Action's greatest hits

Cruise, Tom Cruise.

Cruise, Tom Cruise.

Rated 4.0

With the possible exception of the Alien series, the Mission: Impossible movies might be the most auteur-driven multidirector film franchise going. Most movie franchises are designed to be formulaic and faceless, impervious to the personal peculiarities of auteurs, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe currently setting the gold standard for a spirit-crushing house style.

Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation is the fifth installment in the Tom Cruise-led superspy franchise, and Christopher McQuarrie is the fifth different man to direct. Every Mission: Impossible film has been built around roughly the same international espionage template of stunts, gadgets, guns, chases, exotic locations and Tom Cruise running and jumping and riding motorcycles, but each new director managed to make it his own.

Brian De Palma’s entry teemed with Watergate paranoia and nods to Hitchcock, John Woo’s was all empty style and fluttering doves, J.J. Abrams brought the lens flare and nonlinear structure, and Brad Bird crafted gee-whiz family entertainment around an Ayn Rand-ian superman. McQuarrie is best known as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Usual Suspects, and he’s also the director of Jack Reacher, a below-average Cruise vehicle that was met with a critical and financial shrug in 2012. He seems mostly interested in crafting tricky modern noirs, films that are hard-boiled and self-aware at the same time.

So what McQuarrie-esque qualities does McQuarrie bring to Rogue Nation? Other than a Jack Reacher-y high-gloss grit and a cat-and-mouse design to the central plot, hardly any. Rogue Nation is practically a greatest-hits collection—fake latex faces are ripped off for dramatic effect, an impenetrable fortress is penetrated and the globe is trotted to dazzling effect. It’s familiar and fun and expertly packaged, and it settles into an eminently watchable formula that’s reminiscent of a Roger Moore-era Bond movie.

The film even opens with a Bond-ian pre-credits grabber of an action sequence, as Cruise’s unflappable Impossible Mission Force agent Ethan Hunt hangs onto to the outside of a cargo plane as it takes off from a Belarusian runway. Hunt and his team are tracking a group of rogue spies called “The Syndicate,” but back in Washington, D.C., a CIA muckety-muck played by Alec Baldwin succeeds in shutting down the IMF.

This sends Hunt into exile, but the mercurial head of The Syndicate (Sean Harris) lures him out, while a highly skilled British agent (Rebecca Ferguson) appears to play both sides. McQuarrie wings Rogue Nation from continent to continent at a breakneck pace, barely stopping to breathe for the entire first half. It makes for an entertaining whir of death-defying action and silly gadgets (the flute gun was my favorite), an in-the-moment blast of summer movie fun not likely to matter come the fall.

As for the supporting cast, there’s a little more for Simon Pegg to do this time around, and a little less for Ving Rhames, but at least the token female takes a larger stake in the action, even if that still doesn’t make her a well-rounded character. Jeremy Renner, meanwhile, is stuck playing Hawkeye, a fairly useless appendage to the team whose sole function is to explain and re-explain the plot to characters who already know what’s happening. All that’s missing is the crossbow, thank God.

Leading the way, of course, is Cruise, still ageless and graceful and yet increasingly hard and terse. Cruise has always been a remarkable physical actor—he possesses that “will to action” that film critic Owen Gleiberman once assigned to Harrison Ford—and the Mission: Impossible movies offer him an ideal showcase for his talents. McQuarrie keeps Cruise and his character focused on the job—unlike the previous couple of franchise entries, the low-nonsense Rogue Nation refuses to offer him the dream of an off-mission life.

For all of Cruise’s steely charisma and physical acumen, though, the real MVP of Rogue Nation is cinematographer Robert Elswit. After summoning seedy Los Angeles atmospheres across the decades last year with Inherent Vice and Nightcrawler, Elswit lends Rogue Nation a seductive golden burnish that makes the film seem more mature than it really is. It’s a little something new for a film and a franchise where everything new is old again.