By Jarrod Jones. It’s hard to believe, but Mission: Impossible has successfully navigated the fickle Hollywood terrain for nearly twenty years. And it would appear that it’s living well by keeping its own methodical pace, but twenty years is plenty of time for upstart custom jobs like Fast & Furious to pop out of the ground only to spin donuts around our beloved vintage model. (And that particular series is already working on its third lap: Fast 8 coming atcha in 2017.) But that hasn’t fazed Mission: Impossible; there’s still plenty of gas left in this thundering machine, and it’s purring just as well as it did when J.J. Abrams course-corrected after the dreaded John Woo Fiasco of 2000. (Don’t go Googling M:I2 now. It’s… unpleasant.) Hard to believe we’ve come so far when this tentpole should have self-destructed years ago.

And it’s only slightly more improbable that 53 years-young Tom Cruise has remained fastened to the driver’s seat for the duration. (Remember back to 2011 and you’ll see that it sure looked like Jeremy Renner was creeping up on ol’ Tom.) But this is where we like him, isn’t it? Manning the steering column at velocities that would make highway patrolmen blush, defying gravity, the Grim Reaper, and sheer common sense in stunts that hurtle insurance premiums into the stratosphere. (I never wanted to bellow out “you maniac!” in a theater more than in this film’s first five minutes.) It’s difficult to accuse Mission: Impossible of being a vanity project when it keeps our hero so spry. Hollywood has its lucrative ensemble action series, and it can keep them; in 2015, Tom Cruise is still strictly A-List, the cream of the crop.

And yet you can’t help but notice the slight cracks in Cruise’s armor. Director and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie doesn’t shy away from the growing vulnerabilities of our aging superman — he embraces them, and he uses those kinks to make our otherwise impenetrable superspy more grounded than he’s ever been before, even when he’s slicing through the air towards imminent doom. McQuarrie, who was probably responsible for making Edge of Tomorrow so damned good, rightfully keeps in moments that would be considered an outtake to a lesser filmmaker — he keeps a perilous Cruise slip-up during a highway motorcycle race in the final cut — which only endears us to the hero more. But it’s more than apparent that Ethan can’t save the day on his own, at least, not like he used to.


McQuarrie’s ace in the hole? Rebecca Ferguson. Though the director is spotted playing to the back of the room more than a couple of times — his cameras can’t help but gravitate towards her derriere — he employs Ferguson to be the true epicenter of Rogue Nation as Ilsa, an expert assassin with more moral dilemmas in this one film than Ethan Hunt has encountered over the entire franchise’s history. Here, Hunt wants absolution (from Alec Baldwin’s prickly CIA director), and a bit of revenge (against Sean Harris’ wispy and effectively evil Lane), but it’s Ferguson who wants something a bit more tangible. Securing her freedom both from Lane and the world of covert intelligence means Ilsa has to walk a needle-thin line of allegiances, where she’s helping Hunt out of a jam one moment, and leaving him in the dust the next. Ilsa doesn’t just hold the anchor to the entire movie, she uses it to bludgeon her way into the spotlight.

She fares beautifully, and far more ably than most of her male compatriots — Ving Rhames returns to mug in front of a computer screen and not much else, and Jeremy Renner keeps mostly in the periphery, except when it comes time to scream at Tom Cruise. (Which must be a surreal thing to do.) It’s Simon Pegg who acts as Tom Cruise’s second pillar, exercising his vital comedy chops while also flexing some rather surprising dramatic muscle (he hasn’t put a lump in my throat like this since Shaun of the Dead). But he’s also there to make the movie easier to swallow. Watch him as he distills the essence of Lane’s sinister organization down to a rather click-baity phrase: It’s an Anti-IMF.” Can it really be that simple? Of course it can. But there is beauty in that simplicity.