Mission:Impossible – Rogue Nation / Christopher McQuarrie / 2015 / threestar

Active Ingredients: Action setpieces; Rebecca Ferguson; Visual clarity
Side Effects: Pacing and length; Third act complications

In today’s blockbuster climate, the Mission:Impossible series represents a refreshing and much-needed return to a bygone era of lighthearted action/adventure cinema. With no futuristic worlds to conjure, robotic mayhem to slog through or comic book lore to cater to, Tom Cruise‘s improbable franchise relies on a much more concrete and satisfying brand of spectacle. The latest entry, Christopher McQuarrie’s Rogue Nation, continues in the vein of the previous two successful films, pitting Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and his team of agents and quipping comic relief supporters against a tangible and formidable adversary as he dangles precariously from high places.

In this respect, today’s Mission:Impossible films are much closer to James Bond than say, John LeCarre. In what was surely a financially shrewd maneuver, Cruise has replaced the paranoia and impossibly knotty intrigue of Brian de Palma’s first film (not to mention the ludicrous romantic melodrama of John Woo’s second film) with a simpler formula. From the third film to this year’s Rogue Nation, a Mission:Impossible movie is about, well, a team on an impossible mission. On their way towards a clearly-defined goal, they stop through a series of action setpieces. They use gadgets, fast vehicles and clever deception. The stunts are wild and high-flying, but grounded in a physical world.

These are simple pleasures, and while it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a Mission:Impossible with the emotional punch or political intelligence of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, there’s an undeniable thrill to watching Tom Cruise hang from a flying airplane. Instead of a chaos, these films are built around clear visual conceits: the danger is real, now how will our hero escape it?

As Rogue Nation begins, the Impossible Missions Force is being disbanded by the government for its unorthodox methods and the risks it tasks with national security. This leaves Ethan Hunt stranded in the field as he seeks to track down the head of a secret global network of spies turned terrorists.

The film’s other main character is Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a strong and sexy British double agent of questionable loyalty, whose either helping Hunt and company disband the Rogue Nation or leading him right into their trap.

Thankfully, Ferguson is another of this summer’s strong action heroines, after Melissa McCarthy in Spy and Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road. She’s given the most interesting dramatic arc and the fastest motorcycle, she rescues Tom Cruise more often than the reverse, and she isn’t reduced to playing an unconvincing and age-inappropriate love interest. Instead she features prominently and proactively in all of the film’s impressive action sequences.

The most bombastic of these sequences is probably a one-two punch of high-speed chases, but the most exciting and suspenseful involves an assassination plot in the Vienna Opera House. Here McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) demonstrates great skill in tracking multiple characters and points of focus across space and over a sustained sequence. With fights occurring in one corner (hushed and muted, but for the sounds of the opera in progress) and competing snipers setting up in others, McQuarrie delights in unspooling the action and pulling off a neat visual balancing act. Photographed by longtime Paul Thomas Anderson cinematographer Robert Elswit, the sequence is also beautifully lit to emphasize and contrast the spotlights onstage with the pools of shadows backstage and up in the scaffolding. Borrowing a premise and a brilliant suspense “button” from Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, this impressive sequence also ends with a bang.

While most of Rogue Nation‘s action setpieces are successful, the rest of the film suffers from pacing issues. It’s a bit long at 131 minutes and McQuarrie struggles to fill the final act with as many memorable moments as the others. Nonetheless, Rogue Nation solidifies the pleasures of the modern Mission:Impossible film, and offers a nice contrast to the bombast and incoherent visual style of much of today’s less sophisticated action fare.