mocked, as Lane says to Ethan, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it. I wonder, Ethan, did you ever choose not to?” An excellent question, and the mood is toughened by Hunley’s boss, Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett), who describes the I.M.F. as “a bunch of grown men in rubber masks playing trick or treat.”
The masks have been a proud staple of the “Mission: Impossible” films since 1996, when what appeared to be Jon Voight unpeeled his features to reveal those of Cruise. (Don’t mention the height difference.) Thenceforth, throughout the series, we have been permanently and deliciously unable to decide who, at any moment, is who. “Fallout” is extra confusing in this regard, because Ethan’s former wife, Julia (Michelle Monaghan), absent since “Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol” (2011), shows up anew and turns out to bear a strange resemblance to Ilsa Faust. One woman, two masks? Two women, one mask? God knows.
In terms of female representation, the “Mission: Impossible” saga was woefully slow off the mark. The original movie succeeded in wasting Emmanuelle Béart and Kristin Scott Thomas, and it wasn’t really until Ferguson sallied into film No. 5, toting an assassin’s rifle, that progress began to be made. “Fallout” sustains the momentum, courtesy of Bassett, Monaghan, and Vanessa Kirby, last seen as Princess Margaret in “The Crown,” and now granted the type of part that a yawning royal might dream of—a negotiator known as the White Widow, whose motives are no easier to discern, or to guard against, than the knife that she straps to her thigh. What these women bring to the film is an adult impatience, gilded with sly amusement, at the international antics of the boys. “Please don’t make me go through you,” Ilsa warns Ethan, as if he were made of tissue paper. Helen Holmes would approve.
To be fair, you can scoff at the antics and still be swept away. The final quarter of “Mission: Impossible—Fallout” takes place in Kashmir, with a helicopter chase through deep gullies and past snowy peaks. McQuarrie keeps the action crisp and clear, to match the icy air. In essence, and despite the vastness of his budget, he is doing what his forebears did a hundred years ago—seeking out ever more outrageous ways in which to leave an audience dangling. You want a cliffhanger? Simple. Get hold of Tom Cruise and hang him off a cliff. That’s how the second “Mission: Impossible” film began, and it’s how the sixth arrives at a climax. Let’s hope for more vertiginous hoopla of this sort. Coming soon.
The heroine of “Puzzle” is Agnes (Kelly Macdonald), a housewife of Hungarian stock. She lives in Bridgeport, Connecticut, with her chunky husband, Louie (David Denman), and their sons, Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and Gabe (Austin Abrams). Agnes is both consumed and—in her own mind—defined by her domestic duties, reluctant to tread beyond the confines of the kitchen, the laundry room, and the church. In the bedroom, the only sound is the snoring of her mate. Something transformative, we realize, has to land in Agnes’s life, so what will it be? An alien, an angel, a lottery win, a criminal on the run? Nope. A jigsaw.
You could watch the first few minutes of “Puzzle,” which is directed by Marc Turtletaub, under the sincere impression that it is set in the nineteen-forties. The colors are muted, the costumes are dowdy, and the air of suburban suppression is close to asphyxiating. “I haven’t been to New York for years,” Agnes admits. It comes as a jolt, then, when she is given an iPhone for her birthday. More to her taste is a new jigsaw, which she completes at dizzying speed. Inspired, she contacts a fellow-devotee, a wealthy sluggard named Robert (Irrfan Khan), who inquires, “How long have you been puzzling?”—a lovely line. By way of a test, he tips out a jigsaw, starts the clock, and stares in awe as, not long afterward, she fits the final piece. “Fuck me!” he says. And she does.
In truth, there is barely enough story here to make a film. Yet the play of emotions on Macdonald’s face tells of worries and wounds much deeper than anything that can be accounted for in the script, and it will take more than a jigsaw, I reckon, even a thousand-piece whopper, to free this woman’s soul. Why not join the I.M.F. and work with Ethan Hunt? Your mission, Agnes, should you choose to accept it, will be to hang upside down from flaming helicopters while solving uncrackable codes. Better still, your old life will self-destruct in five seconds. Go for it. ♦