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Once again, Tom Cruise accomplishes the near-impossible in 'Rogue Nation'

Once again, Tom Cruise accomplishes the near-impossible in 'Rogue Nation'
Tom Cruise in "Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation." (Bo Bridges / Paramount Pictures)

As an actor and producer, the "Mission: Impossible" series has been good to Tom Cruise, and he continues to return the favor.

"Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation" is the fifth film in a series that has taken in more than $2 billion in worldwide box office and has provided the one role, that of secret agent Ethan Hunt, the performer can count on since the series made the jump from television to theaters in 1996.

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In return, Cruise has been a vigilant steward of the franchise, making sure its various components (including its celebrated Lalo Schifrin theme) never fall below acceptable standards and even pushing to exceed the norm where possible.

So it is with the polished and entertaining new film, the kind of neo-James Bond spy-versus-spy diversion where secrets are "triple encoded" and agents in trouble sound like ambitious dentists when they request "immediate extraction."

Both in front of and behind the camera, "Rogue Nation" has been smoothly made by people who know just how to get entertainment business done and have often worked with Cruise before.

That is very much true of filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie, who was a writer on two Cruise ventures ("Valkyrie" and "Edge of Tomorrow") and directed the actor's "Jack Reacher" venture.

Teaming up with cinematographer Robert Elswit and production designer Jim Bissell, both of whom worked on the earlier "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol," McQuarrie is adept at keeping things moving and has overseen two areas where "Rogue Nation" stands out from the crowd.

The first is physical action. Though the "Mission: Impossible" films are known for Cruise doing his own eye-popping stunts (he climbed Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, in "Ghost Protocol"), the actor sets a new standard for himself here.

The opening stunt in "Rogue Nation" is the film's nerve-racking signature moment as Hunt, the key operative for the super-secret IMF, or Impossible Mission Force, finds himself clinging to the side of a four-engine Airbus A400 turbo-prop military plane as it takes off from an airbase in Belarus carrying a cargo of VX poison gas.

Yes, that really is Cruise clinging to the side of the departing aircraft by his fingertips (he's actually attached by a single harness he wears under his clothes). So dangerous that Cruise had to wear custom contact lenses to protect his eyes, the stunt was repeated eight times until actor and director had the coverage they needed.

While agent Hunt is thus risking his life to save the free world, CIA Director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) is testifying before a secret congressional committee about how the IMF's "pattern of wanton brinkmanship" is so dangerous that it should be disbanded. Which it promptly is.

That leaves Hunt as a man without a country, an international fugitive sought by the CIA just as he is closing in on a nefarious organization known as the Syndicate.

A group as dangerous as its name is bland, the Syndicate is manned exclusively by missing or presumed dead former government secret agents like the Bone Doctor (Jens Hulten), who's there to hurt you, not help you.

In charge of these merry men is the super-nasty, always nihilistic Solomon Lane, played by an excellent Sean Harris, an evil genius who will stop at nothing (nothing, do you hear!) to destabilize the world and throw it into chaos. A rogue nation, indeed.

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With just his own merry men (returning "M:I" veterans Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames) to help him, Hunt, no surprise, is determined to stop the Syndicate because, to quote an associate, he is "the living manifestation of destiny." Try putting that on your resume.

Films like this always foreground a glamorous woman of mystery, and while "Rogue Nation" has one, this is the second area where the film feels different.

Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson brings a bit of unexpected maturity and substance to the role of the inscrutable Ilsa Faust, an individual who is fully Hunt's equal, and then some, in derring-do. Yes, she has a scene in a black bikini, but you'd better believe she is wearing it for an operational reason.

Hunt and Faust share in most of "Rogue Nation's" expert action scenes (Wade Eastwood is the stunt coordinator), including a hair-raising motorcycle chase, a dangerous assault on a nominally impregnable underwater vault called the Taurus and assorted high jinks inside and outside Vienna's venerable State Opera House. (That's American tenor Gregory Kunde heard singing the classic aria "Nessun dorma" from "Turandot" as the action heats up.)

Cruise has played Ethan Hunt so often it would be understandable if he phoned it in, but one of the pleasures of "Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation" is that he doesn't. As the film's plot gets twistier and twistier, as knowing who you can trust becomes increasingly difficult, Ethan Hunt never wavers. Kind of like "the living manifestation of destiny," if you know what I mean.

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'Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation'

Rating: PG-13, for sequences of action and violence, and brief partial nudity

Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes

Playing: In general release

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