“Mission: Impossible — Fallout” is absolutely, positively everything you want in a superspy action adventure with whipped cream and a cherry on top.

It has: a cool undercover agent with neat gadgets and exciting missions. Bad guys tougher than a block of concrete and fight scenes that’ll make you feel you’re leaving the theater with two split lips and a black eye. Stunning real-world locations (New Zealand! Norway! Paris!) used to strikingly good effect. Full-tilt motorcycle chases through floods of speeding traffic. Splashy, high-budget production values. Strong, gorgeous women who dress how they want, go where they want, do what they want and toss around any guy who messes with them like a Georgia pizzeria waitress. In heels.

And did I mention Tom Cruise? He’s a genuine, dyed-in-the-wool, bankable movie star in an era when studios are far more committed to selling well-known brands than singular talents. A feverishly perfectionistic entertainer who crafts every project with a Steve Jobs level of ambition and an enthusiasm that is contagious, he also has a daredevil streak that makes him willing to risk his neck in dangerous, bone-breaking stunts for the sake of a “Holy cow!” action sequence.

Cruise, 56, fractured his right ankle while jumping across London rooftops for this film, the kind of thing that computer effects helped the Rock do in “Skyscraper.” Of course the studio knew that he might break something; a nine-week injury delay was factored into the production planning. Cruise is like Harry Houdini, willing to be locked in a box and thrown in the ocean just to prove he can escape.

His acting’s not bad, either. He makes secret agent Ethan Hunt a vulnerable, likable, relatable everyman hero even as James Bond and Jason Bourne vanish in his rearview mirror. He embodies what we’re not but on some level long to be.

This catalog of astonishments all fits together like the clockwork in a ticking time bomb. (Which this film also has in the form of multiple nukes counting down as the world hovers on the razor’s edge of chaos.)

Most franchises seem evermore fatigued as they age. But this entry, the fifth sequel in the series, tops almost all the others. Like “Skyfall” or “Mad Max: Fury Road,” it moves the goalposts farther back and scores time after time. It’s not at the wizardly level of film No. 4, Brad Bird’s “Ghost Protocol,” but it’s sure close.

The earlier “Mission: Impossible” movies charged ahead in relay race fashion, one excellent director handing the baton to another to make each stand-alone escapade in their signature styles. Here, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie is the first to perform double duty, following up his outstanding “Rogue Nation” with this overlapping sequel. There’s enough exposition for people who missed that one to grasp what’s at stake and everyone’s motives.

The earlier film’s villain, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), remains in custody, but now he has henchmen skulking around the world. The Apostles, as they’re called, aren’t garden-variety terrorists. They’re anarchists, planning to destroy the present world order. All they need is three plutonium cores that have vanished. Hunt and his fellow agents — always calm Luther (Ving Rhames) and neurotic Benjy (Simon Pegg) — work their way through a maze of international arms dealers in search of the stolen plutonium, which is promised to them if they release the diabolical Lane.

McQuarrie, who won an Oscar with his screenplay for “The Usual Suspects,” knows how to shape a thriller with enough suspense-building counterplots, twists and double-crosses to keep spy-movie fans satisfied. He is a stickler for clarity, both in storytelling and action set-pieces.

Oh, the stunts. In a pulse-quickening race around the traffic vortex of the Arc de Triomphe, a sequence knocking a speeding truck into the Seine River, and a pair of helicopters playing chicken over Kashmir, I had at least six moments of whispering, “Oh, that was brilliant.”

Almost all of this is done in old-fashioned live action. When you see Hunt piloting a chopper like mad, flipping off a fast motorcycle that just T-boned a car, being thrown into a shattering mirror or jumping out of a plane five miles above the ground, that is really Tom Cruise, really, REALLY doing it. There’s an overpowering excitement to watching genuinely dangerous things happen on-screen. It provides a tangible reality that’s missing from most modern blockbusters.

McQuarrie’s craftsmanship is terrific, clear without feeling calculated. While both the plot and the stunts are elaborate, it remains clear how everything is roller-coastering ahead. Rather than disorienting viewers with frenetic imagery and cuts, it blows our minds with awesome but coherent spectacle.

While Cruise is the name at the top of the advertising and delivers the movie’s showstoppers, the film gives us time to appreciate what the other cast members contribute, as well. Alec Baldwin is at his cranky best as Hunt’s agency boss, with Angela Bassett playing his CIA rival. As a seething, swaggering agent she forces onto Hunt’s team, Henry Cavill adds some Superman-style oomph to the combat scenes.

Rebecca Ferguson, who was turned into a star in the earlier installment, returns as an alluring British assassin with a more than professional interest in Hunt. “The Crown’s” Vanessa Kirby, playing a sleek, cunning enchantress called the White Widow, brings another level of class to the proceedings, delivering some nimble bad guy comeuppances with a Bowie knife strapped to her thigh.

The movie pauses for a moment’s breath as needed, putting the action on hold to offer clarity, insight, wit, moral themes, subtext and all the other things that can go into a thriller besides bang-bang and crash-crash. A good bit of agent Hunt’s time is devoted to character development and enriching our understanding of how he regrets the lethal nature of his work. After more than 20 years on the job, he still holds onto traditional moral responsibility, going out of his way not to kill people, unlike the detached, remorseless spies in other series.

Good as it is, some of this movie is utterly nuts. In order to sneak into a Paris nightclub, Hunt performs a HALO jump (high-altitude, low-open), a move used by military personnel to infiltrate hostile areas. It means jumping from a plane at an altitude of 25,000 feet and not popping the chute until he’s under 2,000 feet. Why he does this rather than take a taxi is not logically defensible. But Cruise wanted to make that crazy jump, and he did it 106 times until they shot it exactly the way it needed to be. He’s the first actor to have done it on camera. All due respect to Daniel Day-Lewis, but find me a moment in his illustrious career that equals that. I don’t think so.

 

Mission: Impossible – Fallout
★★★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of action, and for brief strong language.