Preposterous, playful and shamelessly entertaining, “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” obeys the first rule of action thrillers-cum-star vehicles: Take this all too seriously and you’re dead meat. Tom Cruise, who delivers a Dorian Gray-like performance in his fifth outing as the Impossible Mission Force’s Ethan Hunt, knows this in his preternaturally uncreaky bones.
Starting things off with an impressively realistic stunt, hanging off the side of an ascending airplane — which he performed himself, according to pre-opening publicity — Cruise strides through “Rogue Nation” with the combination of swagger and winking self-deprecation that have helped make him one of Hollywood’s most enduring and, dang it, lovable screen products. Just when viewers are about to give into full eye roll — when he displays the perfectly sculpted chest that his contract apparently stipulates he bare in every movie, say, or lays one of his penetrating Blue Steel looks on the baddie du jour — he delivers a perfectly timed pratfall or handsomely dim retort.
Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, who worked with Cruise on the far grittier “Jack Reacher,” is just as canny as Cruise himself when it comes to deploying his lead actor. “Rogue Nation” turns out to be a fleet, well-crafted, effortlessly stylish addition to the “Mission: Impossible” canon in which outlandish derring-do, risibly arcane stakes and a woefully overlong running time are leavened by an endearing sense of humor that at times approaches high camp.
The joshing tone of the most recent installments was securely established when Simon Pegg joined the force in 2006. With Alec Baldwin in the mix — as a peevish CIA director eager to strip the IMF of its unchecked powers — “Rogue Nation” goes deep meta. When Baldwin utters “Hunt” in a pivotal scene near the end of the film, what might have been a moment where the wheels come off instead attains deadpan silkiness of Donaghy-esque proportions.
The great strength of McQuarrie is that, even when he’s leaning into the laughs, he plays it straight — he doesn’t sacrifice inviolable core values in the name of escapism, whether in the form of smart writing or superb production aesthetics. Handsomely photographed by Robert Elswit, “Rogue Nation” possesses the sleek, globe-trotting feel we’ve come to expect from the James Bonds and Jason Bournes of the world. What distinguishes this iteration is a classical sensibility that feels almost like a throwback, like 007 before he went techno-ballistic.
The spine of the plot touches on such topical tropes as computer hacks, government transparency and global terrorism. But the set pieces are pure old school, from the film’s eyeball-grabbing opening number and a Hitchcockian fight staged during “Turandot” on a backstage catwalk, to a beautifully executed underwater bit and a motorcycle-car chase that must have struck co-star Jeremy Renner as dimly familiar from his stint in the Bourne universe.
Through it all, Cruise maintains the signature focus and physical cool that we’ve come to expect, even if Ethan has become a little unhinged in his righteous lone-wolf fury (“unhinged” being yet another beat Cruise can pluck easily from his emotional tool box). What’s more, as he did in the criminally under-seen “Edge of Tomorrow,” Cruise once again chooses for Ethan to work with a female counterpart who, rather than a stock lady-in-jeopardy or erotic love interest, is just as competent and physically courageous as he is. (In a clever twist, it’s Pegg’s dweeby character, Benji, who emerges as “Rogue Nation’s” damsel in distress.)
Indeed, as much as Cruise dominates “Rogue Nation,” it’s his co-star, Rebecca Ferguson, who emerges as the film’s true and most memorable revelation. A dazzling, auburn-haired Swedish beauty, she embodies the glamour and élan of a modern-day Diana Rigg, or “Edge of Tomorrow’s” Emily Blunt. Like Blunt, Ferguson manages to be sexy, strong, complicated and enigmatic in a performance that Cruise highlights by way of his own reflected persona. It may not entail hanging off the side of a moving airplane, but it’s a pretty gutsy and admirable stunt nonetheless, free of vanity and brimming with the secure, unfussy confidence of a true star.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains sequences of action and violence, and brief partial nudity. 131 minutes.