Some blockbuster film franchises come with a ton of plot and continuity baggage, some with a little. And then there's the Mission: Impossible series.
All you really need to know about secret agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is that the "IMF" he works for is the Impossible Missions Force and not the International Monetary Fund. Otherwise, you might be a bit confused when CIA director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) shutters that top-secret organization for its alleged involvement in a bombing of the Kremlin.
But you don't actually need to remember that bombing (from 2011's Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol), or know who really did it, to enjoy everything there is to enjoy about this fifth installment in the silly spy series. Because Hunt isn't a character, even in the larger-than-life way that James Bond is a character. Rather, he's the imperturbable, indestructible focal point for a series of action set pieces whose outrageousness escalates as the minutes tick away. No one should come to a Mission: Impossible movie for anything but those set pieces, and director Christopher McQuarrie delivers some rich ones this time around, with strong assistance from cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood).
After the requisite pulse-pounding teaser (Cruise plus exterior of airborne plane), we get to the actual plot: Hunt is kidnapped by the Syndicate, a mysterious organization with world-burning ambitions. Meanwhile, fellow agent Brandt (Jeremy Renner) does damage control back in Washington, where Hunley insists that Hunt is a madman and the Syndicate merely a "figment of his imagination."
These aspersions cast on our hero may momentarily remind us of trickier, twistier movies that McQuarrie has scripted, namely The Usual Suspects and last year's Edge of Tomorrow. But questioning the reliability of its own outlandish narrative — in which latex disguises figure prominently — is way too radical for Mission: Impossible. So the audience isn't encouraged to share Hunley's doubts. The Syndicate is very real, led by an irascible turncoat (Sean Harris) with weird hair and shadowy global objectives. Having escaped with the help of an undercover MI6 agent (Rebecca Ferguson), Hunt is soon on its trail.
While the stakes of this action remain boringly generic, the action itself proves vivid and varied. A high-risk underwater heist is shot and edited deftly enough to convince us (just for a second or two) that Hunt might actually mess this up. A cat-and-mouse sequence in the Vienna State Opera makes ingenious use of backstage theatrical rigging, multiple antagonists and the aesthetic distractions of Ferguson's breath-taking chartreuse gown and Puccini's "Nessun Dorma."
Sure, that aria carries more emotional weight than anything actually happening on screen. But the film creeps a bit closer to dramatic credibility whenever Ferguson is around. Besides kicking ass (of course), her ambivalent spy has believable conflicts and occasionally even discusses "tradecraft" like someone from a le Carré film. When it's time for leaping from roof to roof, she makes a point of removing her stilettos — my kind of action heroine.
That's a nice real-human moment in a film that doesn't have many of them, despite the reliable comic efforts of Simon Pegg as Hunt's sidekick. While the James Bond series has flirted with seriousness in recent years, Mission: Impossible remains unabashedly superficial, primarily designed to give summer moviegoers a vicarious, A/C-enhanced joy ride. The appeal of that warm-weather escapism appears to be undying, just like Lalo Schifrin's musical theme — and international, judging by the long list of companies that produced the film. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is not to ask for anything deeper.