Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed the new Mission: Impossible picture, fifth in the series of blockbuster actioners based on the 1960s TV show. A strong contender (along with Indiana Jones and Jason Bourne) for the title of American James Bond, Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt returns for more of the same nonsense for which I confess being a sucker: a movie star, exotic locales, comic relief, the movie version of spycraft, and big-budget action sequences with actual stunt work. But if Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation has a patina of class and ultra-competent action, it also shows franchise fatigue in its plotting and its acting.
Along with the physical commitment of Cruise (who seems less emotionally committed this time), part of the shtick of the Mission: Impossible movies has become to bring on a new director for every outing, presumably to inject some new attitude and style. That was certainly the idea when John Woo replaced Brian De Palma, though since J.J. Abrams helmed the third installment, the now-Abrams produced pictures have taken on something of a house style under Brad Bird and, today, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (Oscar winner for the original screenplay of The Usual Suspects).
McQuarrie has some fun dusting off a few of the Mission: Impossible trappings memorable from the TV show: the opening-credits "clip-tease," the mission being delivered in an unusual public setting (in this case, a record shop), and a comeuppance for the bad guy that relies upon the good guys being just that much smarter. But Rogue Nation also falls back on the tired trope of Hunt and/or the IMF (the Impossible Missions Force) going "rogue" after being burned by their American masters, and it's sometimes hard to tell if McQuarrie is winkingly employing genre self-parody or accidentally succumbing to it, as with his generic Eurovillain decked out in, believe it or not, a black turtleneck.
Anyway, Black Turtleneck—err, Solomon Lane (British actor Sean Harris of Prometheus) heads up the murkily motivated phantom terror network The Syndicate, helpfully referred to as "an anti-IMF." The Syndicate targets Hunt just as the CIA does, in Senate hearings that dismantle the IMF for being out-of-date bounds-oversteppers (Alec Baldwin plays the CIA head in a state of constant near-apoplexy). Luckily for Hunt, he has a loyal team: all-purpose lieutenant William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), master hacker Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, his screen time expanded), and tech support Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames).
Complicating matters, MI6 has a double agent (Rebecca Ferguson's formidable Ilsa Faust) embedded in The Syndicate, an is-she-or-isn't-she femme fatale who keeps Ethan on his toes. In another bit of awkward plotting, Ilsa's ambiguous relationship with Ethan is neither a romance, per se, nor a de-sexed partnership of mutual professional admiration, presumably because the franchise assumes it needs to give its hero a "manly" flirtation but couldn't be bothered to figure out what to do with Ethan's wife, who doesn't even rate a mention.
Where the picture feels on sure footing is in its high-tension set pieces: the much-ballyhooed strap-Tom-Cruise-to-a-plane stunt being merely a palate-teaser for the hand-to-hand combat, elaborate car chase, and opera-murder to come. The latter sequence, timed to Puccini's hit tune "Nessun Dorma," recalls both the sniper theatrics of Jack Reacher (starring Cruise and also scripted and directed by McQuarrie) and the Hitchcockian showmanship of The Man Who Knew Too Much. McQuarrie doesn't make it easy to invest in the characters here, but paradoxically he does know how to make us grip our armrests as they face danger, and thus the mission is accomplished once more.