The spy game is a tough one. Spending your time lost in the wilderness of mirrors ages you. These days, old spies don’t so much come in from the cold as get put out to pasture, replaced by younger, nimbler models.

With Daniel Craig we’re on our sixth Bond. We’ve had four Jack Ryans, of varying success. Aptly, we all got amnesia and forgot about Richard Chamberlain, allowing Matt Damon to give us a Jason Bourne for the 21st century before taking an early bath and leaving the pitch clear for Jeremy Renner’s Aaron Cross in, um, The Bourne Substitute. And there’s even been five George Smileys. Six if you count Ronnie Barker’s pastiche in an episode of The Two Ronnies.

But there’s only been one Ethan Hunt. Four films and 19 years after his first outing, Tom Cruise takes on his fifth Mission: Impossible and Rogue Nation is the best of the bunch, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie giving us a lean, mean action thriller that relies less on the gadgets and masks that are staples of the series and more on his 53-year-old star’s scant regard for his own personal safety when it comes to creating thrilling, adrenaline-pumping action.

In a digital world of CGI-supermen, Cruise is still thankfully an analogue guy, risking life and limb, cheating death to do his own stunts. Yes, that’s really Cruise hanging off the back of an aeroplane as it takes off in the film’s money shot (off-handedly dispensed with in the film’s Bond-esque pre-credits opener)! Yup, that’s really him in the high-octane, physics-defying chase through a cramped labyrinth of Moroccan streets, swapping a car for a racing bike before wiping out and bouncing along the tarmac like a human piñata! And that’s him again, holding his breath for six-minutes, free-diving in a nerve-shredding underwater heist scene. Not only does Cruise show no signs of letting up as he gets older but, judging by the amount of punishment he soaks up in this instalment, I wouldn’t be surprised if his next movie sees Johnny Knoxville and Steve-O rubbing him down with sandpaper and spitting lemon juice at him in a new Jackass.

The plot, well that’s pretty much the same as the four previous films, with Ethan once again disavowed and forced to go off the grid to track down the shadowy Syndicate, an international terrorist group made up of rogue intelligence agents, led by the saurian Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), effecting regime change and chaos through assassinations, suspicious industrial accidents and stage-managed disasters.

With the IMF disbanded by gruff CIA chief Alec Baldwin, Ethan finds himself a man without a country, hunted and under suspicion by his own side as he tries to bring down the Syndicate, aided by trusted sidekicks and surviving IMF members Benji (Simon Pegg), Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Luther (Ving Rhames) as well as the mysterious Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a former British agent now working for the Syndicate who may just be playing both sides.

Having previously collaborated with Cruise on Jack Reacher as well as scripting Edge Of Tomorrow and Valkyrie, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie brings some of the grit and darkness, albeit 12a grit and darkness, of his earlier, criminally underrated Way Of The Gun to Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’s action scenes, marrying percussive gun battles, kinetic motorbike crashes and a gruelling knife fight to the breathlessly taut underwater scenes and the Hitchcockian intricacy of an operatic attempted assassination staged during a Viennese performance of Puccini’s Turandot, Cruise and Pegg attempting to thwart a pair of snipers synchronised to shoot on a particular note as Nessun Dorma crescendos.

As well as greatly expanding the role of Pegg’s likably puppyish computer nerd Benji, promoting him to full-fledged partner and actually giving him stuff to do other than tap on a computer keyboard, McQuarrie also brings back Rhames and Renner and they don’t just feel like benchwarmers but members of a team. Alec Baldwin and Complicite’s Simon McBurney chew the scenery with relish as the scheming heads of the CIA and British Intelligence respectively, Tom Hollander cameos hilariously as a pint-sized Dishface while Swedish actress Ferguson, still best known for her glacial TV performance as The White Queen, is a welcome addition to the team and perhaps the best thing in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Cruise pretty much allowing her to drive the narrative, almost, stealing the film out from under him (much as Emily Blunt did in Edge Of Tomorrow), her Ilsa strong, sexy and ambiguous, essentially a female version of Ethan, which may explain his fascination with her. Sean Harris’ uber-villain, employing the same reedy mumble he did with his incomprehensible turn in Jamaica Inn, may never feel like too much of a threat to our heroes but his thuggish henchman, the Bone Doctor (Jens Hulten), more than makes up for him and the true climax of the film is the vicious, visceral back alley knife fight between him and Ferguson.

But ultimately, Cruise is the Mission: Impossible franchise, as integral to it’s success as Lalo Schifrin’s instantly recognisable theme tune, his Ethan Hunt, like Cruise himself, the indomitable underdog at his best when his back’s against the wall and the odds are against him. In a Summer of bloated superhero movies full of CG men in tights and unconvincing big lizards, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, like it’s star, is a lean, slick engine of entertainment that charms and thrills, keeping you nailed to the edge of your seat.

Movie Review: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
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