In Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Tom Cruise runs faster, fights harder and flies higher. At 53, the actor seems more intent than ever on cementing his beleaguered star power, and he invests so much into his fifth outing as the tireless super-spy Ethan Hunt that he wins you over. For much of the film’s two hours, you forget about the real-world Cruise and all the problematic baggage he carries and just marvel at his efforts, even if they bear a whiff of desperation. Yes, that’s really Cruise hanging off the side of an airplane in the stupendous prologue that opens the movie. Yes, he really did have to hold his breath for long stretches during one of the film’s mammoth setpieces, this one set underwater.
And yes, that really is Cruise hurtling through the streets of Morocco on a motorcycle, roaring after the bad guys. There is evidence of CGI trickery everywhere, but it’s never as distracting as the video-game artificiality of, say, Furious 7. Cruise and his frequent collaborator Christopher McQuarrie (who wrote Valkyrie and Edge of Tomorrow and also directed 2012’s old-school Jack Reacher) adhere to the proven formula of the M:I franchise: Put the hero in a series of impossible, over-the-top predicaments that look as real as possible, then let Cruise’s clenched-jaw intensity sell the show (he always looks like he’s under duress, even when he’s just talking on the telephone).
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation pays homage to the previous entries in the series. The opening credits duplicate the ones from the first installment, directed by Brian De Palma in 1996, showing you the entire movie you’re about to see in rapid-fire cuts, set to Lalo Schifrin’s iconic score. McQuarrie also channels De Palma during an elegantly edited sequence involving an assassination attempt inside the Vienna Opera House during a live performance of Turandot, although McQuarrie can’t duplicate De Palma’s rapturous, nerve-shredding languors.
Fallout from the events of the previous picture, Brad Bird’s 2011 Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, leads to consequences. Alec Baldwin plays the CIA chief who decides to shut down Hunt and his band of IMF agents for all the collateral damage they’ve caused around the world. Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames return as Hunt’s cohorts, always watching his back (and, with the exception of Pegg, are given surprisingly little to do). Rebecca Ferguson is a fellow secret agent who is a physical and mental match for Hunt but, in time-honored espionage-thriller fashion, she may not be trustworthy. Sean Harris (Prometheus) plays the requisite maniacal villain, Lane, who speaks in a raspy whisper, is prone to theatrical grandstanding and has amassed an international army of former secret agents, intent on destroying the world or somesuch.
In a movie like this, the bad guy’s motivation is just a MacGuffin, a narrative spine to provide an excuse for outrageous action and preposterous plot twists. For about 90 minutes or so, Rogue Nation settles for that, and the result is grandly exciting, even if it never reaches the delirious heights of Ghost Protocol (or the emotional intensity of J.J. Abrams’ underrated Mission: Impossible III, which boasted the formidable Philip Seymour Hoffman as Cruise’s antagonist).
But in the final half-hour, McQuarrie makes a critical mistake: He starts taking this enjoyable nonsense seriously. Suddenly, this fleet, nimble adventure — which commented on the increasingly cannibalistic nature of modern-day covert government operations while making room for such intentionally hammy lines as “Ethan Hunt is the living manifestation of destiny!” — turns talky and morose. The dialogue no longer carries a tongue-in-cheek undertone (you feel sad watching the great Rhames forced to say “If Lane gets his hands on that money, we’re unleashing a terrorist superpower!” with a straight face). The action becomes smaller and more generic. The surprise use of the series’ trademark rubber masks is perfunctory and predictable. Even Pegg, who had constantly leavened the film with humor, is stripped of any opportunity to lighten the mood.
Cruise follows suit, his performance shifting into serious-drama mode, as if he were back making Born on the Fourth of July or Rainman. You can see the fun seep out of the movie just as it should be building to a crescendo, and it’s a bummer. Cruise remains an underrated, versatile actor, a victim of his own success, his acting chops and daring overshadowed by his box-office popularity (Rock of Ages was atrocious, yes, but what Cruise did in that movie was an act of nutso bravery.)
In Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Cruise wants to have it both ways, feeding the Hollywood blockbuster machine while trying to squeeze in respectability. The movie is better when it’s poking sly fun at Cruise’s superheroic screen persona (look at the expression on his face when Ethan realizes just how big the guy he must fight is) than when it asks you to buy into its far-fetched antics. Nobody wants a campy Mission: Impossible picture, but I don’t think anyone wants to see a grave Mission: Impossible, either. A bolder choice would have been to see this often thrilling entertainment through to the overblown finale it deserved. Instead, Rogue Nation becomes flat and self-important, demanding that we take it at face value. That’s like asking you to treat a Road Runner cartoon as a nature documentary. Mission impossible, indeed.
Cast: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin.
Writer-director: Christopher McQuarrie.
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 131 minutes. Bloodless but intense action violence. Playing at area theaters.