Tom Cruise Isn’t the Star of Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, Rebecca Ferguson Is

The Swedish starlet gives us the leading lady we deserve.

Tom Cruise has pulled off an impossible mission: Making us love Tom Cruise again.

Despite a rocky decade in a career derailed by his crazed couch-jumping and uncomfortable adulation for Scientology, the star of Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation seems to have reclaimed his title of America’s most desirable leading man. With a $56 million domestic opening weekend—Cruise’s best since War of the Worlds in 2005—it looks like America is finally allowed to openly shower Cruise with the praise and adoration he deserves as Hollywood’s last true movie star

There’s only one thing standing in Cruise’s way: Swedish starlet and unexpected scene-stealer Rebecca Ferguson.

Ferguson, best known for her performance as Queen Elizabeth in the historical miniseries White Queen, seemed an odd choice, especially for a franchise just saved from summer blockbuster limbo by Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, a high-octane respite from the second and third Mission Impossible films. But Ferguson, 31, shines on the screen as Ilsa Faust, a former British spy and unexpected ally of Cruise’s Ethan Hunt on their hunt for the mysterious Syndicate, a global terrorist ring and the movie’s eponymous “rogue nation.”

At first glance, Ferguson’s Faust is merely a bystander in Hunt’s consuming quest to track down the Syndicate, a femme fatale trained for punching and kicking. But Ferguson’s stoic, determined performance is the most intriguing element of a plot built on subterfuge and manipulation. She double—nay, make that triple—crosses both Hunt, the British Secret Service, and the Syndicate she was originally sent to infiltrate, incapacitates henchmen, and outruns Hunt in a high-speed chase through the Moroccan desert—and she looks great doing it. (It doesn’t hurt that, like Cruise, she buffed up to do her own stunts). She’s brilliant, deadly, and gorgeous to boot: After watching her penultimate knife fight with a hired goon, I’m convinced film could easily have been titled Mission: Impossible — Fuck With Me And I’ll Cut Your Dick Off.

While the movie, looking to capitalize of the jokey banter of IMF’s roster of spy-bros, peppers Ethan’s mission with assistance from compatriots Benjie Dunn (the perfect Simon Pegg), the dour William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), and the beloved Luther Stickell (an exhausted-looking Ving Rhames), it’s Faust’s steely mystery that drives the plot forward. Ferguson plays the character as ruthless, but with a glimmer of conscience; resolute, but with hints of flexibility. Ferguson puts her male co-stars to shame, running circles around the Syndicate and MI6 and making Hunt’s contingent of IMF agents look like a hapless contingent of varsity schmucks who got too stoned and got lost at a Dave Matthews concert. Somehow, in a film riddled with increasingly impossible tasks, she executes them with ease. In a mid-movie heist, it’s Ferguson who completes the mission with ease—despite Pegg’s prodding that “oh sure, the great Ethan Hunt can handle anything.”

Part of this is writing, I’m sure. The leading women of past Mission: Impossible films have been inexplicably lackluster, puzzled versions of domestic Bond girls for Cruise’s Hunt to protect and fawn over. Ghost Protocol’s Paula Patton suggested a turn in a better direction—a marriage of beauty, brains, and brawling to accompany the increasingly high-velocity thrills of the franchise—but even her character was bogged down by a personal vendetta and made to seem reckless and impulsive. Ferguson’s Faust, it seems, is the logical conclusion of trial and error with the franchise’s women. But don’t let that fool you: It’s difficult to imagine anyone else pulling of a performance of such high caliber.

Tom Cruise may have reclaimed his status as a lord of Hollywood, but the real winner of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation is Ferguson. She’s not just an exemplary leading lady, a piece of ass-kicking eye candy meant to serve as a foil for Cruise’s punchy return to stardom; Rebecca Ferguson is your new favorite action hero.

Photos by Chiabella James/Paramount Pictures/Everett Collection