Well, it's taken them five films, but they have finally got the Mission: Impossible formula spot on. I grew up loving the original TV series (as well as the late-80s revival, which was filmed in Australia) and, for me, the first three M:I films didn't quite cut it – particularly making the TV show hero and team leader, Jim Phelps, the bad guy in the first outing. But they finally make up for that with Rogue Nation, easily the best film in this series so far.
Things kick off a few months after the end of M:I4, Ghost Protocol. The IMF has been dissolved (well, they DID blow up the Kremlin), and CIA chief Alan Hunley (Baldwin) is on the hunt for Hunt (Cruise), who has gone rogue. Ethan is on the trail of a mob called he Syndicate, a sinister terrorist group – much like al-Qaeda, Isis, the Ku Klux Klan, Boko Haram, Hezbollah, the IRA or One Direction. Everything that has been going wrong around the world – natural disasters, missing planes, wars, famines, military coups, the fact that I have not yet won the lottery – has been brought about by members of the Syndicate. They were probably even to blame for the global recession. The CIA doesn't even believe that the Syndicate even exists, but British Intelligence does – and it's even sent an agent of its own, Ilsa Faust (Ferguson) undercover to infiltrate the group. She saves Hunt's bacon once or twice ... but is she really on his side, or is she a double agent?
Although it's the fifth film in this M:I franchise (with a sixth on the way), Rogue Nation has a certain freshness about it, despite being a somewhat sequel to the terrific Ghost Protocol. There are still a few issues – some very cheesy dialogue (mostly given to Baldwin), minimal screentime for Renner and Rhames, the odd plothole here and there – but as said earlier, this is easily the best M:I film so far. Pegg's role has been expanded, making his Benji very much Hunt's main sidekick as well as a welcome comic relief. Cruise, as always, is Cruise – he runs, he jumps, he beams that Tom Cruise smile. You always know what to expect with Cruise, and that's no bad thing – he delivers, and has done so for more than 30 years. And like him or loathe him, you have to admire the size of Cruise's cojones; how many A-list stars these days would do their own stunts, as Cruise insists on doing? OK, we know that he was wearing full-on safety gear and harnesses while filming the prologue sequence where he hangs on to the outside of a plane during take-off. But so what? Can you name any other actors who would take on such a dangerous stunt? In fact, would YOU do it? I know that I wouldn't. And later in the film, during a brilliantly staged and filmed motorcycle chase in Morocco, it's clear that it is Tom Cruise himself on the motorbike – not a stunt rider, but Cruise. That's definitely worthy of respect.
But M:I5's biggest asset has to be Ferguson. It's so nice to see a woman given a decent, juicy role in an action film such as this, and Ferguson nails it beautifully. Her Ilsa Faust is smart, tough, highly trained and kicks arse just as well as any agent. She's not just there as eye candy (although she is perfectly gorgeous, especially in THAT yellow dress at the opera in Vienna) or as the love interest – she is a well-rounded character with her own motivations for doing what she does. It's a refreshing change, and one that Hollywood really must take notice of.
McQuarrie joins an illustrious role-call of directors who have put their stamp on Mission: Impossible. Brian DePalma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird all made terrific films, but for my money, McQuarrie (with the help of co-writer Pearce) gets the whole thing just right. There's a great balance of stunts and action (which he shoots beautifully), humour, plot and twists, plus a great "enemy" in the Syndicate that I hope rears its head in future M:I adventures. At times, it feels like a Bond film directed by Hitchcock. Five films in, Cruise and McQuarrie show us that keeping a franchise fresh is far from Impossible.