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Since the events of the last mission that they chose to accept, the Impossible Mission Force – led by super-spy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) – have been disbanded by an irate head of the CIA (Alec Baldwin) for showing recklessness in their tactics. This hasn’t stopped Hunt from pursuing a personal mission: to uncover the shadowy figures behind The Syndicate, a rogue terrorist organization made up of presumed dead special agents from around the world and headed up by a soft-spoken, super creepy former British spook (Sean Harris).

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation picks up more or less where Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol left off, with a spectacular action sequence that has little to do with the plot of the film as a whole. From there, new writer and director Christopher McQuarrie (who worked with Cruise vehicles before on the scripts for Jack Reacher, Valkyrie, and Edge of Tomorrow) amps the action up to a hundred as fast as possible. The plot holds together nicely because it’s the least convoluted entry in a franchise that has – since its dreadful second outing – consistently found ways of simplifying the story without sacrificing action or intrigue.

If Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol was a bit more cartoonish, McQuarrie’s follow-up starts in the same spot before gradually giving way to a smarter, lower key spy thriller that harkens back to Brian De Palma’s first film in the franchise. Following some jaw dropping action sequences involving a tense assassination attempt at the Vienna Opera House and a Moroccan motorcycle chase that almost reaches the same dizzying heights set by Mad Max: Fury Road earlier this year, Rogue Nation eases off the throttle for the final third of the film without sacrificing audience interest. The high octane action has been in service of delivering a story that the audience can maintain investment in, and a strengthening of characters and allegiances that might have gone overlooked in many other lunkheaded blockbusters.

While the show is stolen by Harris’ thin lipped, almost zen-like villain, McQuarrie makes sure to give every member of the team their equal due. Cruise knows how to play this character perfectly at this point, but watching how Ethan’s loyalties to his friends drives him into worse situations makes up the film’s backbone. Simon Pegg’s tech wizard Benji and longtime franchise favourite Ving Rhames’ Luther are given increased responsibilities. Jeremy Renner has the unenviable task of being the leader stuck in Washington and forced to run around in an effort to keep Ethan and his friends alive, but as the film goes on his role becomes less thankless. And the franchise’s latest female character finds actress Rebecca Ferguson having a blast as a British operative with constantly shifting motives.

Audiences will come for the exceptionally composed and filmed action set pieces (and a few brutal looking bits of hand-to-hand combat), but they’ll also get a smart story about the messy nature of geo-politics. That subtext was the one thing missing from Ghost Protocol, and while Rogue Nation comes dangerously close to hitting a slow point just as it should be sprinting for the finish, I’m kind of glad that it leads to a restrained and thoughtful conclusion. It feels earned and refreshing, and it’s a nice final surprise to what was a dreary summer movie season.