by Philip Price
Within the first minute of the latest “Mission: Impossible” film, Tom Cruise is sprinting across the screen. Within the first two minutes, Cruise is walking across the top of an airplane. By the time 125 minutes have passed Cruise has done so many unbelievable things and taken so many insane chances as Ethan Hunt that it's a wonder he's alive and ready to go on any more missions at all (is that a spoiler? Please). Currently, Cruise is a mere four years younger than Jon Voight was when the first “Mission: Impossible” was released almost twenty years ago. Cruise realizes his time as international super spy and man of mystery is running out (why do you think he's so eager to get a jump on the next installment as he's indicated in the press rounds for this film?). Cruise knows his body won't be able to continue doing outlandish stunt work forever and he knows that the time is coming where watching him run, jump and shoot would be more funny than thrilling were he still to be relying on this franchise into his sixties. Cruise has maybe two more ‘Mission’ films left in him and that's if they're more prompt than they've ever been with these movies. This perspective isn't brought up to be a downer or to make audiences more aware of the fragility of time, but simply to say that we won't always have the opportunity to walk into our multiplex and see a Tom Cruise action picture. Cherish this. That Cruise himself clearly pours so much effort and heart into making these movies and that he continues to choose directors who want to make them as authentically as possible while bringing their own unique style to the proceedings is also reason to be appreciative. While there have been, are and always will be movie franchises similar to “Mission: Impossible,” what makes Ethan Hunt different from James Bond or even Jason Bourne is his ability to grow. Hunt is wholly Cruise's character whereas Bond has a roster of representatives and Bourne has to deal with not really knowing who he is himself. Hunt, through the arc of Cruise needing this franchise just as much as it needs him, has come to represent our most intimate connection with Cruise, the actor, given it's the only character he's portrayed repeatedly. Under these circumstances, Hunt's arc from young upstart agent to desperate family man eager to escape his fate to a man who's now accepted what he's meant to be only makes each new installment all the more interesting — and ‘Rogue Nation’ is no exception.
Like “Fast & Furious,” a franchise that was also once thought to be dead and done with and also received a shot of pure adrenaline in 2011, “Mission: Impossible” only continues to mature in ways we never imagined. Seeming fully rejuvenated, Ethan Hunt and his now more solidified and less exchangeable crew once again find themselves in the difficult position of being at odds with their organization. While this seems to be the case with each new ‘Mission’ film (sans John Woo's second installment from 2000) the threat is more real than ever as director of the CIA Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) has taken to the U.S. Senate to argue the IMF should be disbanded and absorbed by the CIA immediately. While Jeremy Renner's William Brandt is stuck defending the need for the IMF in Langley, Ethan Hunt is on the run as Hunley has called for his capture. After attempting to report to an IMF station in London to receive his next orders Hunt is instead captured by a creepy blonde man in glasses (Sean Harris). Hunt is convinced there is a Syndicate of criminals, an anti-IMF if you will, and he intends to track them down. Hunt barely escapes his captors and a near torture session with the help of the very skilled, but very mysterious Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). After being on the run for six months and attempting to piece together any clue he can about the Syndicate, Hunt brings Benji (Simon Pegg) out of his desk job at the CIA to Vienna for something of a covert mission. Hunt is keen on trying to figure out who the creepy guy in the glasses is, how he's organized such an expansive list of employees and where he is getting his funding from. More than ever, ‘Rogue Nation’ makes it clear how much institutions such as these (the CIA, the IMF, the Syndicate), while created in order to protect national security, become vicious circles of their own by creating individuals who have just as much a possibility of coming to resent the reasons for them personally sacrificing so much as those who come to find pride in it. While the plotting of ‘Rogue Nation’ can sometimes be confusing, the ideas are solid and the execution is so simplistic and straight-forward it never feels overwrought.
