Nearly 20 years have passed since Brian De Palma first transformed a snazzy television series into a high-wire act of elaborate Hitchcockian suspense with the first “Mission: Impossible” movie. By now, the very idea of an auteur-driven blockbuster sounds downright quaint. While veterans John Woo, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird all had the chance to leave a mark on the franchise, with fifth installment “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation,” relative newcomer Christopher McQuarrie trades ambition for competent action and typically charismatic worldly spies, but little in the way of fresh ideas — about as much as one can expect these days.
McQuarrie’s screenwriting career stretches back to “The Usual Suspects,” but his directing career is comparatively young, with only two previous credits to his name: 2000’s “The Way of the Gun” and 2012’s “Jack Reacher,” which, like the “Mission: Impossible” movies, bolstered Tom Cruise’s status as a movie star against dwindling odds. With “Rogue Nation,” for which McQuarrie holds the sole screenwriting credit, the filmmaker delivers an enjoyable globe-trotting journey featuring Cruise’s clandestine government agent Ethan Hunt, this time faced with the threat of obliteration.
Not that any diehard fans should be too worried. The stakes of the story reflect an occasion as inevitable as Hunt’s exploding messages — namely, that “Mission: Impossible” has arrived at the standard point in a series where its entire future comes into question. Assailed by a hawkish CIA director (Alec Baldwin, distractingly on gruff autopilot) for their unruly tactics, the Impossible Missions Force is shut down just as Hunt picks up on a shadowy crime organization in the UK that calls itself The Syndicate. Evading their capture, he covertly agrees with team leader William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) to go underground and continue the mission. The premise is virtually a dare for the “Mission Impossible” franchise itself: Ethan goes rogue to prove he’s still got plenty of fight left in him.
That eventually leads him to bring along smarmy computer expert Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, wide-eyed and hilarious as usual), while scowling IMF ally Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) throws the occasional assist. Along the way, Hunt also encounters slick British spy Ilsa (an icy Rebecca Ferguson), whose allegiances are continually called into question.
With his merry band of tech-savvy espionage pros watching his back, Hunt launches into swiftly paced set of set pieces, most notably a daring backstage showdown with would-be assassins at the Vienna opera involving dangling platforms and guns disguised as instruments. There’s also an unnerving underwater sequence involving key cards and a rapid motorcycle chase through the dusty roads of Casablanca. But despite all of these enjoyable digressions, “Rogue Nation” has fairly humble ambitions, recycling old devices like absurdly convincing face masks and clever set-ups that no longer feel all that surprising. As a central threat, The Syndicate holds some contemporary weight, its murky intentions pitched somewhere between the NSA and ISIS. At the end of the day, however, it’s just a standard-issue MacGuffin designed to set the stage for ample tension and fast-paced routines.
They don’t disappoint, but as a whole the entire endeavor has started to show signs of tedium. We’ve come a long way since a single bead could play the chief vessel of suspense in a mainstream narrative. Instead, there’s Cruise in a CGI-enabled underground water tank, struggling to hold his breath for three minutes while dodging huge, churning machinery; elsewhere, he grasps the edge of an airplane during takeoff before bursting through its doors. These physically daring stunts are certainly a lot of fun, but hardly offer much in the way of the memorable, inventive storytelling that turns Hunt’s absurd feats into relatable endeavors.
Instead, “Rogue Nation” plays out like a sufficient rejigging of the same variables tossed around many times before, which is just enough to both celebrate the material and demonstrate its limitations. Of course, that may be beyond McQuarrie and Cruise’s formidable efforts. While the “Mission: Impossible” series may no longer feel fresh, it also shows no signs of self-destructing anytime soon.
“Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” opens nationwide on July 31.