There are action movies, and then there are Tom Cruise action movies. “Mission: Impossible—Fallout” is quite possibly the Tom Cruisiest action movie ever made. And I mean that in the best way possible.

What started as an intriguing spy movie more than twenty years ago has transformed into something much bigger, and very different. The spying and the gadgets and the intrigue are present in every installment of this now six film franchise. But with each new entry getting a different director, a new writer, and a few new faces in the cast, the tale of superspy Ethan Hunt (Cruise) becomes bigger and wilder all the time. For many franchises this is the kiss of death. For “Mission: Impossible,” it means evolution.

“Fallout” has the basic premise of every “M:I” movie. There’s a mission, lives hang in the balance, and if Ethan Hunt and his team can’t do it, no one can. As Anthony Hopkins said in the very first sequel,” “This isn’t Mission: Difficult. It’s Mission: Impossible. Difficult should be a walk in the park for you.” And with that, once again, Ethan faces a truly impossible mission.

Someone has stolen a lot of weapons grade plutonium. A group of someones that came together after the apparent collapse of the Syndicate. They are known as the Apostles, and operate on a global scale, committed to using calamity to unite the world for peace. If this film existed in the same universe as the Avengers, the Apostles would be running Thanos’ fan club. They are scary, dangerous, well-connected, and many are unidentified.

“Fallout” is the first true sequel in the collection. Each film has centered around Ethan Hunt and has progressed his personal journey a little. But none of the plotlines have truly connected like “Fallout” does to “Rogue Nation.” While Ethan works to recover the stolen plutonium, he finds himself in the middle of a deal between a supplier and a buyer. And the supplier wants a certain prisoner: Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). Lane was the Syndicate leader and chief antagonist in “Rogue Nation.” All of this brokering also reunites Hunt with another semi-antagonist from “Rogue Nation”: ex-MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson).

Solomon Lane likes to consider himself the smartest one in any room he occupies. And that is often true. What Sean Harris does with the character is entertaining because of its megalomaniacal creepiness. Where he was once slick and polished, he is now reduced to an unruly beard, shackles, and ill-fitting clothes. But he still has a way of getting under the skin. He still thinks he’s on the right side of the fight for the fate of the world. And he’s still willing to do anything it takes to accomplish his evil scheme.

Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson was a welcome addition to the series two years ago. She has not worn out that welcome yet. Her Ilsa Faust is the only character in all of the films that has ever truly gotten to be as tough and unstoppable as Ethan himself. And while Ilsa and Ethan have this connection and a very strong mutual respect, they once again find themselves at odds. Each has a very different reason for needing to take custody of Lane.

Someone who believes himself to be as tough as Ethan is August Walker (Henry Cavill). The CIA operative is under orders to accompany Ethan’s team on the mission to recover the plutonium. He packs his gun and his mustache, and travels with the team to Paris where things go haywire. This leads to the scene in the ubiquitous trailer where Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill beat up a bathroom while trying to apprehend someone. The scene is beautifully, violently choreographed, full of punches that make you recoil, imagining how it would feel if it had landed against your own jaw.

Tom Cruise found something truly special when he discovered Ethan Hunt back in the 90s. The agent with a talent for disguising himself and pulling off impossible stunts is, in many ways, the character Cruise was born to play. His determination to make every action sequence bigger and better than the last movie especially works for a film that is all about doing things that can’t be done. Bigger is survival for these films, and he gets it right. This time around, he runs faster than ever, knowing there is more at stake than ever before. He jumps rooftops across London (actually fracturing his ankle in one shot), and races cars and motorcycles through narrow European streets in tighter succession than ever. And that isn’t even addressing the helicopter stunt piloting that can only have been accomplished by actual wizardry.

But beyond the impressive acrobatics and the aerial maneuvering, Cruise brings something else to Ethan Hunt. Heart. Ethan isn’t cold-blooded like the more recent versions of Bond, or other gritty, noir-ish spy thrillers. What sets him apart, and is integral to this story, is his capacity for love. He isn’t motivated simply by beating the bad guys. He really does want to help people. It matters to him. And it makes him a more thoroughly fleshed out and accessible character.

The rest of the team is good in the usual way. Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames are back as Benji and Luther. Ving Rhames still has the distinction of being the only actor besides Cruise to appear in every chapter. Alec Baldwin reprises his role as IMF Director Alan Hunley, after being introduced in “Rogue Nation.” His scenes are few, but key. Ethan’s erstwhile wife Julia reappears as Michelle Monaghan returns for the first time since her uncredited cameo in “Ghost Protocol.” Additional newcomers Angela Bassett and Vanessa Kirby are both very effective when they have their moments. But, again, their scenes are few. Kirby, though, provides a fun callback to the very first “Mission: Impossible” if you’re paying attention.

Christopher McQuarrie has the distinction of being the first director to helm two Missions. He also wrote and directed “Rogue Nation,” and seeing “Fallout” now helps the previous film’s ending feel a bit more substantial. There is plenty to enjoy in “Fallout,” though, so if you missed the former or it’s been awhile, you’ll still be fine if you don’t have time to catch up. McQuarrie is clearly a fan of the old television show. He was the first storyteller to incorporate the nebulous evil organization, The Syndicate, into the films. His general way of including callbacks to the show and to previous entries helps add to the overall sense that this really is a franchise, and not just a movie with a bunch of sequels.

McQuarrie’s script also infuses the right amount of silly humor. Jokes that hit at exactly the right moment, but that real operatives in similar situations would probably be either too serious or too busy to stop and tell. But they are necessary to break up the tension. And if there is just one word to summarize the experience of watching “Fallout,” it is intense. This movie never stops moving. McQuarrie knows how to ratchet things up, and just when to do it. Doug Liman claims he witnessed Tom Cruise holding his breath for six minutes. McQuarrie dares the audience to beat that time. Every minute of these two and a half hours feels like a ticking clock, counting down to doomsday. It is by far the most exhilarating film of the year. And of the franchise. And possibly of Cruise’s career.

That being said, “Fallout” does suffer just slightly from fatigue. Every chase—from foot to chopper—is well constructed and gorgeously shot. But several of those scenes, and there are many, go a bit longer than necessary. In fact, one of the motorcycle chases could be excised completely and the story would sacrifice nothing in doing so. But this is a summer movie and it knows it. It is here to please those looking for chases and explosions just as much as the crowd wanting intelligent and thoughtful.

See this in IMAX if you have the chance. The helicopter sequence alone is worth the admission price.

“Mission: Impossible—Fallout” is distributed by Paramount and hits theaters this Friday, July 27.

GRADE: (★★★1/2)