Tom Cruise teamed up with director Brian De Palma for the first installment of Mission: Impossible nineteen years ago. Who could have guessed then that the franchise would be still be going strong? That it would have spawned four sequels each captained by a separate director? De Palma brought a sleek elegance to the loose big screen adaptation of the 1960s spy show but also a labyrinthine plot that many found too confusing. John Woo directed the second installment, popularly viewed as a nadir of the franchise, yet, seemingly by chance and more than a little luck, the third and fourth chapters (directed by J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird, respectively) recharged the franchise with a larger sense of derring-do and spectacle. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, directed by Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher), if nothing else, proves there’s more life yet ahead for the daring, globe-trotting exploits of Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and that an expected sixth installment may be more than welcome.
Luck factors into the plot of Rogue Nation a great deal, actually- there’s even a rabbit’s foot key chain featured in the film for a visual metaphor. As the film begins, the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) is put under fire for past catastrophes as CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) proclaims that any goodwill coming from this team is merely by chance and decrees that should be shut down for good. Hunt, consumed and obsessed, won’t let a little thing like that prevent him from another impossible mission. Especially since he’s convinced that a seemingly random series of worldwide tragedies are linked to an extremist organization called the Syndicate. With that, we are off on another global adventure filled with exotic locales, lavishly staged action sequences and double and triple crosses galore. Franchise teammates Simon Pegg (the “Q” of the team since Mission: Impossible III), Jeremy Renner (the “M” for all intensive circumstances) and Ving Rhames (the only actor, other than Cruise, to appear in all five segments) all return and are joined by franchise newcomer Rebecca Ferguson (Hercules) as the maybe trustworthy, maybe not, British intelligence agent Ilsa Faust.
The plot itself is fairly standard issue spy game stuff. There’s some clever staging and even an insightful nod here and there but the expository segments of Rogue Nation are really all working to serve the grand action set pieces of the picture. Yet, the point and joys of the Mission: Impossible movies are in the exuberant bursts of energy in the sense of grand popcorn play and this outing offers further proof that perhaps the Academy should consider adding an Oscar category for stunt coordinating. The film opens with a joyous red herring as Hunt is trying to board a plane already in motion. The trailer may have already spoiled the fun, but the sense of danger and spectacle (bolstered by Cruise’s real-life penchant for performing his own stunts and reported dislike for computerized effects) of Hunt dangling from an airborne craft sends the movie out swinging to the rafters, literally.
There’s ever more nifty fireworks on display including a lively car-turned-motorcycle chase on the highways of Morocco and a tense action scene where Hunt is strapped to a pole and pulls out of it with some swift acrobatic skills- Cruise performs this scene shirtless exposing his tight, hairless 53-year-old body almost as if he’s auditioning for the next Magic Mike film. Even better is a beautifully executed centerpiece sequence set at the Vienna Opera House, a wondrously developed and staged whiff of suspense where nearly all the principles are entangled in complicated games of cat and mouse. It’s the most evocatively shot (Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Elswit served as director of photography here) set piece in the entire film and in another era of filmmaking could have served as a great climax. It’s noteworthy, especially considering that while Rogue Nation is a lot of fun from start to finish, it lacks the visceral charge and filmmaking verve that Bird contributed to the previous installment- Ghost Protocol; nothing lingers in quite the same way as that films’ sandstorm sequence or Cruise swinging from a Dubai’s skyscraper.
Still, Rogue Nation is a pleasurable experience mostly because of Cruise. He’s the franchise’s most startling special effect, after all. The character of Ethan Hunt is rubbery masked and malleable, changing on a dime to whoever is in the director’s chair but Cruise modulates and adjusts accordingly. Yet, what makes Cruise such a strong action star is not just his preference to perform his own stunts but the knowing little nods of concern and hesitation that appear when each seemingly impossible plan is put in motion; it’s almost like little coded (yet never meta) winks to the audience. The scenes themselves are typically taut and invigorating. And while, of course, a Tom Cruise character could never be killed in the line of action (save for last summers’ Edge of Tomorrow, where that was the point), the Mission: Impossible series has done a service by prolonging the agony and building the suspense just long enough to give its audience the slightest suggestion that maybe he could.
Pairing Cruise with Ferguson (the Mission: Impossible films don’t usually do very well with their female characters) proves a plus as well. The duo have a nice rapport and inject a smidgeon of thoughtfulness and a welcome sneakiness as we try to gather whether Faust (a terrific name) is friend or foe. A particularly notable exchange where Faust affirms that the thin line between heroism and villainy lies in perspective, not allegiance provides an overall arc to the film. It’s pure spy hokum but articulately written and performed and acts as the closest films like this get to true emotional impact. The point, the spectacle is still a blast.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
At a time when even the James Bond franchise is sharpening up its world building muscles, the Mission: Impossible entries offer a welcome throwback where a spy can have a globe-trotting adventure without being beholden to anything graver- is there anything graver in current movie-making than a cinematic universe? It’s refreshing to come to Rogue Nation without requiring a photographic memory for what occurred two movies ago and to watch a film with elaborate and cohesive action sequences without unnecessary brood or gloom. In this regard, Ethan Hunt may be the James Bond of a generation and while Rogue Nation may not be quite as sharp as Ghost Protocol, with more than a little luck on its side, it fits the bill. Bring on number six.