Much fuss has been made, and justifiably so, about Tom Cruise’s latest death-defying stunt in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. The risky aerial jape finds Cruise clinging for dear life to the side of a cargo plane hundreds of feet in the air for real. It’s a ballsy stunt which could have gone wrong in so many ways, leading to a real sphincter-tightening moment for the audience. Spoiler alert: It’s also all over within the movie’s opening 5 minutes. And then things just get crazier from there.

Following on from Brad Bird’s superlative Ghost Protocol, considered the series’ highpoint by many, was always going to be an order taller than the building Cruise dangled from in that film. Whether writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) actually manages to better Bird’s effort, I’m not so sure of yet – perhaps a back to back viewing would convince me in either direction. What I am sure of though, is that McQuarrie’s Rogue Nation is one hell of an action-thriller, and features some of the best moments the franchise has ever seen.

Those moments come about when Cruise’s superspy Ethan Hunt finds himself disavowed and on the run from his own government after his IMF team is disbanded by bureaucratic CIA Chief Hunley (Alec Baldwin) in response to the near-calamitous events of the previous movie. While most of the team members are absorbed into menial desk jobs at the CIA, Hunt is on the… well, hunt for a shadowy organization known as the Syndicate who he believes responsible for a series of seemingly accidental disasters, while Hunley thinks he’s merely delusional and looking for a reason to stay off the reservation.

Enter Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a mysterious femme fatale who is as enchanting in an evening gown as she is efficient at breaking faces in a barefoot brawl. It appears that she wants to help Hunt to prove his suspicions about the Syndicate. Or kill him. Or something. Her actual allegiance and motives are one of the film’s central mysteries, and McQuarrie’s twisty-turny script will keep you guessing right up until the end.

But she’s not just there to act as Rogue Nation‘s cypher MacGuffin though, as McQuarrie pulls a George Miller in having Ferguson’s Faust be every bit the equal of Cruise’s Hunt. Much like the brilliant Mad Max: Fury Road did with Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, here it’s Faust that provides the impetus for large portions of the story, as well as being at the core of some of the film’s best displays of ass-kicking. And the reasonably unknown Ferguson – an adjective that will certainly be tossed out after this – handles it all amazingly. Cruise has long been the dramatic and kinetic dynamo at the heart of this franchise – and he turns in another solid performance here, even throwing some hilarious physical humour into the mix – but Ferguson is the real revelation as she matches his action man antics beat for beat.

So too Simon Pegg gets even more to do in this installment as Hunt’s jokey techie Benji Dunn, continuing his evolution from goofy keyboard warrior to capable – but still goofy – field agent begun in Ghost Protocol. The only downside to these co-star upgrades is that the other members of the now disbanded IMF gets sidelined slightly, with Jeremy Renner’s Agent Brandt and Ving Rhames’ Luther Stickell only getting involved minimally in the action. At least Renner gets to nail one of the movie’s best running gags.

As good as the Mission: Impossible movies have been though, they’ve always had a problem with memorable villains (Phillip Seymour Hoffman in M:I3 being the exception). Unfortunately, Rogue Nation doesn’t quite avoid this curse. The usually reliable Sean Harris’ cryptic baddie Solomon Lane has a few decent moments, but just isn’t as threatening as the movie seems to think he is, lacking that chilling screen presence.

Luckily, Cruise and co don’t need a human antagonist on-screen to generate tension more often than not. McQuarrie puts them through the wringer in a series of ever escalating action set pieces that simultaneously keep throwing up original challenges, but which also pull on elements from the series’ entire history. There are moments of the type of sci-fi-lite hocus pocus found in Bird’s M:I4, explosive gunplay reminiscent of JJ Abrams’ M:I3, the flashy fisticuffs (minus the annoying slow-mos) of John Woo’s M:I2, and the film’s razor-wire tense finale feels like vintage Brian De Palma, harking back to the smoke and mirror spy vs spy standoffs seen in the first film that kickstarted all of this.

And then there are the car chases. A brace of vehicular set pieces here, coupled with McQuarrie’s motorized mayhem in Jack Reacher, his and Cruise’s last effort together, has me thinking that it’s definitely not too early to proclaim the director as the Master of the Modern Movie Car Chase. The pair of high-speed chases – first with a BMW vs some motorcycles in the claustrophobic alleyways of Morocco, which then evolves into a “Road Rash”-like all bike affair on a twisting mountain road – that punctuate Rogue Nation‘s mid-point feature exquisitely engineered, inventive action set pieces at breakneck speeds, with McQuarrie throwing cameras in almost supernatural locations to frame it all in the most exciting way possible, but still keeping everything incredibly coherent.

This last point is especially noteworthy as that clarity of action helps to not only sell you on the fact that these are actual drivers/riders throwing tonnes of steel and rubber around corners with reckless abandon for real – well, except for one blatantly CG bit of vehicular acrobatics – but also that quite often those drivers/riders are in fact Cruise and Ferguson, adding an additional layer of danger into the mix.

And honestly, those car chases are so insanely good, that their presence alone would be justification enough for me to recommend watching Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation on the biggest and best screen possible. Luckily, McQuarrie has also crafted a clever and combustible high-tech spy thriller around them, boasting fantastic set pieces, standout character moments and a surefire breakout performance from Rebecca Ferguson. If the goal was to produce a breathlessly exciting, top-notch sequel in a beloved franchise that keeps it invigorated, then consider this mission accomplished!

Last Updated: August 6, 2015

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Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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