Mission Impossible is actually pretty great

This franchise is old-fashioned in a way that isn’t self-consciously nostalgic or retro, but simply committed to meat-and-potatoes espionage thrills.

Tom Cruise (right) in Mission Impossible — Rogue Nation
It’s somewhat surprising that the Mission: Impossible franchise has survived nearly two decades. Originally born out of a let’s-remake-old-shows trend that spawned almost nothing worth remembering, the franchise has survived at least one catastrophically terrible volume (the disastrous MI:2, directed by John Woo), multiple public embarrassments and couch-hopping meltdowns from its star and several changes in blockbuster trends to become a bonafide summer juggernaut that has long eclipsed the popularity and cultural cachet of the original show. Part of the franchise’s success lies in its consistency and studious respect of genre. All five M:I films (except maybe the second one, which I only remember as a series of embarrassing decisions) are very serious about the nature of its espionage. They’re old-fashioned in a way that isn’t self-consciously nostalgic or retro, but simply committed to meat-and-potatoes espionage thrills.

When Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) goes to London to accept a routine mission, he’s not prepared for the message he’s given: someone has discovered the identity of the IMF (the super-secret government agency he works for), forcing the agency to be dissolved into the CIA at the behest of the CIA director (Alec Baldwin) and leaving Hunt MIA. Hunt’s barely out of work when a new threat arises: the Syndicate, a shadowy new terrorist organization that has quietly been gathering operatives from worldwide nefarious dealings in order to establish a new world order. With his usual partners (Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames) reassigned to other roles, Hunt teams up with Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a disgraced British agent with a propensity for switching to whatever team best suits her needs, in order to take down the Syndicate.

I’m noticing a trend emerge in the last year or so that seems like a direct response to the pomp and circumstance of both superhero movies and Transformers-sized blockbusters: thrillers and action films are becoming increasingly impatient to get to the action and increasingly bored with things like backstory and shading in characters that then spend 100 minutes dodging explosions and doing precisely nothing pertaining to the pre-established character traits. While this would sound to some (most, even) like dumb and lazy writing, it actually translates to a slick and efficient film that doesn’t get bogged down in plot mechanics. True, there’s a lot of untenable plot elements and power struggles inherent to the plot of Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, but they don’t get in the way of a good time at the movies.

Ethan Hunt has long felt like the Cruise character that’s closest to his real persona: he’s extremely intense, efficient, committed and simultaneously charismatic and off-putting. None of that changes in M:I-GN, where Cruise is pretty much just himself. As much as the public persona of Cruise makes my skin crawl, it’s real hard to deny that he’s simply one of the best at flipping motorcycles over things and other improbable stunts of the sort. Cruise sells at least half-a-dozen action scenes that would feel hackeneyed in other hands, include a race-against-time underwater sequence (and its subsequent near-death-addled chase scene) and an opera-scored hand-to-hand combat sequences in an opera house’s rafters. Some of his line readings are bizarrely Cage-esque in this one, but I’ll let it slide since he kicks butt with such panache.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’s biggest flaw (apart from the punctuation headache that is its title) lies in the character of Lane, a shady Syndicate operative who eventually becomes the film’s main villain. Villains often get the short shrift in films like this, but it’s doubly true of the character of Lane (Sean Harris), a weird turtleneck-wearing, gravel-throated nerd who doesn’t cut a particularly villainous figure. On the other hand, the character of Ilsa is a welcome addition to a genre that isn’t always generous with female characters; not only is her character resourceful and badass, she does not a) need to be rescued; b) use her wily woman ways to obtain anything (though she does use her guns and feet and, I think, a clarinet that folds into a sniper rifle to dispatch some mofos) c) fall into a gratuitous relationship with any of the male characters.

It’s way, way too soon to start saying that we’re entering a new age for action movies; if all it took for that was Mad Max and this movie, that would be an incredibly low bar to clear. Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation shows that you can put care and craft into an action movie that’s pretty much as conventional as it gets without reinventing the wheel. It’s the red checkered tablecloth Italian restaurant of action movies; you go to it because you know what you want, but damn if isn’t always satisfying. And look, they’re adapting — is that kale on the menu?
Mission Impossible — Rogue Nation opens in theatres on Friday, July 31. Watch the trailer here: