Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt may be the most malleable action hero in history – a blank template for (arguably) the biggest movie star in the world to inhabit. Fittingly, his Mission: Impossible films have become a director’s showcase that are flexible enough to follow the popular movie trends of the day.
As the M:I films essentially reboot with each entry and have minimal carry over in terms of characters and content, they’re the complete opposite of the convoluted continuity of something like the Fast & Furious series. They do share one trait – both improbably long-running series have found new life in later entries, continuing to entertain well past what should’ve been best before dates.
This time around frequent Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie (writer of Edge of Tomorrow, Jack Reacher & Valkyrie) takes on writer/director duties for the continuing adventures of the Impossible Mission Force (it sounds way less goofy when they shorten it to IMF). And while Brad Bird’s 2011 Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol set a high bar (literally, when Cruise scaled Dubai’s Burj Khalifa) for heart-stopping action, Rogue Nation (the fifth in the series) continues Cruise’s stunt brinkmanship with even more practical action. In fact, the most publicised stunt during the promotion of Rogue Nation happens within the opening minutes of the movie, effectively throwing down the gauntlet and setting the pace for what turns out to be a breathless adventure in the modern movie mould.
Ethan Hunt enters the film at full-bore, sprinting towards a taxiing plane with sensitive cargo on board. Cruise’s relentless on-screen running has become something of an ongoing joke which, along with his megawatt smile and questionably sincere laugh, defines the actor in the public eye. Here he leans into the joke, with Hunt becoming less a person and more an unstoppable force of nature. In fact, Alec Baldwin’s stuffy government agent at one point dubs Hunt “a force of destiny” in a climactic speech that must be taking the piss as it’s so over the top (but funny nonetheless).
The film starts in media res and greets you like a big puppy, plenty eager to entertain. And despite returning cast members like Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames, Rogue Nation feels only loosely connected to previous iterations and benefits from the lack of setup. It doesn’t matter what’s on that plane and it doesn’t really matter what’s happened in the years since Ghost Protocol. Some nagging questions might remain (like: Wasn’t Ethan Hunt married in the third one? What happened to Laurence Fishbourne’s character? And what was Ghost Protocol even about?), but set those aside and be pulled along in the wake of what actually turns out to be some remarkably solid action filmmaking.
Feeling more like a James Bond riff than previous entries, Rogue Nation finds the globetrotting Hunt on the tail of The Syndicate – an anti-IMF agency that utilizes terrorist tactics to operate as a shadow government and influence world events. They’re led by the enigmatic Soloman Lane, played by the usually reliable Sean Harris. All his lines are whispered threats and despite looking like a homicidal maniac, the audience’s response at my screening was unintentional laughter. He doesn’t hold a candle to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s menacing Owen Davian from M:I3, but then again who could? At least he’s more memorable than whomever Hunt fought in Part 4 as I can’t even recall that villain.
Thankfully Hunt’s saddled with a great new ally in the form of deep cover British agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). With shifting allegiances and an alluring and imposing presence, Ferguson’s Faust is a capable femme fatale for Hunt to play off of and probably the best-written female character in the M:I series yet. She’s not simply there to be kidnapped or ransomed, and in fact has as much or more to do than Ethan in at least two of the action sequences. With the return of Jeremy Renner’s Brandt, the introduction of Alec Baldwin’s antagonistic Hunley, new foes being set up and Pegg and Rhames back as hackers/sidekicks, McQuarrie wisely sidesteps a full-on romantic subplot and instead posits Faust as Hunt’s equal and a mirror through which they can view their respective government’s machinations.
That’s giving away some of the plot, but the point is that the why doesn’t matter as much as the how. It’s generally clear who needs to get what (these movies always come down to a game of chase the MacGuffin) and who the various players are, but the fun comes in the well-realized set pieces. The movie’s packed with incident, from a tense assassination attempt at an Austrian opera to a nail-biting hostage negotiation that leads to a pulse-pounding foot chase (Run Tommy, run!), the movie’s expertly paced and rarely flags enough for viewers to question motivations or spot potential plot holes. And continuing the M:I films’ habit of upping the ante, the centrepiece of the movie involves an elaborate heist at an underwater vault that segues to a high-speed motorcycle chase, resulting in possibly the best and most sustained action sequence of the year outside of Mad Max.
Even at 53 Tom Cruise doesn’t seem to be slowing down in the slightest. When Jeremy Renner came aboard in the last instalment the general consensus was that the younger actor would handle the more intense action sequences with Cruise’s Hunt relegated to more of a mentor role. That clearly hasn’t happened, and Cruise seems unlikely to relinquish his action movie bonafides any time soon.
Though Hunt gets hurt and often approaches calamity (a hallmark of the series), he’s recast here as “the gambler”, an unconventional spy with the chutzpah and skills to lead his team and get the job done. That ability to face down the odds and win extends to Cruise’s real-life ability to cannily choose complimentary collaborators, paying off in spades with Rogue Nation. Conventional wisdom suggests that Cruise shouldn’t be hanging off the sides of planes at his (or any other) age, he shouldn’t be playing against a romantic partner 20 years his junior, and his nearly two-decade old Mission:Impossible franchise shouldn’t still be gathering steam. Yet here we are in 2015, with Rogue Nation in theatres tackling an impossible mission – remaining entertaining after all these years. You may not remember much outside of the action after a few days have gone by, but in the moment the spectacle is enough.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Runtime: 131 minutes