An efficient and engaging thrill machine, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is further proof Tom Cruise’s signature franchise is one of the most consistently high-quality adventure series we’ve ever had. It accomplishes this by delivering strongly on a set of appealing and entertaining recurring excitements – vertiginous stunts, complicated heists, amusing spy gadgets, convincing masks, and dastardly double crosses. But no matter how cleverly the filmmakers deploy these elements, the glue holding them together is Cruise himself, racing along with hard-charging star charisma born out of hard-working determination motoring a constant forward momentum. Much has been made about his running, in which he appears to throw every ounce of his being into a hurtling mad dash across the frame. If anyone could accomplish the impossible, it would be his Ethan Hunt.
With appealing action and a megawatt star, the franchise has an ability to allow each director to play to his strengths. The result is a series of five films with a welcome familiarity in its recombination of its best parts, and yet never grows too repetitive. Each entry has its own flavor. De Palma first brought complicated pulp, then Woo had swooning balletic action, Abrams injected throat-grabbing emotional stakes, and Bird performed a juggling act of buoyant one-thing-after-another action. Now writer-director Christopher McQuarrie has the reigns, steering an endlessly enjoyable action movie into his twisty construction and clever control. He brings the mystery and the weighty violence of his last film, Jack Reacher (an underrated Cruise vehicle), and the shifting allegiances and slow realizations of his first script, The Usual Suspects.
Once more, the milieu of Ethan Hunt and the agents of the secret Impossible Missions Force is familiar, but the tone has something new. Unlike madcap MacGuffin chases of the last few entries, Rogue Nation plunges us into spy movie mechanics, with shady dealings and uneasy alliances. In D.C., the new head of the CIA (Alec Baldwin) talks a confidential Senate hearing into dissolving the IMF, using the near-miss missile and smoldering Kremlin from Ghost Protocol as his evidence. This leaves familiar faces (Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames) behind desks, while Hunt (Tom Cruise) disobeys orders by staying in the field. He finds himself in hiding, trying to track down The Syndicate, a terrorist organization only he seems to know about. Connecting isolated tragedies with a conspiratorial mind, he seems crazy to the CIA, who are desperate to hunt him down and take him in.
But because an early scene sees an unknown bespectacled Brit (Sean Harris) gun down an IMF agent and attempt to kill Hunt, who barely escapes thanks to a mysterious woman (Rebecca Ferguson) and her helpful punches, it’s easy to see he’s right. So he’s on a globetrotting chase away from the CIA while attempting to track down proof of the group to clear his name, and then take them down and save the world. McQuarrie keeps things ambiguous. What is The Syndicate? Who is the Brit and the woman? What’s the IMF’s role? All is answered in sensationally staged setpieces pleasingly varied and orchestrated. Instead of the usual action beats strung along by rote connective tissue, they grow thrillingly out of an involving set of mysteries and complications. It never overwhelms or exhausts, maintaining consistently pleasing tension and thrills.
Rogue Nation is structured as a nesting doll of action, each setpiece a more compact, concentrated, and intricately designed moment than the last. It starts with big, grinning, highflying stunts, before narrowing through heists and car chases to close on bruising one-on-one combat. The movie moves quickly, enjoying a good one-liner or a perfectly timed look of skepticism just as much as it does putting Cruise on the side of a plane during takeoff, tossing him down an artificial waterfall, throwing him through a plate-glass window, and rolling his car end over end. The action is satisfying, bright, clear images (from cinematographer Robert Elswit) whipped up with crisp cross-cutting and elegant design. A gorgeously designed sequence set around an opera house backstage and on catwalks during a performance is one of the series’ best, with other highlights here including a high-velocity motorcycle chase down a desert highway, a trembling time-bomb bluff, and shootouts and knife fights kept PG-13 despite teeth-rattling sound effects.
McQuarrie stages these thrilling moments with the oomph of impact and the elegance of clockwork construction. But he never loses sight of the human-level interpersonal drivers behind the chaos. This allows Tom Cruise’s intense determination and eager motion to take appealing center stage while the terrific ensemble is allowed to be simultaneously essential team members and great comic relief, fun without diluting seriousness. (Best may be Baldwin, as a serious obstacle cut with a bit of Jack Donaghy bluster.) Meanwhile, Ferguson is great new character, complicated and an unknowable variable. Is she a foil, prey, a secret help, or a manipulative mastermind? It’s fun guessing, but even better is the realization she’s Hunt’s equal (or better, in some ways). If she’s an ally, they’re in luck. But if she’s out to destroy them, she just might win.
Running an unbelievably brisk 131 minutes, Rogue Nation is stuffed with excitement manipulated efficiently. McQuarrie and his team get just about everything possible out of each action sequence without overstaying their welcome. There’s no need to have a perfunctory car chase when it can drive the plot forward while adding participants and obstacles cleverly colliding and careening throughout. Each setpiece is wrung for all its worth, but stops where it can still leave the audience begging for more, as the characters regroup for their next move. McQuarrie understands the appeal of a blockbuster action movie at its best, marrying a fine ensemble with elaborate special effects in a tightly plotted machine delivering everything you’d want and a little more, too. The Lalo Schifrin theme has become big-budget action cinema’s most reliable sound. You can lean back sure that whatever happens next will be hugely enjoyable.