Review: “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”

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The Mission: Impossible movies have never been a go-to destination for those seeking novel concepts or nuanced narratives. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the fifth in the almost twenty year old series, offers up a veritable barrage of oft-tread espionage cliches; bomb countdowns, vehicular chases, a bad guy with an accent, stealing data onto a USB drive (the most recent of spy mainstays), enough double crosses to make your head spin and of course, a seemingly-impenetrable series of locked doors housing secrets of grave international import.

Even compared to March’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, which was built off of an unabashed love for secret agent conventions but which took those tropes five steps further into the realm of the insane, Rogue Nation feels particularly old-fashioned and well-worn. But that’s okay. This is a rare case of a series that intentionally and effectively crafts unoriginal stories simply to showcase its inventive panoply of high-tech gadgets, visceral action sequences, and Tom Cruise being Tom Cruise.

So who cares if we’ve seen this all before? The movie doesn’t. For instance, the very first scene follows Impossible Mission Force (’90s were cool, huh?) agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) climbing aboard and subsequently hanging aboard an aircraft transporting Russian nukes, because of course there are Russian nukes. We’ve seen the ‘stop the nukes’ thing done a million times, we’ve even seen the ‘board the plane’ done to death. Still, this opening happens to be the best sequence in the entire film, because the shots are beautiful, the choreography is fresh and inventive and because the stunts feel real. Better yet, this intro has very little to do with the plot that follows, further proving my point that this movie doesn’t ultimately care much what it’s about, just using plot as an excuse to give audiences awesome spectacle.

Left to right: Tom Cruise plays Ethan Hunt and Jeremy Renner plays William Brandt in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions

I’m a fan of Tom Cruise, the action star, and you should be too. The guy can do anything, even in his fifties. Did you know he was in his fifties? That’s nuts. Did you know he did his own stunts? Of course you did, Paramount won’t stop talking about it. The movie never even has to make the ‘ he’s getting old’ joke that so many long-running franchises feel the need to, because Cruise apparently doesn’t age. Maybe it’s the thetans. Whatever the case, Cruise continues to be irreplaceable in the driver’s seat. Though the supporting casts in these films have always been impressive (returning are Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg) somehow Cruise towers over all of them every single time with a display of charm, wit, and physical ability that is almost unparalleled in the industry.

Cruise does meet his match this time, though, in the form of relative unknown Rebecca Ferguson, who the studio is well aware looks like a modern day Ingrid Bergman (her character name is Ilsa and Casablanca ends up one of the many globe-spotting destinations of the film). Ferguson has one hell of a poker face and she uses it to great effect. Her distinct lack of emotional range in this particular performance is disappointing, but Ilsa nonetheless happens to be one of the more complex female figures in modern action movies, and indeed one of the freshest. It’s just a shame the studio felt the need to include the requisite, sexualized shot of her undressing, especially after the nice decision not to make her a love interest for Cruise. But hey, compared to the attitudes toward women in the Bond movies, this one is practically feminist.

There was something so painstakingly detailed and infinitely imaginative about the big action moments in the last entry, Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, that unfortunately isn’t topped by director Christopher McQuarrie, who both wrote and directed Rogue Nation. He does a good job linking together at least three very memorable set pieces (one that literally had me holding my breath — I’m a sucker for underwater scenes), but the pacing feels off, with most of the most exciting parts squished towards the front half. Later on, too much time is spent on an endless flip-flopping of character motivations, and the film loses steam as it wraps up, instead of building toward a memorable climax. And compared to the incredibly creative use of weapons and gadgets in Ghost Protocol  (one would expect nothing less from a genius like Brad Bird), McQuarrie’s take is much less unique, the action much less kinetic. It’s also a shame the series still suffers from a lack of compelling villains.

Rebecca Ferguson plays Ilsa in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Production

Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that the events that set the whole thing in motion are dubious at best in terms of allowing audiences to suspend their disbelief. Just as Ethan Hunt finds evidence of a super-secret sort-of-terrorist group with the super-unoriginal name “The Syndicate”, we have the IMF disbanded by an Alec Baldwin-run CIA (the American government stubbornly and obliviously working against world interests, what will they think of next?) While Hunt tries to infiltrate The Syndicate, Baldwin seemingly makes it a top priority to persecute Ethan Hunt for the wanton destruction he has caused saving the world on multiple occasions.

Not only does Baldwin’s reaction seem disproportionate to the threat Hunt realistically poses, but Baldwin’s character is so unrelenting in his rejection of the notion that The Syndicate exists that I found it hard to see him as anything more than a contrived excuse to see Ethan Hunt on the run, in an last-ditch attempt to inject a fresh angle into the franchise (though ‘hunted by the government’ isn’t exactly what I’d call a fresh angle).  Due to my inability to buy into Baldwin’s motivation for hunting Hunt in the first act, I found myself taken out of the experience every time this plot thread comes back up. Luckily, Baldwin doesn’t take about too much screen time and most of the time we’re left watching Cruise and Pegg (and later Renner and Rhames) doing cool stuff in cool ways.

Doing cool stuff in cool ways (in a series of cool places) is actually a succinct, if not reductive way to describe the appeal of the series. Rogue Nation‘s plotting has remained surprisingly subservient to the secret agent status quo, but this in no way detracts in any way from the film’s meticulously crafted, wonderfully choreographed, and well-acted sequences. Though those individual set pieces don’t quite gel into an experience that feels as whole as Ghost Protocol (or, as I would argue, even Mission: Impossible 3), Rogue Nation is still a wholly worthwhile entry into the series and a perfect choice for those looking for an action film that won’t bludgeon you with special effects, though it won’t bludgeon you with many surprises either.

Rebecca Ferguson plays Ilsa in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions

Score: 3.5 out of 5

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