Tom Cruise recruits his Jack Reacher collaborator Chris McQuarrie to helm the fifth instalment of his death-defying spy saga, which this time sees Ethan Hunt and his loyal team of IMF agents scour the globe for an elusive rival organisation perhaps even more covert and dangerous than they are.

The results are typically spectacular, with audacious stunts, exotic locations, international intrigue and plentiful humour all somehow finding time to shine, while McQuarrie manages to steer the series away from the outlandishness of Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol towards something more grounded in the kind of noirish reality in which spy thrillers used to lurk.

Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner and Ving Rhames return for duty, while series newcomers Alec Baldwin, Sean Harris, Tom Hollander and Simon McBurney all make a play for our attention. It is Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson, as the film’s fast and furious femme fatale, however, who proves the stand-out addition to the ranks.

The Mission: Impossible franchise has always been Tom Cruise’s baby, ever since he pitched it to Paramount as the maiden project for his newly formed Cruise/Wagner Productions back in the early 90s. In fact, Cruise has become so synonymous with the exploits of the Impossible Mission Force that younger viewers may be forgiven for not even knowing it is a big screen reboot of an incredibly popular 60s TV show.

Always so averse to being trapped in a franchise, Cruise has managed to steer Mission: Impossible on a very unique course, with each episode functioning as a standalone film, bearing little or no resemblance stylistically to its predecessors, and populated with an almost completely new cast of characters each time out. The series has also employed five markedly different directors, ranging from a revered 70s veteran, to a Hong Kong virtuoso, to a guy from Pixar who had only made cartoons.

Quality has certainly wavered throughout the series, with John Woo’s troubled Mission: Impossible 2 emerging as something of an incoherent mess, albeit with some applaudable flourishes. Recently, however, the series has got back on track, and the addition of cast holdovers such as Simon Pegg’s lab-rat turned-sidekick (3 films) and Jeremy Renner’s no-nonsense company man (2 films) have helped maintain a degree of continuity between entries. That said, Ving Rhames’ Luther has somehow managed to appear in all five films without actually accomplishing all that much.

Rogue Nation sees Alec Baldwin’s CIA director Hunley campaigning to have IMF shut down, mainly due to Ethan Hunt (Cruise) tearing around the globe on his own authority trying to locate a mysterious criminal network known as “The Syndicate”. Needless to say, Hunt is on the right track, despite what the suits in Washington believe, and when he zeroes in on a potential target in Vienna, Benji (Pegg) races to his aide.

What follows is a breathless series of increasingly audacious and expertly orchestrated set pieces, many of which are executed by Cruise himself. The film opens with Hunt clinging to the outside of a military aircraft as it takes off – a stunt Cruise did for real a reported eight times until he was happy. From there things just get crazier, with a somewhat straight-forward chase through the streets of Casablanca and the Moroccan desert – first in cars before switching to motorbikes – proving every bit as hair-raising as the Burj Khalifa showpiece from Ghost Protocol.

Where Rogue Nation really impresses, however, is in how it manages to bring the series back to reality. Perhaps in small part due to the casting of Simon McBurney as the Head of MI6, Rogue Nation is as reminiscent of the smoky underhand double-crossings of Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as it is, inevitably perhaps, of the jet-setting hijinks of the James Bond series. In large part, credit for this tonal shift must be given to writer-director Chris McQuarrie, who won an Oscar for his script to the ultimate bait-and-switch thriller The Usual Suspects, and previously directed Cruise in the highly underrated Jack Reacher.

For perhaps the first time in the franchise, Mission: Impossible actually feels like a spy thriller, rather than a chase movie, stunt reel or other kind of generic star-centric action vehicle. There is intrigue, distrust, danger and real stakes to be fought for. There is a noirish atmosphere to the proceedings that only encourages us to take matters more seriously. It certainly helps that Sean Harris, whose weasely voice cries out for villainous roles like this, proves a worthy adversary to Hunt. Perhaps not as methodically psychotic as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Owen Davian from Mission: Impossible 3, but, like Hunt, a former agent who broke away when his personal interests became more important than those of his superiors.

Adding some serious spice to the mix is the largely unknown Rebecca Ferguson, as the duplicitous Isla, an undercover British agent working within The Syndicate, whose motivations and loyalties are repeatedly called into question. Ferguson has accrued some impressive television credits before now, but for mainstream audiences she appears in Rogue Nation as if from nowhere, albeit fully formed and capable of holding her own opposite the perennial charms of the Cruiser. Beautiful, intelligent and physically proficient, Isla is more than a match for the boys from The Syndicate and the IMF, as she proves repeatedly.

I was somewhat apprehensive going into Rogue Nation, aware as I was that the production had received support from two major Chinese companies, China Movie Channel and Alibaba Pictures. The inclusion of actress Zhang Jingchu also smacked of desperation in a way that might have easily compromised the film’s narrative integrity. Thankfully, no such mainland pandering occurred. Poor Ms Zhang has probably less than a minute of screen time, and while one major set-piece is staged in and around a performance of Puccini’s China-based opera Turandot – leading to many minutes of Cruise, Ferguson and Co clambering around on ornate Chinese sets – it was actually a rather delightful excuse to listen to a solid rendition of Nessun Dorma, which composer Joe Kraemer also incorporates liberally into the film’s score.

I will stop short of calling Rogue Nation the best film in the Mission: Impossible series, if only because one of the strengths of the franchise is how different each film is, but it is a genuine struggle to point to any aspect of the film that falls short of the mark. Cruise is as charismatic, athletic and committed as ever in what has become his signature role, and proves again that he is as shrewd and resourceful a producer as he is peerless movie star. The rest of the ensemble works together like cogs in a well-oiled machine, with the banter flying sharp and fast between them when they are not breathless from brawls or ridiculous feats of derring-do.

Rogue Nation is an exceptionally entertaining movie, to the extent that there is no reason to assume this is the last we have seen of Ethan Hunt and the IMF. If the films continue to be as assured, innovative and shamelessly good fun as this one, the Mission: Impossible franchise looks set to run and run – for at least as long as Tom Cruise’s nimble little pins can carry it.

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