It’s almost inconceivable for an action franchise to maintain relevance as long as the Mission: Impossible films have. Just gaze upon and shudder at 2013’s A Good Day to Die Hard, a sequel so half-baked in its execution that it barely exists. Bruce Willis doesn’t care, and neither should you. Tom Cruise, on the other hand, does care … perhaps too much for his own good. Where the Fast and Furious series reinvented itself by doubling down on the bombast and silliness, the Impossible films have transformed into a showcase for Cruise’s inhuman endurance and willingness to risk ending up as a splat on the pavement.

His reckless proclivity for stunt work aside, the actor has continued to curate his signature movies with an impressive array of skilled filmmakers and stunt coordinators. Like the character Ethan Hunt, Cruise relies on a team of experts to achieve the impossible task of keeping this series fresh over the past 22 years.

Mission: Impossible — Fallout is the sixth entry in the franchise and the second with writer-director Christopher McQuarrie at the helm. It’s also the strongest of the bunch, and the purest distillation of what these films have become: a succession of lengthy, exhilarating setpieces tied together with the expected espionage plot of suicide missions and double crosses. Even at 147 minutes, Fallout never stops moving, pummeling the audience with audacious action sequences that are among the most thrilling of the decade.

We reunite with Ethan Hunt tracking down a terrorist organization known as the Apostles, cohorts of the baddie Solomon Lane from Rogue Nation, who returns here. Their Evil Plan™ is that of Ozymandias from Watchmen: Nuke major cities and build a more peaceful world out of the wreckage.

McQuarrie once again plays up the team aspect among the Impossible Mission Force as they work to prevent the Apostles from detonating three nuclear bombs. Joining Hunt, as usual, is Pegg as Mr. Comic Relief and Ving Rhames as the lovable muscle. New to the crew is August Walker (Henry Cavill), a CIA agent whose allegiance to Hunt is questionable. After a string of unfortunate DC movies, Cavill is finally given a chance to shine in a role, bringing a formidable physicality to a character any other actor could have turned into a nothing part.   

To be perfectly honest, the plot itself will be nothing new for devotees of the series. However, the thematic threads trailing throughout very well may be. Fallout is of a kin with other pinnacle blockbusters The Dark Knight and Skyfall in that it concerns our hero reckoning with the consequences of his past actions, which means it’s rather appropriate this is the most somber Mission to date. For a franchise whose entries often feel disconnected to one another, it’s refreshing to see McQuarrie increase the stakes by showing us the events of the previous films have genuine repercussions.

Thematic consistency is nice and all, but anyone walking into one of these is really only wondering: How hard does our boy Tommy Cruise go in these stunts? Suffice to say, Fallout is the first action flick since Mad Max: Fury Road where I sat marveling at the sheer craft and impossibility of what was playing out before me.

It would be a war crime to delve into too much detail, yet the highlights include a three-way fistfight that leaves a nightclub restroom reduced to rubble and an astonishing climax involving Hunt climbing his way onto a moving helicopter. Each scene is shot with breathtaking clarity by cinematographer Rob Hardy and performed with seamless stunt work by Cruise and company. In a summer filled with unexceptional, CG-crippled mayhem (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Skyscraper or Avengers: Infinity War), it’s comforting watching a blockbuster whose thrills actually thrill.

Fallout is transcendent popcorn cinema, and my only gripe would be the same one I have against every Mission. Frankly, these are films devoid of any genuine characters, and instead inhabited by archetypes. While Cruise is as magnetic as ever, I can’t bring myself past the fact that he’s more or less playing himself here, with his constantly intense stare and unimpeachable work ethic, so much so that I half-expected him to sit down Simon Pegg’s character at one point and hook him up to an E-meter.

I already feel dirty for said criticism, though, as Fallout proves this series to be the standard toward which other summer tentpoles should aspire. It’s a miracle that at 56, Cruise can still outdo himself, and it’s even more of one that a series this long in the tooth can manage to show moviegoers something new.