Cruise in Control: Fifth "Mission: Impossible" not the tops but still delivers the goods

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)
131 min., rated PG-13. 

Once based on the 1966 TV series, the "Mission: Impossible" films could easily double for the James Bond films with Tom Cruise in the 007 role and all of their globe-trotting, megalomaniac villains, femme fatales, and death-defying stunts of derring-do. They have all had their own merits, each directed by a different notable filmmaker (Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, and Brad Bird) who brought an inexhaustible freshness to each entry. This being the fifth installment, "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation" delivers the goods even after 2011's crackerjack "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol"—decidedly the best in the series—and it seems the series will need the hackiest of helmers or lose Tom Cruise before it ever self-destructs for good. Luckily, even though he's not scaling the outside of the world's tallest building in Dubai with just a pair of thermo gloves this time, it's still fun to watch Cruise hanging off stuff and putting his life on the line, a safety net be damned.

Just when Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) thought he was out, they pulled him back in. At the end of "Ghost Protocol" after saving the world from nuclear warheads with the help of his team, he was tasked with a new mission involving The Syndicate, a shadowy terrorist organization composed of ex-government agents, led by the sinister Soloman Lane (Sean Harris). Before believing that such an organization does not exist, Ethan is captured but soon escapes, thanks to Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), an undercover British Intelligence operative with ties to The Syndicate. Meanwhile, with the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) disbanded, analyst William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) is placed under investigation for misconduct in Washington, D.C. by CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), who's determined to shut them down. Six months later in Havana, Cuba, the disgraced Ethan goes off the grid and trots the globe as a fugitive, enlisting colleague Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) when he starts following Lane. In order to stop Lane's terrorist attacks, Ethan might have to trust the enigmatic Ilsa Faust.

A workmanlike spy thriller showcasing practical stunts that are much, much more than that, "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation" was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (who last helmed 2012's "Jack Reacher," also starring Tom Cruise), and it really is a director's movie. Anyone can point and shoot, but McQuarrie seems to opt for a cleaner, more fluid action style that leaves one exhilarated and exhausted, in a good way, and makes us care. In terms of story and characters, this is still pretty standard espionage stuff and not as tight with the particulars but made involving by writer-director McQuarrie's assuredness with his storytelling that mostly coheres from one sensational action set-piece to the next. The characters are mainly all-business, but there is still a camaraderie between Hunt and his team. A bona fide movie star and quite the daredevil (no matter where you stand with him as a celebrity), 53-year-old Tom Cruise assures everyone that age is just a number and that proving his physical prowess and being up for anything by doing his own stunts is the only special effect a summer blockbuster really needs. Even if the viewer learns nothing more about Ethan Hunt, Cruise barely misses a beat in the role he first played when he was 34.

With Michelle Monaghan long gone as Ethan Hunt's wife Julia and Paula Patton's team member Jane Carter forgotten about, the film doubly belongs to one Rebecca Ferguson, who's something of a discovery. New to the series, the Swedish stunner is a fierce, captivating force and her breakout turn as alluring double agent Ilsa Faust gives her enough layers and more to do than any female in the series. Simon Pegg's tech field agent Benji returns and has evolved into more than just comic relief. For continuity purposes, Jeremy Renner and Ving Rhames return as William Brandt and Luther Stickell but are both kept on the sidelines for a while, trying to find Ethan and Benji. Alec Baldwin also makes an amusing addition to the series with his back-and-forth with Renner as CIA bigwig Alan Hunley, who will undoubtedly be back for a sixth movie. If there's any weak spot, Sean Harris has the face and voice of a menacing villain as Soloman Lane, but he's far less chilling here than he was as a possessed madman in "Deliver Us From Evil."

In just the pre-credit sequence, Cruise's Ethan grabs onto the side of a cargo plane taking off a runway in Minsk, Belarus, and holds on for dear life. Following it up is a knockout sequence set at the Vienna Opera as Ethan must stop three assassins targeting the Austrian Chancellor at  a performance of Giacomo Puccini's "Turnadot." There's an elegant, measured Hitchcockian flair à la "The Man Who Knew Too Much" to the tension-loaded staging of Ethan fighting with one of the baddies on a catwalk that keeps levitating. A hold-your-breath underwater mission and a stupendously staged high-speed chase with a BMW and motorcycles from the streets of Casablanca, Morocco, to a switchback mountain road also spark that giddy excitement you want to feel in every action film. With most of these set-pieces front-loaded, the film's zip starts to flag before the satisfying showdown, but you can't have everything. "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation" is also a jot less fun than "Ghost Protocol," but by and large, this is shrewdly made action filmmaking with stunts that keep topping the last. It's not possible but definite that audiences searching for nothing more than thrilling popcorn entertainment will get their money's worth in two-plus hours' time.