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'Mission: Impossible —Rogue Nation' has thrills and, whoa, who is Rebecca Ferguson?

A relatively unknown actress steals the fifth "Mission: Impossible," which is a leaner, tougher and sometimes sillier entry, with crackerjack work from Tom Cruise.

‘Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation’
Director:
Christopher McQuarrie
Stars: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson
Rating: PG-13
4 (out of 5) Globes

The fifth “Mission: Impossible” features Tom Cruise hanging onto the side of a plane mid-takeoff and holding his breath under water for something like five minutes, both at least a little for reals. It has a break-in or two, a lengthy suspense scene during an opera and a car chase that turns into a motorcycle chase, plus one, maybe two more thrilling set pieces we’re forgetting. But it’s also the most stripped-down, aggressive and at times — and only relatively speaking — closest the films series has come to the more modest pleasures of the espionage show that spawned it, if often in name only.

The “Impossible”s is a director’s franchise, tethered to a single, somehow still limber AARP-age star. The director this time is Christopher McQuarrie, still best known for writing “The Usual Suspects,” and a tougher, leaner, more economical talent than Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird. Frequently “Rogue Nation” threatens to turn as cartoonish as the last batch of “Fast and/or Furious” entries. But even when, say, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and Simon Pegg’s curiously named fellow operative Benji are trapped in a flipping car, saved only by airbags, there’s an element of sorta-realness — a wink more than the live action equivalent of Looney Tunes mayhem. It’s ridiculous without going Full Monty.

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The plot, such as it really matters, does threaten to get too silly — something about a shadowy, SPECTRE-y organization called The Syndicate that is using ex-agents killing world leaders. (Its leader is played by Sean Harris, a reliable tough, cold bastard.) But McQuarrie, who also scripted, treats it as though he was adapting John Le Carre, and one of the dense ones. Cruise and his IMF team — which acronym does not stand for International Money Fund, as it were — are first targeted by a pol (Alec Baldwin, enjoyably fatuous) looking to dissolve them, then blamed for Syndicate crimes, then forced to stop them. Along the way they steal a MacGuffin or two, while Ethan flirts with a mysterious Syndicater, Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), who switches allegiances so many times one’s head threatens to implode.

McQuarrie keeps things moving, though, piling distractions to the point that none of it really matters. But they’re well-oiled distractions, not just the comin’-at-ya garble of the second “Avengers.” One set piece, the opera one, takes its time setting itself up, then keeps pulling the rug out. The motorcycle chase panders to speed junkies but also knows to pause for a clear one-shot wow-shot. It smoothly slips in humor, most of them thanks to its star. Cruise, the alleged last movie star, sometimes almost kills himself to entertain you, but even better is when he does almost nothing — just a brief moment of quiet panic on his face or a nervous eye dart. He even allows a really good joke about how he’s really, really short.

Cruise also allows the film to be stolen by his relatively unknown costar, Rebecca Ferguson, a Swedish-British actress who combines a melancholic, vulnerable face — she looks like she should be in a period drama about a land war — with a detached brutality. Ilsa likes to scale tall thugs then dispense head trauma, and she regularly goes blow-for-blow with her more famous screen partner, albeit in quick cuts that emphasize the power/hide the fact that they can’t really fight and/or are secretly old. They have sexual chemistry, not a romance, and they help obscure any shortcomings en route to an ending that has a simplicity you’d see on the show — one of three or four moments in the entire film series that’s actually like its nifty source.

Among those shortcomings is — and bear with this postscript — its seriously confused politics. IMF, we’re told by a hissbale Baldwin, should be ended because they operate without oversight or regulation. Meanwhile they’re fighting what is essentially a version of them — a group of agents operating without oversight or regulation, only they’ve turned out to be evil, unlike the IMF, who will surely always still good. (Even though, as in the first film, their most famous member, Agent Phelps, did himself turn bad.) It’s kind of funny seeing an outspoken liberal like Baldwin being the goon demanding government oversight, but it’s odd McQuarrie thought to breach this subject at all. Films about shadowy organizations, like this or Bond’s MI6, are enjoyable as fiction in part because they seem larger than life. Once you bring them these fantasies into reality, defending them only seems reactionary, or in this case incoherent. But, again, this can be ignored so long as impregnable fortresses are being impregnated and Cruise is proving again he’s an action god who should never have been doubted, which is to say almost always.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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