Five films in, it can be taken as a given that a Mission: Impossible film will have sensational action and feats of strength, and Rogue Nation does not disappoint. Opera house assassinations in Vienna merge into motorcycle chases through Casablanca morph into high-espionage and hand-to-hand combat in London. While none ever quite match the Burj Khalifa climb and subsequent sandstorm of Ghost Protocol, several sequences approach that grandeur. On the large scale, mind-boggling new environments are introduced. On the small scale, hand-to-hand combat is as credible as in any martial arts film, and McQuarrie and returning ace cinematographer Robert Elswitt don't lose any beats in the fast edits that so many other films indulge it. It follows the globe-trotting pattern established by James Bond and improves on it, leaving out the puns and Austin Powers-style tropes.
Where Rogue Nation really differentiates itself is in its new characters. Cruise, Pegg, Renner, and Rhames have a pleasant banter that keeps the film light, but they're all reprising roles that have spanned 5, 3, and 2 movies, and that should be expected. What is unexpected is that a franchise that very much belongs to Cruise is stolen out from under him by Ferguson's spectacularly named Ilsa Faust. Every bit the action star that Cruise is, she would have no problem leading the franchise if Cruise ever looks at a self-portrait in his attic that is aging and suddenly turns into a pile of dust. A Hunt counterpart of Faust's stature is a pinnacle for the series, so much so that it makes M:I III and IV's Paula Patton's largely undifferentiated teammate a distant memory.
Rogue Nation also improves in the villain department, especially after Ghost Protocol's forgettable nemesis and his video game-style objective of triggering a nuclear exchange and rushing in the next round of evolution. Harris's Lane has none of those grandiose objectives, seeking only to dwell in the shadows, sow some chaos, and get rich on the rubble. He's also a striking figure, lean and reptilian with a face that demands to be stared at. Thoroughly repulsive in '71, Harris has found his niche playing clever, double-dealing shit-stirrers, the fly in various ointments. Caught between Hunt and Lane is Baldwin's Hunley, who refined besuited exasperation to an art in 30 Rock and he pulls tools from that box to strong comedic effect as the eternally skeptical CIA chief. Add in a Kane henchman named the Bone Doctor (Jens Hulten), and Rogue Nation is bursting with the welcome new faces necessary to keep a franchise rejuvenating itself.
Rogue Nation is consistently fun and occasionally breath-taking, and meets expectations for an action jaunt. It has supplanted Bond as my go-to for these kind of movies, as the Bond franchise has become too dour and obsessed with Bond's backstory. Mission: Impossible has rarely bothered to make Hunt some kind of tragic figure, sticking to the archetype of a man who's very good at his job, and while they might never break out of their genre, they're often the best the genre can offer. There are few things the Bond franchise is doing these days that can compete with Mission: Impossible, particularly the last few outings. If Ferguson sticks around for the next one, they just might lap the venerable British staple. Even if she doesn't, late-50's Cruise will continue to shame his similarly aged peers. B+