The Mission: Impossible movies have now been around for just under two decades, almost twice as long as the television show on which they’re based (and that’s counting the ’80s revival). The first film came out in 1996, when Cruise was 33 and his co-star was the owl-eyed French actress Emmanuelle Béart, making a doomed bid for American stardom. It was directed by no less than Brian De Palma (of Scarface and Carrie) and co-written by Chinatown’s Oscar-winning Robert Towne, who also scripted the John Woo–helmed sequel. Film series have certainly chugged on for longer — see Alien, Star Wars, Planet of the Apes — but it’s rare for one this long in the tooth to also be so continuous. Ethan Hunt, the indestructible IMF agent extraordinaire played by Cruise, has never passed the torch off to someone else, even as his team has shifted around him.
Five features in, the franchise could easily feel past its prime. But through the same blockbuster thaumaturgy that’s allowed the Fast & Furious films to scale up into operatic, chrome-crunching weepies, Mission: Impossible has somehow adapted and gotten better over time. Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation may not be the best in the series (a win I’d give to 2011’s Ghost Protocol), but it easily tops that first movie, which, despite its pedigree and box office success, was a mixed bag. The franchise has gradually refined its combination of jaw-dropping action set pieces and sleekly cool world of espionage into something that’s approaching pop perfection. And in a moment in which studio movies have fallen hard for serialization — even the latest string of Bond films are linked — Mission: Impossible’s weightlessness, both in its stunts and in its spirit, is its greatest asset.