Latest 'Mission: Impossible' Proves That Not All Blockbuster Sequels Suck

By Michael Nordine

In a summer marked by disappointing returns to long-running franchises (we're looking at you, Jurassic World and Terminator: Genisys), Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation is a welcome return to form: a throwback that doesn't feel hastily thrown together. It's a testament to the M:I movies' success that most of its audience probably isn't even aware they're based on an old TV show. It's also a reminder of the drawing power of Tom Cruise, who's both the face of the franchise and one of Hollywood's last true movie stars.

Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie's contribution to the espionage series quickly sets about separating the doers, who are constantly risking their lives in the field, from the finger-wagging bureaucrats meddling from the safety of their desks. The officially-nonexistent Impossible Mission Force is on the verge of being dissolved, thanks mainly to the destructive manner in which its missions are proven to in fact be possible, and Ethan Hunt (Cruise) has no choice but to go, well, rogue. Alec Baldwin is the face of these backseat drivers who Just Don't Get It, and his evil is that of one who would dare impose clearheaded logic onto situations of adrenaline-fueled righteousness.

This is all the more dangerous given the existence of the film's titular "rogue nation": the Syndicate, an anti-IMF, vaguely Illuminati-like cabal of disavowed agents from across the globe. When a plane goes missing in Southeast Asia or a head of state dies in central Europe, they're neither isolated incidents nor coincidences. Rather, they're strings being pulled by a nefarious puppetmaster reminiscent of No Country for Old Men's Anton Chigurh for his ability to anticipate and control every possible outcome. This shadowy figure bests Ethan at every turn; he's playing chess while Ethan is too busy jumping off tall buildings to think more than two steps ahead.

Rounding out the cast are some familiar M:I faces: Simon Pegg as the comic relief, Ving Rhames as the longtime Ethan loyalist, and Jeremy Renner as the chameleon assimilating himself into any movie franchise of his choosing. This is quite the skill, even if the likes of M:I or The Avengers limit how much time he can spend in the more interesting fare like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Hurt Locker.

The clear standout among these supporting players, though, is Rebecca Ferguson as the unfortunately-named Ilsa Faust, a double (or perhaps triple?) agent whose true loyalty—to the IMF, to the Syndicate, or perhaps to the British government—is a question Rogue Nation spends much of its time answering and then turning on its head. She, too, outpaces Ethan, whether at holding her breath underwater or riding a motorcycle through Casablanca. Ferguson's performance is on nearly the same level as Emily Blunt's in Edge of Tomorrow; perhaps there's something inherently satisfying about seeing a woman knock Cruise down a peg.

Even so, to watch him here is to be reminded of the fading notion of the movie star. Cruise has an innate ability to inject levity into even the most self-consciously impressive set-pieces (including one straight out The Godfather Part III), keeping the action lean and muscular rather than weighing it down with self-important bombast. As the fifth entry in the M:I series, Rogue Nation bears the familiar burden of one-upping prior installments' action sequences without stripping them of meaning and context. Cruise—who, you've surely heard by now, really was on the side of that plane as it took off—excels in this mode. Like Renner, his talents could arguably be put to more meaningful use elsewhere, but few others come to mind who can still make a twenty-year-old franchise feel fresh.

Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation opens Friday.