Five Movies In, The ‘Mission: Impossible’ Series Finds Its Style

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Mission: Impossible—  Rogue Nation, the latest inventively punctuated installment in Tom Cruise’s spy series, is that Mission: Impossible has actually become a franchise, almost in spite of itself. What began as yet another ‘90s film adaptation of a classic television show (as any film historian can tell you, these were the superhero movies of their era, in terms of “fuggit, sure, do another one” ubiquity) initially positioned itself as less a connected narrative than a spy anthology series, with each film sporting a new director and a totally different aesthetic. But sneakily, over the past couple of entries, a new element has emerged: consistency. And in the process, M:I has become one of our more reliably entertaining film series.

But it’s had an odd journey. The original 1996 entry was directed by Brian De Palma, and is very much a Brian De Palma movie, all canted angles and double-crosses and Hitchcockian set pieces. The 2000 sequel, directed by John Woo, is very much a John Woo movie—which is to say, it feels as though it takes place on a different planet than its predecessor, thanks to Woo’s ultra-stylized shoot-outs and slow-mo action beats and even, yes, the occasional wing-flapping dove. J.J. Abrams took the reins for Mission: Impossible III, which plays like a reallllly big-budgeted spin-off of Alias, the Abrams-created spy show that had just finished its run. Episode four, Ghost Protocol, was helmed by Pixar mastermind Brad Bird, making his live-action debut, but with a throwback energy similar to his Incredibles.

Tom Cruise in "Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation"

And here we have film number five, written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Usual Suspects whose directorial efforts The Way of the Gun and Jack Reacher (also with Cruise) are crafted with a flair for rough, no-nonsense action of the Walter Hill school. But it doesn’t feel his movie the way that some earlier entries do; in fact, the most McQuarrie-ish moment, an overblown Alec Baldwin speech about Cruise’s Ethan Hunt being the personification of destiny or some such first-draft Keyser Söze nonsense, was met with unintended laughter by my preview audience. No, the director’s usual hard edges are sanded down in the name of the franchise’s customary PG-13, and while the action beats are lean and muscular, the attentive viewer can’t help but notice that McQuarrie is basically working within what Abrams and Bird (perhaps unconsciously) were developing and perfecting: a series house style.

The series, it must be said, is better for it. The diversity and looseness of the series is admirable — to say nothing of the respect for sui generis filmmakers — but there’s something to be said for stability. Cruise and Ving Rhames are the only actors to appear in every entry (and Rhames only makes a cameo in Ghost Protocol), and the full-on shift changes in the casts of each entry are a little odd, considering the team element of the source material. Yet there’s a great moment early in Rogue Nation, before Cruise even appears, where we’re enjoying the tense-but-frisky byplay between series regulars Rhames, Simon Pegg (who first appeared in III and returned for Ghost Protocol), and Jeremy Renner (back for the second time, after GP), and we realize the series finally has regulars.

That sense of continuity runs throughout the picture, which plays, in spots, like a synthesis of the series to date: the vertigo-inducing set pieces of Ghost Protocol, the hominess of M:I III, an exquisitely stylish and timed-to-the-nanosecond impenetrable fortress penetration sequence in the style of the Langley operation from the original, even a climactic motorcycle chase as a shout-out to the much-derided M:I-2. McQuarrie’s script, from those echoes to explicit references to past events in an early speech by Baldwin’s CIA director, takes stock of what’s come before in a way the series seldom has—and then he does his own cool stuff, on top of that.

Rebecca Ferguson and Tom Cruise in "Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation"

Said cool stuff includes a lushly gripping assassination attempt at an opera (recalling Hitchcock’s Man Who Knew Too Much remake), a terrific rough-and-tumble fistfight, an inventive reveal involving the British prime minister (played, in a wonderful in-joke for In the Loop fans, by Tom Hollander), and an enigmatic female lead (Rebecca Ferguson—remember that name) whose allegiances and trustworthiness are in an almost scene-to-scene flux.

Cruise’s characterization of Ethan Hunt has been somewhat left out in the cold by the series’ changing personnel and style; he doesn’t usually get much to go on, in terms of personality or motivation beyond a general (bland) need to do what’s right. But he finds the performance in small moments, many of them comic: a nonplussed reaction to a physical feat, a perfectly-timed beat before a shoot-out, the comic spin he’ll put on a simple “okay.” More than anything, he gets what he’s there to do, a point underlined by his first appearance, glimpsed (of course) running like hell.

It all accumulates into first-rate popcorn, a meticulously devised and elegantly executed spy movie that manages to thrill with its stunts, jangle with its set pieces, land a laugh or two, and not insult our intelligence. It took them a while to figure out exactly what the hell Mission: Impossible was, but with movie numero cinco, it’s become clear: it’s the best spy series this side of Bond.

Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation is out tomorrow.