★ ★ ★ ★

One mission that seems almost impossible for Hollywood to achieve these days is to continually reenergize a popular film franchise, making each entry as good (if not better) than the last. But that’s exactly what Tom Cruise and company have done with this tentpole, which is now 19 years old. The Mission: Impossible series has employed a different director for each movie thus far, and every one has put his own stamp on the material — a major reason why the franchise still feels fresh after nearly two decades. Brian De Palma got the series off to a strong start back in 1996, but John Woo stumbled badly four years later with a pretentious, over-the-top follow-up. Thankfully, J.J. Abrams put everything back on track with 2006’s intense Mission: Impossible III, and Brad Bird raised the bar even higher with the sensational Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol in 2011. Now, it’s Christopher McQuarrie’s turn to sit in the director’s chair, and the frequent Cruise collaborator — he co-wrote Valkyrie and Edge of Tomorrow, and wrote and directed Jack Reacher — delivers a slick, involving thrill ride that can proudly takes its place alongside the best installments in this series.

Rogue Nation gets off to a high-flying start with a scene in which Cruise’s Ethan Hunt dangles precariously from an Airbus A400M cargo plane in an effort to get aboard and thwart the delivery of some poisonous gas; the sequence has already become famous due to the fact that it’s really Cruise hanging on to the side of the plane midflight. From there, the movie races from one action set piece to the next — with the best being an elaborate assassination attempt at the Vienna Opera House — as Hunt tracks Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the leader of a terrorist organization known as the Syndicate that’s made up of various rogue spies and is responsible for several global catastrophes. Unfortunately, Hunt’s search is greatly hindered when CIA chief Alan Hunley (an excellent Alec Baldwin) insists that the Syndicate doesn’t exist and shuts down the Impossible Mission Force. He then seeks to bring Hunt in and hold him accountable for IMF’s recent rash of reckless behavior, including an incident from Ghost Protocol in which they nearly destroyed the Kremlin. This leaves Hunt as a man without a country, on a mission without authorization or support. And to make matters worse, he keeps encountering Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), an intriguing beauty connected to the Syndicate who might be a double or even triple agent. Is she trying to help Hunt, or is she just using him to get what she wants? One of the film’s greatest strengths is the way it keeps her intentions murky throughout the proceedings.

Another strength is the return of Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, and Ving Rhames as Hunt’s IMF allies. Pegg once again provides just the right amount of comic relief, and Renner is solid as Hunt’s right-hand man, who is torn between his allegiance to Ethan and his commitment to his new employers at the CIA. Rhames, great as always, is unfortunately underused here, but he does manage to steal every scene he’s in.

But the film belongs to Tom Cruise. Even at 53, he proves he is still one of the silver screen’s greatest stars, and Ethan Hunt might just turn out to be his signature role. Cruise has always been considered a modest actor with a limited range (even though he’s been nominated for three acting Oscars), but it’s difficult to fault him for continually drawing on his strengths as an action star and pumping out fun, if mostly lightweight, popcorn fare. He’s got charisma to burn, and no one can deny his utter commitment to a role: No other actor of his stature performs dangerous stunt work like he does (to name just one other example, he swung around outside Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, in Ghost Protocol). And while the cargo-plane sequence is getting all of the attention, Cruise’s motorcycle derring-do in Rogue Nation is equally amazing, providing the movie with one of the most exciting chase scenes in recent memory.

Praise must also go to McQuarrie, best known for his Academy Award-winning screenplay for The Usual Suspects. He helped revise the script for Ghost Protocol, but was denied an official writing credit; with Rogue Nation, he makes the most of the opportunity to call the shots as the film’s writer/director. And while the movie hews closely to the blueprint of glossy espionage flicks, it does so with the utmost professionalism and craft. Give McQuarrie and Cruise credit for not merely propping up what could have become a tired franchise, but injecting it with a newfound sense of energy and enthusiasm. Mission: Impossible is one Hollywood tentpole that shows no signs of aging.