Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation shouldn’t work.

It’s the fifth installment of an action franchised based on a cheesy 60s television show. The protagonist is 53 years old. And it is rehashing a lot of the concepts and ideas that you’ve seen in previous Mission: Impossible films, most notably one of the franchise’s favorite go-to’s – the government shutting down the IMF and declaring Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) an enemy of the state. But somehow, it works. And works really well.

Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie and his fellow writer Drew Pearce manage to subvert your expectations and leave you guessing how it will all come together. There were moments that I saw coming from far away, but they were still presented in fresh and fun ways, so it didn’t feel like a cop out when they happened. More importantly, there were plenty of twists and turns I didn’t see coming, including the film’s climax, which was brilliantly done.

The film once again follows Ethan Hunt, the top agent for the covert government agency known as the Impossible Mission Force (IMF). Ethan has started to uncover a sinister group known as the Syndicate that recruits former government agents from across the globe to execute missions that from the outside look like acts of god or unlucky accidents, but are actually carefully orchestrated attacks aimed at destabilizing governments and global corporations. Lead by a mysterious man named Lane (Sean Harris), the organization has done such a good job covering their tracks that the director of the CIA, Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), suspects that Ethan is cracking under the pressure, creating an enemy where there is none.

Hunley leads a campaign to shut down the IMF, folding their agency into the CIA. Citing the events of the previous films as proof Ethan and his men are loose canons who have more luck than craft, Hunley convinces the government to pull the plug. At that point, Ethan goes off the grid, deciding that stopping Lane and the Syndicate is more important than respecting the chain of command.

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Hunt’s former associates end up getting pulled back into the unofficial mission as well. Familiar faces Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) all show up to aid Ethan in his quest. However, while it is nice to see them all resurface, the film’s most captivating character is Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson).

Isla is working for the Syndicate. She repeatedly has opportunities to kill Ethan, but instead ends up saving his life and aiding in his escape from the group. What her motivations are and what side she will ultimately end up on become the film’s most intriguing story arc. Ferguson is fantastic in the role. She’s beautiful and charismatic and is completely believable as a deadly bad ass who can take down a room full of attackers with ease or evade them during a high speed motorcycle chase. The franchise has had some great female characters, including field agents who aid Hunt on his missions, but Ilsa is the first woman to feel like Ethan’s equal. (In fact, she may even be slightly better.)

The film delivers on the action front, but I really enjoyed that it didn’t try to top the action sequences in previous films by just going bigger (which, I realize, sounds like a ridiculous claim considering the opening sequence involves Ethan clinging to the side of a plane as it takes off, but trust me, by M:I franchise standards, this film is rather subdued). Instead, it classes things up by having a major action sequence take place during an opera. And the big, complex mission is a decidedly low tech endurance test instead of a convoluted sequence of challenges involving masks and zip lines. To get Benji into a secure area, Ethan has to hold his breath for three minutes, while avoiding the giant turbines spinning around keeping the massive server cool, in order to switch out a data drive. It’s not overly-complicated, but it feels tense and is packed with drama. Other big action scenes stick to the basics – knife fights, car chases, gunfire, etc. – but focus on a psychological cat and mouse game between Ethan and Lane instead of the mindless explosion porn that all too often fills big summer blockbusters.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is expected to be one of the top grossing movies this year. I’m happy to report that it actually lives up to the hype. This is a franchise that shows no signs of slowing down and I, for one, couldn’t be happier about that fact.

I really enjoyed the cleverness of the writing. It’s a complex story that presents a lot of difficult moral dilemmas for our heroes and a lot of creative external challenges for them to overcome. It’s a confidently-told story that plays with the expectations and trappings of this franchise and the genre as a whole, either subverting those expectations or presenting those elements in unique ways.

The performances were great, as well. Cruise, as always, is delightful and utterly convincing as Hunt. And he and Ferguson have a really delightful chemistry. Pegg and Renner both provide comic relief while still playing earnest characters you care about. And Baldwin makes the most of his small role.

The truly impossible mission is keeping this franchise relevant and exciting after almost 20 years. But somehow, improbably, Cruise and his team continue to pull it off.

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Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at murphyslaw@hobotrashcan.com

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