A late summer treat has arrived in the form of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the latest film in the spy film series that seems to be getting better with age. Indeed, each chapter of the Mission: Impossible franchise seems to refine what’s come before, building one on top of the other by taking away what doesn’t work and keeping the things that do work. As a result, this new mission is the best Mission yet. A high-stakes thrill ride of big action set pieces tied together with a compelling story and all the usual spy movie trappings. No one’s reinventing the wheel here, but like the man said, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
Tom Cruise returns as super agent Ethan Hunt for his fifth impossible mission. Despite talk prior to the release of Ghost Protocol that Cruise was looking to step away and be succeeded by Jeremy Renner, the actor himself shows no sign of slowing down and he throws himself into this new adventure with reckless abandon. Yes, the plane stunt has offered the ‘wow factor’ sufficiently in the trailers and ads, but that’s just how the movie begins. There are at least two more action sequences where Cruise seems to risk life and limb for his craft, not to mention all those scenes of running, jumping and fighting. Cruise is probably such a highly toned machine himself now he could probably be a real-life spy.
The story borrows an enemy from the old Mission: Impossible series, the Syndicate, a group of exceptional agents thought dead or disavowed, recruited to be a Machiavellian force loaned to the highest bidder. Hunt discovers that the Syndicate is not the urban legend it’s made out to be, but he must pursue his leads alone as CIA boss Hunley (Alec Baldwin) shuts down the IMF for being more trouble than its worth. Hunt recruits fellow agents Benji (Simon Pegg), Brandt (Renner) and Luther (Ving Rhames) to help him bring down the Syndicate and its boss Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), while occasionally getting assistance from the double, possibly triple agent, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson).
Like Ghost Protocol, the film benefits from embracing a team dynamic. What set Mission: Impossible apart for contemporaries like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Saint, and even James Bond, was that it was a team effort, problems were not up to a lone agent to solve. Rogue Nation features the most number of returning agents, and the story benefits from the familiarity and camaraderie established between Cruise and Pegg, Renner and Rhames. It is, after all, the Impossible Missions Force and not the Impossible Missions Guy.
Still, this is still in some ways the Tom Cruise show, but one gets the sense that that’s because no one else is crazy enough to do some of things he does. Forget risking life and limb hanging on to the side of a plane. That’s a cake walk as compared to a later mission where Hunt has to infiltrate a computer system housed under gallons of rushing water, requiring him to hold his breath for three minutes to get the job done. The claustrophobic charm of that scene is quickly followed by a high speed chase through a Moroccan highway where Cruise races through traffic without a helmet or safety gear. One almost gets the feeling that this is the world’s most expensive midlife crisis.
Shrewdly, screenwriter and director Christopher McQuarrie sets up the movie as more than a physical challenge for Ethan. The Syndicate is legit, and Harris has such a pronounced presence as Lane that even though he spends much of the movie separated from the action, he still has exceptional menace. He looks like a guy that will kill you outright if you step one inch outside his carefully laid plan, and he’s leaps and bounds an improvement over Michael Nyqvist, the villain of Ghost Protocol who was the most passive and understated nuclear terrorist in the history of the spy movie genre.
Another nice find is Ferguson, who is not only the break out of Rogue Nation, but she’s also the standout. It would not be completely incorrect to say that the Mission: Impossible movies have been lacking in strong female leads, although Paula Patton held her own in Ghost Protocol, but Ferguson addresses that oversight by making Ilsa strong, sexy and enigmatic, but still vulnerable. She’s in way over her head, but she’s still in control enough to not admit it to the boys and let them play a part in her game.
All those ingredients come together to make Rogue Nation the strongest Mission yet. Really, the only blemish is that the storyline involving Baldwin’s character and the forced shutdown of IMF seems like an overly labored way of forcing Ethan and friends to, ahem, go rogue again, which was a compelling and successful element to what made Ghost Protocol work. Still, I could do without another spy movie subplot where the agency that’s constantly saving the day is being pilloried by politicians for their “unorthodox tactics.” Sadly, this looks to be an element in the upcoming Spectre, the 24th Bond movie, as well.
As the credits roll, the door is left wide open for a six entry, and at this point, such a development is most welcome. Clearly producer Cruise, J.J. Abrams, and the Bad Robot team have turned Mission: Impossible into the same kind of well-oiled franchise machine as the Bond series or the Fast and Furious movies, and no matter which filmmaker that will accept the Mission next, as long as the series has the durability of its fearless star and can continue to deftly manage its assets, then I’ll keep accepting a seat in the movie theater.