Mission: Impossible holds a very unique position in the modern cinema landscape. It is the rare franchise (only just now rivaled by the return of Mad Max) that has almost no pretentions to continuity, nor does it really seem invested in world-building, over-arching narrative, or even developing its minimal cast of returning characters. Over the past two decades, Mission: Impossible has evolved into a test kitchen for directors wishing to get their feet wet in American action cinema, whether it be John Woo attempting to translate his Hong Kong sensibilities in part two, J.J. Abrams taking his first stab at directing for the big screen for part three, or Pixar’s Brad Bird venturing into the realms of live action for the first time in 2011’s Ghost Protocol. Now with installment five, Rouge Nation (thankfully continuing to buck the trend of numbering this franchise that requires no homework to feel caught up with the current installment), Christopher McQuarrie takes the helm for what is another great installment in a franchise that is somehow only getting better with age.
The plots of these films are pretty damn formulaic, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t get into specifics. Ethan Hunt (played by a gracefully aging Tom Cruise) is a secret agent for the Impossible Mission Force, a small team of secret agents tasked with taking down urgent threats to world security. The quirk this time around is that there is now an evil group of spies known as The Syndicate, who want a technological MacGuffin for reasons because who cares, that’s not why you watch a Mission: Impossible movie. This film, like most of the M:I franchise before it, is all about the action setpieces, and this one surely delivers.
Tom Cruise is game as ever to be the director’s punching bag, putting himself in actually dangerous situations for that ever-important take. His character is smug and as two-dimensional as ever, but much like in Edge of Tomorrow (also co-written by McQuarrie), it’s just fun to watch Tom Cruise hurt at the whims of the script. However, keeping with a growing trend in Hollywood, Cruise is joined by a competent female agent, played by Rebecca Ferguson. What’s great about the inclusion of her character is that she doesn’t rely on Cruise or any other male cast member for self-definition, but is a fully realized character in her own right that kicks ass, which isn’t to say that she is terribly well developed, but only well developed as the rest of the male action figures McQuarrie positions for his setpieces.
In contrast to those who have handled the franchise before him, McQuarrie seems to lack a distinctive voice as a director in this installment, but instead remixes motifs and themes from previous entries, whether it be Woo’s operatic interpretation of the battle between dual moralities, Abram’s insistence on a personal dimension that is here realized as camaraderie between the agents, or Bird’s pulse-pounding philosophy of action scenes melting into one another to keep the tension high. This installment easily goes down as the second best of the franchise, but only because it must live in the shadow of the non-stop frantic pacing of Ghost Protocol. This is a frivolous summer blockbuster that doesn’t really belong on anyone’s top ten list this year, yet it knows what it is and tries to be the best version of a frivolous summer blockbuster that it can be. This is definitely worth your time.