After Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol came out in 2011, it seemed that the series had finally figured out how to become the best version of itself and could go on forever doing the same thing. It was with that film that the movies stopped being somewhat dimwitted star vehicles for producer Tom Cruise and instead finally turned into the thing that the 1966-'73 TV series Mission: Impossible had once been: a well-built exercise in fluffy spy adventure that found a team of talented people using their very particular skills to solve complicated puzzle boxes and save the day from other, more evil spies. And while plenty of what made Ghost Protocol so particularly excellent was the intelligent popcorn filmmaking of director Brad Bird, nothing he did was so ground breaking that it couldn't be copied. And that's exactly what has now happened: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation is slightly worse than its immediate predecessor in nearly every way, slightly better in a couple of others that are especially important, and is light years beyond the first three movies released between 1996 and 2006.

Like every M:I film, Rogue Nation is an almost perfect standalone object, with a couple throwaway lines referencing previous adventures and the assumption that you already know and like brash, middle-aged Impossible Missions Force agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise), but otherwise assuming that it needs to make its own case for existing (I find it enormously gratifying in this age of shared universes and heavily choreographed multi-film narrative arcs that there's still one franchise out there that's willing to just make movies that work solely in reference to themselves. And it does this splendidly, throwing us right into the action with that "Tom Cruise hanging from the side of a plane" setpiece that has been the the focal point of the ad campaign, and building up to bigger and better things from there.

The story, put together by Christopher McQuarrie (also directing, his third movie in 15 years; on this film's evidence, he should have quite an enjoyable career for himself going forward) from an initial draft by Drew Pearce, ends up becoming a little too convoluted and heightened for its own good - though there are some ever so slightly tongue in cheek "my eleven dimensional chess skills are better than yours" moments near the end that suggest that this was entirely intentional - but initially, at least, it's a pretty clear piece of spy movie boilerplate: Hunt has been making a boob of himself insisting that something called the Syndicate is out in the world, murdering important figures to kneecap the world economy. His latest attempt to prove this organisation exists leads him to London, where he's nearly caught and killed, escaping only through the momentary kindness of wavering Syndicate agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). He goes on the run, while territorial CIA director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) manages to have the IMF absorbed into his agency and turning high level IMF agent William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) into his personal dancing monkey.

Six months later, Hunt has learned enough to know that he can't learn any more without help, and so he picks up former IMF agent Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), currently crunching numbers to no purpose in a CIA computer lab, to help him. As Hunley uses this new activity to close the net on Hunt, Brandt recruits Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames, the only actor besides Cruise to have gone 5-for-5 in the series to date) to help him find Hunt before the CIA can. Meanwhile, Hunt and Benji partially foil an assassination plot that throws them in with Faust, who now reveals herself to be an MI6 agent deep undercover as the right hand of Syndicate leader Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), though Brandt's information suggests that the double agent is, in fact, a triple.

That's about where the convolutions kick in, and I confess in my boring, simple way that I prefer the way that Ghost Protocol mostly abandons its plot in the third act to Rogue Nation's attempts to double-down on it. But the draw of either film is really the same thing: grand action sequences and upbeat, easy banter between the various members of the team. All the script needs to do is to construct a plausible enough ludicrous spy thriller that we won't complain about the interstitials.

With those goals in mind, Rogue Nation passes all its challenges with flying colors: this is a terrific action movie that suffers only from coming out in the same summer as the unbeatable Mad Max: Fury Road, and the character beats rank among the best in the franchise. The expanded role given to Pegg pays off well in giving Cruise a reliable comic scene partner, and Renner is a great deal looser and more charismatic than in the last film (to say nothing of his stilted turns for Marvel). The clear stand-out is Ferguson, a Swedish actress who has worked in her native country and on British TV, but is making just her second English-language feature here. It's a performance that, in a fair world, we'll all look back on as her great star-making turn; sharing virtually all of her moments with one of modern cinema's most charismatic stars and photogenic faces in the form of Cruise, she nonetheless runs away with the movie, playing a dangerously mysterious figure as a frank, open, likable human being and exactly matching Cruise's playful-serious attitude. It's a drag that the Mission: Impossible films seem so weirdly committed to limiting themselves to just one significant female character at a time (though it is said that Paula Patton's absence from this film was because of scheduling, not because the filmmakers didn't want her), but at least Ferguson is the best performance of the most complex woman the franchise has witnessed to date.

The setpieces, meanwhile, are too good to spoil in detail, but I'll give it a go at being vague. They're impressively shot and cut - the great Robert Elswit is on cinematography duties for the second M:I film running, and Eddie Hamilton edits - so that each of them has a different style: the opening plane stunt has lingering wide shots to stress the grand scope of the aerial action; an underwater suspense scene finds the camera drifting along with fluid, weightless dance moves (it's also a tremendously great piece of sustained tension even though it's much too early in the film for anything bad to happen); a motorcycle chase regular cuts over to manic bike-mounted angles that play up the speed and chaos of the action. The best sequence, the one destined to be this film's signature piece like the suspended computer hacking in Mission: Impossible or the Burj Khalifa climb in Ghost Protocol, is an elaborate multi-tiered fight sequence that follows Hunt's attempt to stop gunmen at an opera performance in the constantly-shifting flies behind the stage, cutting like a whirlwind and exploiting the bombast of "Nessun dorma" from Turandot to give it rhythm and momentum (Joe Kraemer's score then adopts elements from the aria as motifs for the rest of the movie). It's ballsy and insane how much McQuarrie and company encourage us to to flashback to Hitchcock's legendary Albert Hall sequence in The Man Who Knew Too Much; it's beyond belief how well the film ends up doing in that head-to-head comparison.

It's frivolous tosh, far less connectable to anything resembling real-world politics than a film with the subtitle Rogue Nation should possibly think it can get away with; but such very enjoyable, confidently-made tosh! This is big-budget major studio summer spectacle-mongering at its best: tightly paced, ambitiously conceived, superbly executed, and greatly enriched by the instincts and wits of its producer-star Cruise, but by no means dependent on him. It's terrifically entertaining, and if it's not smart, at least it's not stupid, and it's certainly never boring or anything less than fully committed to being the most high-energy entertainment it can be.

Reviews in this series
Mission: Impossible (De Palma, 1996)
Mission: Impossible II (Woo, 2000)
Mission: Impossible III (Abrams, 2006)
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (Bird, 2011)
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (McQuarrie, 2015)
Mission: Impossible - Fallout (McQuarrie, 2018)