At 53, Tom Cruise is past the retirement age of every James Bond except Roger Moore. Yet his 19-year-old Mission: Impossible series ticks on, counting down the seconds till its next explosion — and Cruise's Ethan Hunt is determined to unman his cross-Atlantic competition. Forget high-tech gadgets. The older Cruise gets, the more he relies on his fists. (And his abs, and his nerves — he'll never let you forget he does his own stunts, and why should he?) His body is the body-gizmo, and Christopher McQuarrie, writer and director of the fifth entry, Rogue Nation, keeps the camera on him like a nature show about a hungry lion.
Every Mission: Impossible has a different tone. It's the first franchise Cruise produced, and he handpicked the old TV serial to be his blockbuster plaything, a toy chest he offers to directors who catch his eye. Cruise used Mission: Impossible to resurrect Brian De Palma, capitalize on John Woo, transition J.J. Abrams from TV to film and shift Brad Bird from pixels to a real man. Cruise allowed each helmer to adapt his own Ethan Hunt. To De Palma, Hunt was a whiz kid. For Woo, a horndog. Abrams: a husband. Bird: a cartoon. Cruise — not his character — is the only constant, plus his continually returning bros Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg and now Jeremy Renner, and whatever new leggy, long-haired brunette chooses to accept. (This time it's newcomer Rebecca Ferguson, and boy, are we lucky to have her.)
Here, Ethan Hunt is a cousin of Jack Reacher — the first film where McQuarrie directed Cruise — only without the quips. McQuarrie, the writer of The Usual Suspects, gives Rogue Nation a suspicious street smarts. People don't just plan — they double- and triple-think the enemy, not that the plot matters more than a mousetrap. In an early scene, a lovely blond agent coos, "I've heard stories — they can't all be true." James Bond would flirt; any other action hero would crack a joke. Cruise's Hunt doesn't kid. He seems to actually consider the question, before slipping a small who knows? smile.
Cruise enjoys playing humble. That's the secret behind the biggest movie star in the world: He's always an underdog, even when we don't think Ethan Hunt can lose. (That's why you'll never see him playing an effortless comic book immortal — his characters are at their best when their backs are to the wall.) The game is how close he can get to death. Here, he's battered, buffeted and strung up like St. Sebastian. In one breath-sucking scene, he tumbles into a water tank that tosses him like a gyroscope. What sells it isn't just the feat's one wicked gag but his tiny, toothy inhalation before he takes the plunge. Cruise even permits himself to be dwarfed by every lantern-jawed goon flung his way by the Syndicate, an anti-IMF network hell-bent on triggering world havoc.
McQuarrie loves blundering into a brawl, but he's too twitchy to shoot great action. One spinning motorcycle stunt would have killed if he'd pulled back so we could actually see it. Strapping Cruise to an airplane is a zippy idea, yet in the execution I found myself distracted by how the wind flattened his hair to his forehead like a sweaty preacher's toupee. Weirder still, when Hunt goes into hiding, Cruise sprouts a blond — yes, blond! — beard. Better is a simple, circus-act move where Cruise monkeys up a pole doing what I can only describe as horizontal crunches. (He'd make a mint in Magic Mike 3.) There's a fine car chase and a superior motorcycle dash that combines everything Cruise does well: insane physics, credible danger and human fragility.
Of course, Cruise's best skill is his acting. He doesn't get to do much here — only De Palma and Abrams gave Hunt an inner life — and he hasn't gotten to do much in the past ten years. His last decade is a too-eager-to-please shadow of his stretch from 1989 to 1999, which earned him three Oscar nominations.
At Rogue Nation's deepest, McQuarrie seems to be trying to say something about luck: There's some mumbo jumbo about chance, a shot of a rabbit's-foot keychain. But luck is antithetical to everything Cruise represents. More than any actor — and certainly every CG-reliant superhero — he believes in bruises and exhaustion. He wants to earn the audience's love. After all, when you've been pummeled by the global media, how scary is a silly little plane?
Rogue Nation is smart to pair him with the Swedish Ferguson, an athletic beauty with appraising, ice-blue eyes. In our first look at her as Syndicate agent Ilsa, Ferguson unbuttons the top of her blouse before spinning around to interrogate Hunt. We're caught off-guard — she doesn't seem like the type to lean on guile — and she soon proves she isn't. For fun, Ilsa practices holding her breath, and while McQuarrie indulges in one long pan up her muscular thigh, it's not as entrancing as the character's brains. Alas, Mission: Impossible's rotating lovelies mean we probably won't see her again in the sixth installment.
However, newcomer Alec Baldwin, as a McCarthy-esque CIA boss, grins like he's already signed his contract, even though he's saddled with lines such as "Hunt is the living manifestation of destiny!" I giggled, but for Cruise, it's true. The 5-foot-7 New Jersey kid went west and conquered California. His key franchise has conquered the world, and Cruise won't rest until he collapses.