The biggest mistake of the first Mission: Impossible movie nearly 20 years ago wasn’t turning the beloved TV series’ hero Jim Phelps into a villain. It was assembling a likable team around Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt (including Kristen Scott Thomas and Emilio Estevez) and then killing them all off in the first act. Cruise is as redoubtable and even indestructible a movie star as Ethan Hunt is a field agent; he is the anchor of the Mission: Impossible franchise, and there’s no doubt that he’s up to the job. But Mission: Impossible needs more than one superhero at its center; it needs an Impossible Missions Force, however official or unofficial, sanctioned or rogue.
Various supporting players have come and gone, but a few have stuck around, and it’s finally possible to say that we have a real team. Ving Rhames joined Hunt in the first film as a disavowed agent, and in Mission Impossible III, Simon Pegg played a technician who came back as a field agent in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, directed by Brad Bird. We also picked up Jeremy Renner in Ghost Protocol — the first Mission: Impossible movie in which, at last, everything clicked.
All of these players are back in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, an exhilarating follow-up to Ghost Protocol from writer-director Christopher McQuarry (who penned Cruise’s excellent Edge of Tomorrow). Building on the momentum of its predecessor, McQuarry whips up a similar blend of brilliantly constructed set pieces, spectacular stunts, humor, exotic locations and — well, that’s about it, really. What more do you need? One thing, perhaps: The franchise needs at least a recurring female team member, preferably more. Paula Patton brought a lot to the party in Ghost Protocol, but she’s gone, like M:I III’s Maggie Q and others before her.
The good news is that Rogue Nation has the franchise’s best female player yet. Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson (Hercules) plays an ambiguous femme fatale named Ilsa Faust, whose loyalties are unclear. Essentially she’s standing in for both good-girl Patton and bad-girl Léa Seydoux from Ghost Protocol, but her character is more engaging than the other two put together. Just as crucially, where Ghost Protocol had a rather weakly drawn, unmemorable villain, Rogue Nation has a corker — maybe the most effective villain of the franchise, with the possible exception of M:I III’s Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was arguably too effective. As a soft-spoken, Bond-villain-ish mastermind named Solomon Lane, Sean Harris (the demoniac in Scott Derrickson’s Deliver Us From Evil) is entertainingly creepy and ruthless without being (like Hoffman, at least for me) so monstrous that he snuffs the fun out of the thing. Both the girl and the bad guy are well matched with Ethan Hunt, which makes for a tense, exciting game. Far from mellowing with age, Cruise (now 53) has only become tougher, more focused and and more formidable. He has never owned this role more absolutely than he does now.
And the set pieces! The opening sequence is like a declaration of war; it’s like starting a film with the truck sequence from Raiders, or Ghost Protocol’s Burj Khalifa sequence, as a prologue instead of a mid-act highlight. It’s immense, very funny — the comic energy between Cruise and now-indispensable Pegg just gets better — and once again you can’t help marveling that there he is, Tom Cruise, really hanging onto the outside of that airplane. Sure, safety gear and all, but still. Cruise’s commitment matches Hunt’s own, and in some indefinable way it heightens the excitement of the scene. The next action scene is far smaller, involving hand-to-hand combat, but a blend of surprise, mystery and creative problem-solving make it a standout in its own right. A similar blend of unknown factors and imaginative staging elevate a far more complex and elaborate sequence set in the Vienna State Opera during a performance of Puccini’s Turandot, in which the combatants are at pains to keep their mortal struggle quiet and hidden. Then there’s an impregnable fortress break-in and a multi-vehicle chase scene that are each, in their own ways, different from anything we’ve seen before. And a tense red LED countdown bomb-hostage scenario that’s different from anything we’ve seen before. And a knife fight that may or may not be different from anything we’ve seen before, but how many knife fights do you see these days?
In one way, Rogue Nation is a return to the M:I status quo: In every M:I film to date, Cruise has gone rogue or been disavowed, and in every installment except, I guess, Ghost Protocol, he has battled renegade IMF agents. It seems in the whole wide world there is virtually no one to actually challenge IMF agents except rogue IMF agents, which kind of calls into question the wisdom of creating the IMF in the first place. Rogue Nation ups the stakes: Here the opposition consists of renegade agents from a veritable United Nations’ worth of secret intelligence and black-ops agencies. So, apparently, the whole secret intelligence/black-ops business has been a global fail, not just a domestic one. Ah, but here Rogue Nation takes a lateral move into meta territory by explicitly raising the question of whether the IMF has done more good than harm, or whether their methods are too reckless. Alec Baldwin plays a CIA chief arguing before a congressional committee that the IMF should be shut down and folded into the CIA, as Renner runs stolid interference.
Amusingly, the movie cross-examines specific exploits in past movies, with Baldwin arguing, not implausibly, that the IMF habitually takes unjustifiable risks to achieve successes that look uncomfortably like luck. Scheming Solomon concurs, pronouncing his adversary Hunt “a gambler” whose luck will eventually run out. A crucial moment in the impregnable-fortress sequence confirms these verdicts, though the question of Hunt’s luck running out may be tabled for now. Early in the film, a young operative, clearly awed by Hunt’s record, ventures, “I’ve heard stories. … They can’t all be true.” Hunt pauses and half grins thoughtfully, but doesn’t answer. Late in the game, as Hunt lays out yet another crazy gamble, even his allies question whether he’s going too far. Clearly Hunt believes implicitly in his own ability to close the deal at the last moment, to make success happen by sheer drive and determination — but is that good enough? If anyone can do it, it’s Ethan Hunt. I can think of only a single point at which Rogue Nation’s imagination lapses, in the immediate aftermath of Hunt’s boldest gambit against his adversary. Even here, as Matt Zoller Seitz points out, it’s stylishly mounted, with a moment in which time comes to a halt, and Hunt and Isla Faust exchange a look that essentially says, “Shall we?” And they do, because they can, but I hoped for something clever. Happily, the film quickly recovers and pulls off a rousing, stylish finale.
As slinky as Faust is, and as well-paired as she is with Hunt, the chemistry between them stays just below the surface. There is no mention in Rogue Nation of Hunt’s wife, revealed in Ghost Protocol to have been killed before being re-revealed to be secretly alive, but I’m sure McQuarrie and Hunt both remember, and that Hunt’s love, even in absentia, is true.
As conscious of its heritage as Rogue Nation is, it never fails to stand on its own. There is a beginning (albeit in medias res), a middle and an end, and while the door is flung wide open to another sequel, we aren’t left hanging for it, as with so many franchise films in this age of Marvel. Ironically, this leaves me all the more eager for the next outing of the Impossible Missions Force.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.