1. I think if the Mission: Impossible franchise starred anyone other than Tom Cruise, we’d regard all these movies as classics. All five have been excellent in their own ways, but unlike any other franchise I can think of, each sequel is better than its predecessor. Each has a different director, and different settings, and different characters—Cruise and Ving Rhames are the only constants—and each takes on the style and personality of its director. Brian DePalma’s 1996 original was stylish and borderline nonsensical; John Woo’s 2000 sequel was wildly over the top, yet still a ridiculous blast; J.J. Abrams’ 2006 installment was more old-school Spielbergian popcorn entertainment; and Brad Bird’s 2011 entry was a glorious cartoon come to life, with some truly inspired set pieces and stunts.
But these things are all, more than anything, professional. So many Hollywood action movies have so many hands on the steering wheel that spectacle outweighs awe; they’re so compromised and communal, serving so many masters, that they can feel like confused platforms for product placement blasted 50 feet high and screaming into your ears. But the M:I movies, despite their varying styles, all feel in control. They are massive enterprises that deliver the goods in the manner of an experienced craftsman, no matter who that craftsman happens to be. They are determined, no matter what, to do the job.
2. They are, thus, obviously the creation of Cruise, who famously is the hardest-working leading man in the history of the medium. (If you doubt this, he’ll be happy to remind you.) The guy is a lunatic, but he is our lunatic. His compulsive, almost oppressive need to entertain us may have turned him into a simulacrum of a human being who no longer can relate to other individuals in any meaningful fashion, but it’s impossible to argue that his crazy lifelong quest has actually failed to entertain us. Even when he’s in bad movies, he has no idea he’s in a bad movie, or at least never acts like it: Cruise is incapable of winking at the camera and separating himself from what’s going on around him.
This isn’t cool anymore, of course—half the job of actors today seems to be silently commenting to the audience on the performance they’re currently giving—and Cruise, along with all his other eccentricities, is pegged as what the cynical call a “try-hard,” as if there were something actually wrong with putting the time and effort to maximize your abilities in your chosen field. For all the flak the guy takes, other actors are famously in awe of him, the way he takes his occupation and strangles and shapes it until it is exactly what he commands it to be. We forget sometimes that acting, like everything else, is just a job. And nobody takes that job more seriously. Does it make him look ridiculous sometimes? Yes. Often, in fact. But if that exertion and dogged, crazed persistence keeps paying off in movies like Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, it’s absolutely worth it, for him and for us.
3. This is the best film in the franchise and a rival to Mad Max: Fury Road as a near-pinnacle of the action genre. It’s a great film in an entirely different way, though, precise and controlled rather than unhinged, hitting familiar notes in new ways rather than striving for something truly original and unlike anything we’ve seen before. Rogue Nation highlights the upside of professionalism and expertise: This is what happens when your movie is made by smart people consistently making the correct decision. As with all Cruise films, there’s a ceiling to this: The series isn’t going to reinvent itself anymore than he ever will. But this is how you do this exactly right. I’d say this is the platonic ideal of a Mission: Impossible film, but I said that about the last one, too.
4. The two keys this time: the screenplay and the woman. Christopher McQuarrie, who won an Oscar for his The Usual Suspects script, is tight with Cruise these days (he directed this and the lesser Jack Reacher), and he pumps up the stakes with a twisting, taut thriller that feels like a John LeCarre espionage mystery, except moving at 1,000 mph. These movies always have overwrought plots, but this one is infused with genuine intelligence and tension. Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is being hunted by The Syndicate, a shadow organization built like the IMF but turned evil; they’re able not only to mimic the moves of Hunt and his crew, but actually top them, constantly forcing Hunt into corners he can’t get out of. Meanwhile, the IMF has been shut down by the CIA, led by a smug bureaucrat played with smart relish by Alec Baldwin. Suddenly, even Hunt’s friends aren’t on his side.
And then there is the woman. Played by Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson, she’s essentially the British version of Hunt, an ultra-competent agent whose loyalties are never quite clear and whose intelligence and capability is never questioned. She alternately foils Hunt’s plans and saves his life in ways that are difficult to understand, from both his perspective and ours. But it all leads up to a fantastic payoff. Ferguson’s cool, elusive nature is a perfect contrast to Cruise’s manic kineticism; she’s an actress I wasn’t previously familiar with, and one I suspect we’ll be watching for a long time.
5. On a basic level, the action bits consistently click. There isn’t the whiz-bang Brad Bird zaniness of the last film: This is more European, a sleek, precise thriller that builds its set pieces meticulously and metes out information judiciously before knocking you over. The much-heralded Tom Cruise-strapped-to-the-side-of-a-plane business you’ve seen in the trailer (and probably heard about endlessly if you’ve run into Cruise at a party) is impressive, particularly in IMAX, but my favorite action bits are quieter and more carefully constructed: The best scene, in which Hunt has to break into an underwater vault and hold his breath for three minutes, keeps topping itself with one unexpected complication after another, ending with a powerful surprise that grows organically from the characters but still provides the appropriate jolts. And lest you think this movie’s too cerebral, there’s a motorcycle chase that tops the also-fantastic one in Furious 7, but doesn’t need endless CGI to do it. (The scene also ends with a visual punchline that provides the movie’s biggest laugh.)
Credit for all this has to go to Cruise. He has more power and control over this franchise than anything else in his career—and his life, it seems—and he has dragged this potentially silly clump of films based off a forgettable TV show no one remembers (but happened to have a thumping theme) into the most reliably entertaining film series of the last 25 years. I know when I go to a Tom Cruise movie that I will get maximum effort, for better or worse. But when I go to an M:I movie, I’m know I’m getting this professionalism at its peak, the distillation of Cruise’s 30-plus years as the biggest movie star in the world. This is how it’s done. As an actor, he famously makes everything look incredibly hard. But as a producer, and as the anchor of this series, he makes putting together the zenith of the Hollywood action-movie experience, look like the easiest thing in the world, every time. Tom may still be making these things well into his ’70s. I bet they’ll still be great.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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