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There’s a lot going on in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation. Like any great spy movie, there’s a complex and loosely convoluted plot of who’s who and what’s what and to whom does who owe which allegiance and—look, the inner-doings of the plot may elude some people. That’s an occupational hazard of the spy genre, of which this movie pays loving homage. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise, obviously) is back for another mission with a snappily written script that shines with the same sharpened wit as ‘90s classic The Usual Suspects, of which Rogue Nation writer/director Christopher McQuarrie wrote the famous screenplay. There’s a whirlpool of shady allegiances, double-crosses and double double-crosses, namely by femme fatale secret agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who’s one of the joys of the film. James Bond used to be the king of the how-did-they-do-that action scene, a crown now fought over by the fuselage-dropping, hallway-spinning, truck-flipping Christopher Nolan and, well, Mission: Impossible. Rogue Nation doesn’t buck the trend; each major stunt sequence wows.
Instead of trying to top Ghost Protocol on action or just plain fun—a truly impossible mission and McQuarrie wisely chose not accept it—Rogue Nation is meaner, sleeker, and leaner than any movie in the franchise. It’s a spiritual union between the espionage focus of Brian De Palma’s original Mission: Impossible and the explosive thrills of Ghost Protocol, bringing this amazingly consistent franchise full circle. In a statement-making audacious move, Rogue Nation opens with its biggest, craziest stunt, almost as if to get it out of the way. Tom Cruise is on the side of a huge plane during takeoff, and McQuarrie shoots it in such a way to thrillingly show you Cruise did that stunt for real. The man is incredible, and he’s only out to please. There’s a confident no-fuss attitude to this sequence, classic Bond, to shed expectations quickly of what this movie is going to be.
From there, Rogue Nation goes back in time. From the old record player that showed Ethan his next mission to revisiting the immortalized movie town Casablanca, retroism isn’t just a motif but a mission statement. A spellbinding early-film opera sequence is evocative of classic Hitchcock, and other than a mid movie triple-punch crescendo where there is three death-defying action scenes are in a row, it’s back to basics. The hard-knuckled final 40 minutes (mostly) does away with car chases, absurd gadgets, and the over the top stunts that made this series famous. There’s no WMDs or nuclear warheads on the way to blow up America, just spy game chess—spy vs. spy, moving through shadows and the London fog, recalling the exact kind of sequence that once was the centerpiece of spy movies in the 1950s and ‘60s. To shrink the scale the further it goes on in this action-movie climate of ‘bigger is better’ can only be called brave. Maybe even inspired.
The delightful pairing of Cruise and Ferguson, who share the screen for most of the climax, are an updated rendition of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn from the 1963 spy caper-satire Charade, which Rogue Nation explicitly references.
For a movie that does so much so well—and it does—the biggest flaw of Rogue Nation is that it’s not Mad Max: Fury Road. Without the adored car-mayhem spectacular of nonstop action and, surprisingly, a Marx-feminist bent, the latest Mission Impossible would have the gold medal for blockbuster of year (the next heavyweight contenders to steal the gold are James Bond or Star Wars). As is, it merely has the silver, another in a series of Tom Cruise victories where he picks projects that play to all his strengths. Cruise may be the movie’s greatest special effect, but a thin, underfed plot doesn’t have the same effortless charisma as the lead star. The particulars, few of which I’ll speak about in detail, amount to shady villains like Solomon Lane (a creepy Sean Harris) with even cloudier motives, an ‘anti-IMF’ called the Syndicate to do...something presumably bad but it’s never really said what, and apparently the CIA has had enough of Ethan and his team’s crazy antics. They want to shut down the I.M.F.. A clearer goal by the villain is a must, and it’s a noticeable problem once things get talky. It doesn't have the breathless pacing of Protocol, leaving stretches feeling unusually slow.
Missing also is Protocol’s Ocean’s 11 propulsive swagger. The memorable team from the last movie is splintered or missing (Paula Patton couldn’t return). Renner spends most of the movie isolated from the team, Simon Pegg’s hilarious Benji has been upped to co-lead with Cruise (they share an oddball chemistry that shouldn’t work but totally does) but is mostly stuck as tech-head, and series veteran Ving Rhames’ presence is fun but brief. Instead of “round up the gang” chemistry, Rogue Nation’s winning asset is Rebecca Ferguson as Faust: allegiance unknown. She’s a fiercely sexy, hyper-intelligent badass that acts as a flirtatious foil to Ethan, an Irene Adler to Sherlock Holmes. Were she alive in 1946, she might’ve replaced Lauren Bacall in iconic noir The Big Sleep. She has that oldschool leading lady look with the noirish quality of convincingly being able to get the better of any man.
And she does. She’s gets the better of Ethan Hunt. More than once. What’s surprising about Rogue Nation isn’t just that Cruise is, as always, the guy who runs, grins, and wins, but that he allows a meta-narrative to form connecting Ethan Hunt’s “character” to the real life persona of Cruise himself, and Ferguson’s character is key to that. She’s an autonomous reflection, a real character who serves the story, plot, herself, and Ethan’s character all at once. The biggest plot twist in the Mission Impossible franchise is that it’s semi-autobiographical; each movie captures the essence of where Cruise is at in his life. Ethan Hunt began as a cocky agent with a beaming smug smile, became a family man a year after Cruise bounced on Oprah's couch shouting about love, lost the ‘love of his life’ before and during Ghost Protocol, and by the time he’s on his next mission in Rogue Nation, Ethan/Cruise is doubted, ridiculed, and sometimes called crazy.
And now in 2015, from the outset, Ethan’s virtuosity as an agent is called into question. It’s not 15 minutes into the rollicking plot before he’s ambushed and abducted, next seen in ankle and wrist cuffs—powerless. Vicariously, the IMF is demonized by a prickly-haired Alec Baldwin, CIA man Alan Hunley, who has knives out for Ethan’s accomplishments. Not skill he says, but luck. Even his team members, namely Renner’s William Brandt, question his sanity and ability to problem solve. Cruise and McQuarrie are telling a story with a peculiar poignance to Cruise himself, ultimately evolving Hunt as a character, Mission: Impossible as a franchise, all while offering a strikingly honest portrait of one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. The meta-undercurrent of Ghost Protocol was infrequent but present enough to be widely observed. Here, it’s a priority. In its fifth outing, Mission: Impossible continues to show it has its very own special kind of depth, a bizarre self-reflexive puzzle that keeps captivating. Once again, Mission Accomplished.
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