For reasons best not explained most of the critical community is giving high-fives to Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (Paramount, 7.31). Many of them are capitulating because they don’t want to seem like cranky, ivory-tower soreheads or because they genuinely don’t mind that big-scale Hollywood films have all but given up on the concept of serious action realism — that the action genre has devolved into the aesthetic of Grand Theft Auto cyborg cartoons, and that one of the last action thrillers to really re-set the realm was Alfonso Cuaron‘s Children of Men. That movie set a super-high action bar for the 21st Century, and 98% of the summer popcorn actioners made in its wake have rigorously avoided trying to match or top it.  

Yes, MI:5 is a much more complex and “likable” film than James Wan‘s Furious 7, and to be fair it has a wondrously thrilling beginning (the much-hyped, real-deal scene in which Tom Cruise‘s Ethan Hunt hangs on to the side of an ascending airplane) and an amusing, relatively satisfying final 25 minutes.  But most of it, directed and written by Chris McQuarrie, is, like Furious 7 and unfortunately unlike McQuarrie and Cruise’s smaller scale but much more believable Jack Reacher, a cyborg actioner — a running, chasing and confronting thriller made for people who despise genuine, real-deal action flicks and prefer, instead, the comfort of cranked-up digital delirium.

Call me stubborn but I want the real thing, and there are very few traces of that precious substance in MI:5. No sense of gravity or threat — no anchor, no limits, no rules, nothing but cold calculation. (Except for that wonderful hanging onto the plane thing — I could watch that scene over and over.) In a nod to Jacques Tati MI:5 could be retitled Tom Cruise’s Playtime, and for many people this is exactly what makes a good action film these days, which is to say a sense of totally slick escapist wankery from start to finish.

I wish I could say that I didn’t sense the noxious Furious 7 aesthetic at work in MI:5, but I did. “What’s wrong with silly, stupid fun?” they all ask. What’s wrong is that once you get past the cheap-thrill aspect, movies like this are deflating and toxic to the soul. They’re anti-realism, anti-danger software because you know it’s all bullshit, anti-engagement and anti-everything else except for a sense of costly, soul-less, high-digital whammo and, of course, the locked-in certainty that everyone involved in the making was very well paid.

As noted, MI:5 has a great beginning and a mostly satisfying final 20% to 25%. But the remainder, or roughly 73%, did two things. One, it drained my soul and two, it gave me a pounding headache. It’s a movie that cares much more about delivering gotchas and fake-outs than turning you on or — perish the thought! — making you feel a wee bit invested. Most of the idiots out there go to popcorn movies trying to guess the ultimate outcome or at least figure out who the liar is or what will happen in the next scene, and MI:5 is operating strictly on their level. Hah!…didn’t see that one coming, did ya?

It has the usual technical polish and latex masks and the usual “fuck it” attitude that all the Mission: Impossible movies have had since the beginning, and I’ll give McQuarrie credit for coming up with some dense, labrynthine-bordering-on- Houdini-like-contortionist plotting and at least one hilarious line spoken by the always acidic, starting-to-put-on-too-much-weight Alec Baldwin (“Ethan Hunt is the living manifestation of destiny”) but it has a cold center.

It’s mostly a cynical mind-fuck, plot-fuck, logic-fuck, upscale butt-fuck movie with the usual disregard for physics. Wipe out on a motorcycle when you’re going 75 or 80 mph…fine! Automatic rifle fire coming at Ethan from 25 or 30 feet away as he runs down a corridor…not a scratch! Because almost all action stars in all 21st Century action films (except for Children of Men, Jack Reacher, Haywire, Fury Road and very few others) have become Robert Patrick‘s T-1000 in T2: Judgment Day.

MI:5 is a thriller about wisecracking cyborgs faking out and shooting and out-thieving and out-motorcycling and out-cold-staring other ruthless cyborgs. No soul or pulse to speak of — nothing but cold, calculating gamesmanship. Chunks of ice flowing in the veins and a vague sense of being anally penetrated in a very “entertaining” (i.e., not) way.

I was actually amused by a Vienna opera scene that combines the lunatic finale of the Marx Bros.’ A Night at the Opera with the assassination scene from the 1956 version of Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Man Who Knew Too Much. But there are way too many shifts, fake-outs and turnabouts with Rebecca Ferguson‘s character, who’s a kind of double-triple-quadruple-quintuple agent who probably confuses herself when she brushes her teeth.

I’m sure the masses will love it, but it’s all about Cruise and McQuarrie and co-scriptwriter Drew Pearce and the producers trying to top and outperform the last MI film, and the one before that and the one before that. Sorry but I felt neutered by most of it. Not angry, not irritated but fucked and fiddled with.