It's been 19 years since Tom Cruise first portrayed Ethan Hunt in an adaptation of the hit spy show Mission: Impossible. That's longer than the show had been off the air when the Brian De Palma-helmed reboot hit theaters with the now-iconic image of Cruise hanging over a computer terminal, suspended by impossibly thin wires. Since someone born on the first film's premiere date would be college-aged by now, it's likely that there are many people in the audience who don't know the self-destructing message sending spies off on an elaborate and dangerous mission is a callback to the show's weekly cold opening. But it's the formula Desilu Productions developed for TV that has allowed the Mission: Impossible franchise to outlive the Cold War. A highly trained team of agents working for a shadowy, quasi-governmental agency undertaking missions so sensitive and difficult that their government will "disavow" all knowledge of their existence if they fail works just as well in the age of terrorism as it did in the days of KGB vs. CIA spy-jinks.
The latest installment, Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, is nothing if not formulaic, but the movie is self-aware enough to preemptively ask if it's still relevant. We first meet returning player William Brandt (Avengers' Jeremy Renner) defending the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) before a congressional committee as CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) successfully argues that they are redundant and dangerously out of control. Hunley puts the IMFers, including computer wizard Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), on desk duty, but their first assignment is tracking Hunt, who has once again gone rogue. Hunt thinks he's on the trail of yet another shadowy, elite force of spies called the Syndicate, but almost no one else believes they exist. Hunley accuses him of making up threats to justify the IMF's funding with one of the film's best lines: "Hunt is both arsonist and fireman."
But since Tom Cruise is both star and producer, we know that the Syndicate is real, and it includes stock characters like the strangely cold, vaguely European mastermind Soloman Lane (Sean Harris), a Russian sadist named the Bone Doctor (Jens Hultén), and British double (or possibly triple) agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). Hunt gets the old team out from behind their desks — and in the case of Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), out of retirement — to stop the Syndicate from — well, doing something that's probably real bad. Details like the bad guy's motivations and the exact nature of the MacGuffin (It's a list of agents! No wait, it's a list of bank accounts! No wait, we've got to rescue Benji!) are not Mission: Impossible's strong suit.
What Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie are all about is crafting high-quality action, and judged by that metric, they succeed. The "gain access to an impossibly secure computer system" sequence is set underwater this time, to spectacular results. But the best part of the film is the second-act set piece in a Vienna opera house that references Hitchcock's climax to The Man Who Knew Too Much.
While the Daniel Craig/Sam Mendes team has taken James Bond into more serious character territory, Cruise and J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot production company have taken the opposite approach. Rogue Nation plays like a fond memory of Roger Moore-era Bond films such as Live and Let Die, only without the misogyny — or sexiness, for that matter. Even though Ferguson, a British actress making her first foray into the action genre, is captivating onscreen, she and Cruise share only a single extended hug.
Like Adam Sandler, Cruise's wealth and status remove the usual motivations for doing a movie: He doesn't need the money, so why bother? In Sandler's case, the leaked Sony Pictures emails allege his films are little more than ways to get his friends and family free vacations. Cruise, on the other hand, appears to be motivated by the desire to perform increasingly over-the-top stunts. Rogue Nation's big moment comes right off the bat, when Hunt, trying to recover a biological weapons cache, clings to the side of an Airbus military transport as it takes off and flies away. At least that's more fun for the viewer than watching Sandler yuk it up on a waterslide.