Paramount Pictures
[This story contains spoilers for Mission: Impossible — Fallout]

For nearly 20 years and five films, the Mission: Impossible franchise always had several consistent elements. They each starred and were produced by Tom Cruise, who would throw himself (as literally as possible) into all sorts of crazy stunt work; they each featured Cruise’s heroic secret agent Ethan Hunt ferreting out moles among his fellow spies; and they were each directed by a different person. Each Mission: Impossible movie has felt distinctive because of the ever-shifting filmmaker behind the camera, until Fallout, the sixth and latest entry, written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who had similar duties on 2015’s Rogue Nation. In working together again, Cruise and McQuarrie have bucked the trend and made the best-reviewed Mission: Impossible yet.

When Fallout begins, Ethan is on his own in Belfast, brought back into the IMF fold when he learns that his still-living nemesis Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) has influenced a group of disavowed agents known as the Apostles to try and wreak anarchy upon the world by detonating a trio of nuclear weapons. Ethan then works with his IMF cohorts along with the enigmatic MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) and a mysterious CIA agent named August Walker (Henry Cavill) to stop the Apostles at all costs. The plot, as is often the case in Mission: Impossible movies, isn’t intricately detailed because it doesn’t need to be; instead, it partially functions as a clothesline on which to hang an impressive amount of jaw-dropping, relentless action sequences.

Fallout, much more than other entries in the series, functions as a direct sequel. It’s not just that cast members such as Ferguson, Harris, Ving Rhames, and Simon Pegg return; as opposed to other entries like Ghost Protocol, it helps to know more going in aside from just “Tom Cruise does crazy stuff for two hours.” Ethan remains haunted and remorseful for his failed marriage with Julia (Michelle Monaghan, also returning), and struggles to accept the greater good as opposed to saving just one member of his team. McQuarrie leans into how these character-based choices have a global impact; both in how the action is constructed and how Ethan’s burden feels heavier than usual, McQuarrie has made as close of an equivalent to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight for this franchise. Fallout, to its credit, is the weightiest film in the series.

McQuarrie has also grown as an action filmmaker in between Rogue Nation and now. One of the franchise’s biggest selling points is that Cruise does as many stunts as he can himself; McQuarrie, even more than in the previous film, does an excellent job of making it eminently clear that Cruise is really doing everything on screen. There’s almost a tactile quality to each of the major setpieces, in part because there’s either a complete absence of CGI or seamlessly integrated effects so it all feels practical. Seeing Ethan Hunt desperately climb a rope dangling off the bottom of a helicopter becomes even more terrifying when you accept that it’s really Tom Cruise hanging for his life, thanks in part to the clear, coherent, never-blinking directing style from McQuarrie.

Paramount Pictures

So much of Fallout succeeds because it’s exceptionally thrilling without ever being monotonous. Clocking in at 147 minutes, it’s the longest entry in the franchise yet manages to feel as fleet of foot as its hero. (McQuarrie, wisely, creates a lot of scenarios where Ethan has to run from Point A to Point B, because there are few things more hypnotic and viscerally entertaining on film than watching Tom Cruise run like there’s no tomorrow.) McQuarrie perhaps deserves the most credit for finding variations within familiar themes. Fans of the franchise may not be too terribly surprised by the reveal that the burly August Walker is an anarchist in disguise, if only because he wouldn’t be the first American agent to betray our hero. But the way Cavill is employed throughout the film creates a genuinely fascinating foil. Even before he’s revealed his true colors, in a brutal and intense bathroom fight, Cavill shows that he’s not to be reckoned with.

These days, the only true competition that the Mission: Impossible franchise faces with long-running action series is the Fast and Furious films. (While there have been more than four times as many James Bond films over more than five decades, the character has been played by so many actors that it’s unfair to make a one-to-one comparison.) Certainly, it’s easy to joke about imagining what insane things Ethan Hunt will have to do in future entries; maybe if Dominic Toretto doesn’t go to outer space, Ethan will get there first. But in the first entry of this franchise to rely on more story-based continuity than ever before, returning director McQuarrie has proven himself to be the most capable person to make Mission: Impossible movies yet. After Fallout, he ought to make as many of these movies as Cruise’s Energizer-Bunny-like body and spirit will allow.