Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) and Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (Paramount Pictures)
At long last, Tom Cruise has no ego. The actor spent most of the ‘80s and ’90s playing characters who could almost all be called cocky, yet in what should be his waning days as an action star Cruise gives his funniest and most generous performance since Jerry Maguire. It is all the more remarkable that he does this in the fifth installment of a durable action series that has never been known for a light touch. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation still has the incredibly choreographed action sequences that are the backbone of the franchise, but Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie instead eschew much of the overblown dramatics that hinder most action films for a refreshingly light touch.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is absurd in the best sense of the term, and the strongest sequences exploit that. Between the scenes in which Cruise performs incredibly acrobatic feats that would kill men even half his age, McQuarrie throws in set pieces that owe more to farce than to thrillers. The best of these finds Cruise attempting to drive during a high-speed chase while completely delirious; his comic timing is as essential as his physical stamina. For what is likely the first time in his long career, a film even calls attention to Cruise’s somewhat diminutive stature during an action sequence. Intensity has always been Cruise’s trademark, but his fifth outing as Ethan Hunt has him playing an agreeable joker who just happens to be a nearly superhuman spy.
Simon Pegg reprises his role as Cruise’s sidekick spy, and his presence adds considerably to the comedic tone that makes this sequel special. Everything about Pegg, including his name, recalls the great character actors of Hollywood’s golden age (One can easily imagine him easily sliding into anything from a Capra drama to a John Ford western.), but Pegg is less the comic relief than Cruise’s partner-in-crime. This may only be Pegg’s third outing in the series, but he now seems as essential to the franchise as M is to James Bond, and it is easy to imagine Cruise and Pegg continuing their partnership in an actual comedy.
Rogue Nation is not perfect. The film subverts many but not all of the spy-movie conventions, and falls victim to a few of them. Cruise and his adversary in this outing (Sean Harris from Prometheus) engage in the cliched battle of wits that rests on the idea that the villain and hero are the same, and the phrase “he will stop at nothing” in regard to either protagonist or antagonist should be immediately deleted from any screenplay Hollywood produces. These are minor quibbles, though; it would be impossible for McQuarrie to have so much fun with the franchise if he didn’t still make some concession to convention. Every scene where Cruise takes on a band of anonymous villains on a motorcycle allows for the slapstick that makes it special. Without the one, this sequel could not have the other.
Cruise and Pegg may drive the film, but like all of the other installments of the franchise, the film is stacked with talent. Alec Baldwin continues to corner the market in suave but snarky authority figures as surely as Google does for Internet searches. Jeremy Renner, whose hangdog features express worry better than any current actor, and Ving Rhames (the only actor other than Cruise to appear in every Mission: Impossible film) may not have the opportunity to have as much fun as the rest, but executes his role well just the same. As the obligatory love interest, Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust, takes what could be a thankless role and makes it special.
The fifth outing of any franchise should seem like a dreary affair meant more as a cash grab than a film, but Christopher McQuarrie, as one would expect from the man who invented Keyser Söze, makes what could be a stale affair into something clever. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation may be the best of the series since the original.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Opens in theaters July 31
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