Rogue Nation finds the intense actor’s secret sweet spot

FILM by Paul Constant

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Galaxy, Southland
3.5 out of 5

Most people find it hard to have a simple relationship with Tom Cruise. His whole Child-Bride-of-Scientology period was exceptionally off-putting, and his “I AM SUPER-INTENSE” acting schtick took a turn for the creepy in the mid-’90s. But for nearly every terrible Cruise movie (Jack ReacherKnight and Day), he puts in a terrific self-aware performance as a highly believable jerk (MagnoliaEdge of Tomorrow) just to ensure that we can’t dismiss him entirely.

In the middle of that Cruise spectrum, on the taint between the lovable dick and the hate-worthy butthole, lies the Mission: Impossible franchise.

In Ethan Hunt, the perfect super-spy at the center of the Impossible Missions Force, Cruise has found his sweet spot. His inhuman intensity works in M:I films because the movies are even more intense than he is, from the overblown score (all together now: dun-dun-DUN!-DUN!) to the crazy set pieces to the genius conceit of handing each entry in the series to a different high-profile director. Only the second M:I movie, directed by John Woo at his John Wooziest, is a clear strikeout. The other three each have their charms, from Brian DePalma’s wonky surveillance-state riff in the original film to JJ Abrams’s clever de-escalation of the franchise in the third chapter to Brad Bird’s supremely confident blockbuster in Ghost Protocol.

Compared to that impressive lineup of M:I film directing talent, Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation director Christopher McQuarrie might seem like a step down. The only movie he’s delivered in the last decade was the aforementioned (and excrementitious) Jack Reacher.

Still, Rogue Nation stands up to the rest of the M:I series, in terms of bombast and pure entertainment value and filmmaking skill.

What Rogue Nation gets right is a commitment to detail. The new cast members, for instance, are wonderful. Alec Baldwin is hilarious as a meddling bureaucrat. Sean Harris comes out of nowhere to deliver a delightful villain (he wears a black turtleneck and his eye can’t stop twitching when he makes evil plans). And Rebecca Ferguson has the bearing and the profile (and, if I can get lascivious, the killer legs) of a classic film ingénue as a double (or triple, or quadruple) agent named Ilsa.

The idea behind Rogue Nation is similar to most other M:I films — Ethan Hunt is disavowed by the U.S. government (again), even as he chases down a criminal organization that’s one MacGuffin away from taking over the world. And I bet within 30 minutes of leaving the theater you won’t remember why Hunt and his familiar crew (Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, and Ving Rhames, thankfully given a little more than a cameo this time) had to travel to Havana or Morocco or Minsk in order to advance the plot.

But you can’t simply write Rogue Nation off as fun, dumb blockbuster fluff. It’s structured around a series of tightly wound action pieces that play out with surgical precision and Cruise and company all sell the hell out of it.

Sure, the movie runs out of breath about three-quarters of the way through and never completely recovers. And maybe McQuarrie’s script flirts with a twist or two too many. But nobody can claim Rogue Nation didn’t give them their money’s worth — there’s enough intrigue and action and buddy comedy bravado to overstuff three of the lackluster summer flicks we’ve been getting lately. Dun-dun-DUN!-DUN!