Like each of the films in the series prior, ‘Rogue Nation’ is structured on its set pieces. That the stunt of Cruise being strapped to the side of the airplane has been the focus of the promotional campaign is all good and well, but that this moment occurs immediately once the movie begins is all the more refreshing. We know to expect it and so once it happens and is out of the way, we're ready for the unknown and possibly what might even top this insane sequence. Needless to say, the airplane stunt isn't the best set piece in the movie as there are plenty more to devour and plenty more that push you closer to the edge of your seat. Even if one has paid close attention to the marketing, we don't really know what we're in for come the second and third acts of the film and I really enjoyed that element of surprise. What is even more fascinating about the screenplay from director Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects,” “Jack Reacher”) is that while he still keeps the set pieces in line, he doesn't follow the typical beats of a movie of this genre. Rather than having our protagonist go on a mission to retrieve a macguffin, become entangled in the web of lies and emotions of those involved in that plot to steal and utilize the macguffin while enlisting a dangerous love interest along the way and ultimately outsmarting the bad guy after being kicked down a few more times than the audience expected, ‘Rogue Nation’ would rather explore the psychology of why these kinds of people feel the need to do the things they do. Why they feel the urge to place themselves in such situations and their livelihood in such uncertain circumstances. Sure, there is still a macguffin present in the form of some information on a flash drive, but this is more explicitly used as a macguffin without trying to place any real importance on whatever information it may hold. Rather, the mission is in fact the people behind the plans and their motivations to disrupt the thought process and perceived safety of people all over the world with the double crosses, opera house brawls, the (limited) masks and extended car chases serving as well-executed wrapping on a thoughtful gift.
That there is effort on this behalf is again something to appreciate as it's rather clear people don't go to “Mission: Impossible” movies for their stories. Instead, it is the element of seeing Cruise perform his signature death-defying stunts while paired with the commitment of his performance. Having harped on the importance of Cruise's role in these adventures what comes to mind more than ever in ‘Rogue Nation’ is Ethan Hunt's addiction to the chase. The third film in the series made it clear his need to rectify would always outweigh his yearning to relegate himself to something more in the range of normal. What Ghost Protocol made infinitely clear was that there was still room for Hunt to grow and learn through the camaraderie he found in those like him. ‘Rogue Nation’ pushes this one step further with the introduction of Ferguson's Faust. As this female super sleuth Ferguson brings the sleekness and allure of any actor who has ever played a Bond girl, but combines it with the suave, effortless ability to make the most complex disarming techniques look effortless. It also doesn't hurt that we never know whether we can fully trust Faust or not. She never becomes something as simple as a love interest, but more a mirror for Hunt to see himself in, a counterpart that suggests normal life might not have ever worked out, but in finding someone with similar sensibilities there could be something of an unconventional happiness for him in the end. The one thing ‘Rogue Nation’ doesn't utilize as much as it's immediate predecessor is the dynamic between Hunt and his team. Renner is largely relegated to walking and talking while Ving Rhames returns as Luther Stickell after sitting the last round out, to serve as Hunt's confidant and right hand man during a time his sanity and loyalties are brought into question. Pegg, on the other hand, makes large strides in terms of where he began and where he is now. Benji is as much a counterpart for Ethan as Stickell is at this point and the energy between Pegg and Cruise make this all the more fun to see play out. While the villains are typically little more than afterthoughts in these films, Harris does well to make as big an impression as he can by being largely subtle in his approach.
Being that we're largely here for the action though, “Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation” does not disappoint. From the inventive hand-to-hand combat fights that take place above Turandot at the Vienna State Opera House to the literal breathtaking scenes that place Hunt underwater for six-plus minutes and over to the car chase that evolves into a stunning motorcycle race through Casablanca, this is top notch stuff deserved of a movie screen. McQuarrie approaches each action scene with a certain precision, a certain rawness that never allows for it to feel less than genuine. We believe Cruise as Hunt is willing to do whatever it takes to make seeming wrongs right again and that this adrenaline junkie can't help himself when it comes to joining the aforementioned motorcycle chase after crawling out of a wrecked BMW. Just like our protagonist's mentality, the action is relentless and keeps the brisk pace of the film intact where it could have easily become bogged down in plotting. McQuarrie keeps things on track and ensures that above all, his entry in the ‘Mission’ canon is one that abides by the pure popcorn action mantra of the franchise as a whole while adding just the right amount of depth and intrigue to keep us coming back for more.