After the one-two punch of Mad Max: Fury Road‘s art house approach to action movies and Ant-Man‘s low-key thrills, it’s tempting to expect Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation to feel un-hip and outdated two minutes in.
It comes as a pleasant surprise that the series’ cartoon spy-fi lunacy still plays, that leading man Tom Cruise can still play a convincing and charismatic action hero — and do his own bat-shit crazy stunts — at age 53, and that his frequent collaborator Christopher McQuarrie has sharpened his skills since the lackluster Jack Reacher.
McQuarrie, who wrote and directed Rogue Nation, wrings a lot of action and melodrama out of a deceptively simple premise: The IMF is under heavy scrutiny thanks to their antics in the previous movie and a “shut ’em down” campaign lead by CIA chief Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin). Also gunning for them is a shadowy terrorist organization called the Syndicate, which drives Ethan Hunt (Cruise) underground after a failed attempt to capture and interrogate him.
Hunt and his associates — tech-savvy Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), middle manager-turned-super-spy William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), and ex-IMF agent Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) — team up with sketchy British agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) to track don the Syndicate and put it out of business. That’s no easy task as its leader, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) is a ruthless plans-within-plans mastermind who seems to always be five moves ahead of the team.
For the most part, McQuarrie manages to stay at least a step or two ahead of the viewer. He’s improved his pacing as a director in the three years since the aforementioned Jack Reacher, his first directorial work since 2000’s Way of the Gun. Reacher had an uninspired, by-the-numbers feel to it that made it impossible for even Cruise to breathe life into; here, his style is tighter and more confident, and he keeps the story moving from one adrenaline-fueled set-piece to the next.
Those sequences are, of course, the big draw for moviegoers, and McQuarrie delivers some doozies: a protracted car/motorcycle chase through the narrow streets of Casablanca falls just shy of greatness, and an assassination attempt involving an almost absurd number of snipers during a performance of Turandot at the Vienna Opera House falls somewhere between De Palma and Hitchcock on the Cinema Suspense Scale. Rogue Nation is so assured of itself that it actually leads with Cruise dangling from the side of a Russian transport plane during take off.
Cruise and his cohorts still have fantastic chemistry together, but to her credit Ferguson, a Swedish actress largely unknown in the US, manages to steal much of the spotlight. Ilsa is a deceptive figure with her own agenda, and Ferguson delivers an intriguing blend of ambiguity, vulnerability, confidence, danger, and unforced sexuality that equals true mysteriousness.
Rogue Nation may lack the brooding intensity of the James Bond and Jason Bourne movies, but that’s kind of the point — this is summer escapism for viewers who want their spy-fi neither shaken nor stirred, but still with plenty of kick.