Toward the end of the preposterously enjoyable “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation,” Alec Baldwin as CIA director Hunley barks a line of dialogue at Britain’s prime minister (an uncredited Tom Hollander) that aptly serves as philosophical raison d’etre for super-agent Ethan Hunt and, indeed, the man playing him. “Sir, Hunt is the living manifestation of destiny, and he has made you his mission!” Does anyone doubt that Tom Cruise says something like this to the mirror every morning?
The line gets a big laugh from the audience, because it’s both ridiculous and kind of true. “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” is a step down from the series’ high point, 2011’s “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” a piece of witty, high-energy crackerjack that was directed by Brad Bird as if it were a live-action Pixar movie, complete with Hunt hanging off the side of the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai. The new film is written (with Drew Pearce) and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, whose talents are more on the page (“The Usual Suspects,” last summer’s much-underrated Cruise vehicle “Edge of Tomorrow”) than behind the camera.
But those talents are there, and “Rogue Nation” unfolds with fluid, twisty, old-school pleasure — you settle into it like a favorite chair. Aside from an opening bit, heavily promoted in the trailers, in which Hunt hangs off the outside of an airplane, the action is on the meat-and-potatoes side compared to “Ghost Protocol” — car chases and foot chases and knife fights and the like. They’re still fun. McQuarrie is working from the template of classic James Bond movies and Alfred Hitchcock suspense films like 1956’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” whose Albert Hall assassination sequence “Rogue Nation” borrows and amplifies about a third of the way in.
There’s more emphasis on comedy, too, with Simon Pegg’s sarcastic techno-wonk Benji Dunn getting more quip time and Ving Rhames, largely absent from “Ghost Protocol,” returning to the fold as rough-and-tumble fellow agent Luther Stickell. The story line — necessary only to get all the marbles rolling — involves the Syndicate, a secret underground network of spies recruited from all countries and officially presumed dead. It’s headed by a mousy, icy renegade agent named Solomon Lane (Sean Harris, of Showtime’s “The Borgias”). His motive? Sorry, never clear. Doesn’t matter.
What matters is that Hunt is on his own again, the Impossible Mission Force having been dissolved under the salvos of the CIA’s Hunley — Baldwin has great fun flaring his nostrils in outrage — and IMF leader William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) having been brought to heel. Skipping from Paris to Vienna to Morocco to London, Ethan has to figure out how to trap Lane and convince his superiors the Syndicate exists. This involves the assistance of Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson, a relatively new face from Britain), who’s either a highly skilled member of the Syndicate or a mole working against it. Wait, doesn’t Ethan have a wife from the earlier movies (Michelle Monaghan)? If so, their marriage seems to have been annulled, along with her entire existence.
Much of the hugger-mugger has to do with a crucial thumb-drive that everyone in the movie calls a “disc” — this is old school — and that contains the full roster of Syndicate personnel or the US tax code or something. Doesn’t matter; it’s a McGuffin, there only so that Ethan and Ilsa can extract it from a databank housed in a water-turbine core far beneath the sands of Casablanca. If the sequence doesn’t have the live-wire craziness of the stunts in “Ghost Protocol,” it’s still intensely satisfying, even funny. We come to the “M:I” movies for the same reasons we came to the original TV show, to see byzantine plots, baroque solutions, and rubber masks.
Oh, the rubber masks! “Rogue Nation” pulls a bit of three-card monte with the masks that makes you realize the filmmakers love the absurdity of this franchise as much as its storytelling and profit potential. How does an off-the-grid, on-the-run Hunt bankroll and manufacture such high-tech toys as a mask-generating machine or, I don’t know, a bulletproof plexiglass cage with knockout-gas jets? Does he keep them in self-storage in a strip mall? And, by the way, where are all the Moroccans? You can discuss the incongruities on the drive home; while the movie’s playing, you’re having too much fun getting manhandled by experts.
Said experts include Cruise, who finally seems to be showing his age — there’s something a little off with his face; speculate as you will — but who is the unironic yet self-aware engine of this series. Let Pegg crack wise and Rhames flex his brawn; let Ferguson handle a refreshing amount of the action on her own, even saving Ethan’s bacon from time to time. Let Renner consolidate his standing as the most valuable wingman in mainstream movies (and, yes, he deserves better). Cruise and Hunt are the reasons the “Mission: Impossible” movies exist; even their names acknowledge they’re the action principle in its purest onscreen form. It’s a giggle and a thrill, and after all these years (and whatever you think of him), Tom Cruise still does it exceptionally well. He’s the living manifestation of destiny. We’re just his mission.