The fifth installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise came out July 31 this year, 19 years after the original. Tom Cruise, 34 in the first film, is now 54, and perhaps a tiny bit wrinklier around the face (thought not so much the torso, as a pointed shirtless scene reminds us). I saw Rogue Nation in the theater — paid $13 for it and everything — and, I have to say, enjoyed the hell out of it.
I haven’t seen movies three or four, but this latest one at least purposely leans hard on the very “impossible” conceit inherent in the title: After 19 years, Ethan Hunt has basically achieved superhuman status, to the point where his associates toss him insane feats of physicality (“So all you have to do is hold your breath for three minutes”) like they’re giving him a particularly stubborn jam jar to open. It’s a smart way to poke a little fun at itself and give some humanity to unstoppable badass Ethan.
But perhaps the best part about Rogue Nation is that though he is still very much the star of the film, good old Tommy Cruise is more than willing to move aside and let his costars have a turn. Simon Pegg, the bumbling, goofy genius in more than one big-screen franchise, gets to take down a baddie himself; Jeremy Renner’s IMF director backs up his wayward agent with hardly a question asked. And most surprisingly, Cruises’s female lead gets to be a sexy, killer spy without having to bed Ethan at any point. Okay, the movie can’t resist the idea completely — one eye-rolly scene has Ilsa beseeching Ethan to run away with her — but she also gets whole action sequences without Ethan, taking on opponents twice her size and even saving Ethan’s bacon in the aforementioned three-minute underwater challenge. It’s a smart move by Cruise et al. to move his character away from dashing romantic lead toward more of a (no-less-dashing) mentor figure rather than having him stray into verging-on-creepy cradle-robber territory. Rebecca Ferguson/Ilsa might return in a later movie — which would be great — and she and Ethan might then wind up in bed together, but for this film at least she escapes in a hot car with all her professionalism intact.
The other great thing about the M:I movies is how their plots are now basically 100 percent pure MacGuffin. In that, they remind me of the other massive action franchise of a similar time period: the Fast & Furious movies. Both have been impressively performing hits, managing to bring back the same leads every few years to create something reliably entertaining. Beyond the ever-more-ridiculous stunts and set pieces, F&F’s appeal hinges on the chemistry of its main ensemble, while M:I rests on Cruise’s muscled shoulders and toothy grin. Both are wildly, hubristically American — F&F distinguishes whole cultures by a few shots and slightly different kinds of house music; M:I insists that the fate of the world lies in the hands of one American agent, who radiates so much goodness and importance that a total stranger working for a rival agency refuses to let him die on principle. It’s hilarious and soothing at the same time: Here, in these film universes, America occupies its proper place as the unquestioned, unbeatable leader of the world, with the superhuman movie characters as the essence of the American Spirit — unkillable, undefeatable, daring, and above all, righteous.
After I got home from the movie theater I put on the original Mission Impossible and found myself dazzled, as always, by young Tom Cruise’s pure charisma. At 34 he crackles with vitality, impossible handsome, unfailingly intense, the perfect encapsulation of a modern American movie star; nearly two decades later he’s still handsome but has mellowed slightly into the role. That might sound odd for a character who spends the entire film on the run from baddies of various nationalities, affixing himself to the sides of planes, and kicking the shit out of a man who’s like a mutant NBA player whose nickname is “the Bone Doctor” — but it’s true. He carries himself like a man who knows exactly who he is — and, for that matter, who you and your mother and everyone you’ve ever met are, too.
Ethan Hunt may only feel truly alive when he’s nearly killing himself, but he is completely at home with himself, as I imagine Cruise is with these movies. The suspense doesn’t come from whether Ethan can pull off stunt after wildly improbably stunt, because we, and he, know he can. And the plot, the original of which required many repeated viewings for me to wrap my head around, barely matters this far along the line. There’s a shadowy agency controlled by Britain’s prime minister that’s an evil polar opposite to the IMF? Sure! To save Benji from being blown to smithereens in a café Ethan memorizes a massive list of precise names and dollar amounts in the time it would take you or I to brush our teeth? Why not! It’s a weird corollary with these and, again, F&F: As the stakes ostensibly get higher and the action even more action-y, it’s easier for us to settle in with our popcorn and just enjoy.