The Mission: Impossible film series – based on the 1966 TV series – always been something of a mixed bag. Although I appreciate the steely perplexities of Brian De Palma‘s 1996 original, it’s a wholly oblique movie that seems wrapped up in post-Cold-War spy milieu that had, by the late 1990s, become effectively defunct. John Woo‘s hyper-octane Mission: Impossible 2 (2000) is an over-stylized mess. J.J. Abram‘s merely functional Mission: Impossible III (2006) provides nothing other than a memorable villain played with a scary realism by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Brad Bird‘s hyped-at-the-time Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) was slick and exciting, and slips through the mind without hitting any memory cells.
So I can say unequivocally that Christopher McQuarrie‘s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is handily, and by a substantial margin, the best film in the series. Beyond that, it’s also just a corker of a spy thriller. Rogue Nation takes numerous well-worn and spy movie tropes – the globe-trotting, the exotic femme fatale, the team of variously talented ronin spies, a lithely threatening villain – and polishes them into a slick, genuinely exciting, and comfortingly familiar actioner. There is something almost classical about Rogue Nation, like an old room or a restored fresco. This feels like a taste of a wine we forgot we loved. Following, arguably, this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s perhaps the action film of the year.
Rogue Nation follows Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) as he escapes a mysterious assassin (a positively lacertilian Sean Hunt), and his team of torturers, including the strangely alluring Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson). On the run, and in danger, Hunt finds that his employer, the Impossible Missions Force, a high-octane arm of the CIA, has been dissolved. It’s up to Hunt to recruit his old friends (including Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames) into a patchwork team of rogue agents to track down the mysterious assassin who may be heading up a mysterious enclave of villains known as The Syndicate.
In terms of story and characters, this is boilerplate stuff; the ingredients of an old James Bond film shaken up in a digital cocktail ramekin. But writer/director McQuarrie has enough savvy with dialogue and pacing that the old tropes feel fun again. Like – as I said in my review of Fury Road – someone finally remembered how to make an action movie. The dialogue is quick and witty, the characters clear and interesting, and the action set pieces are creative and – get this – genuinely thrilling. After so many super-digital, fantasy based action fights, Rogue Nation can serve as a reminder of the power of actual gravity within an action sequence. A highlight: Ethan Hunt has to dive into an underwater computer archive to switch out a vital computer disk before he runs out of oxygen. Just to make sure the scene has just the right amount of unreality, McQuarrie provides Hunt with a red video-game ready digital readout indicating how much oxygen he has remaining.
About those clear and interesting characters: Cruise may be the film’s muscle – and the film is more muscular than it is brawny – but the heart belongs to Rebecca Ferguson. In a lesser James Bond film, the character of Ilsa would have been played by a mysterious, olive-skinned foreign model, beautiful to look at, but lacking any semblance of relatable humanity; such women are often inscrutable and cold. But with a performer like Cruise, who is already plenty inscrutable, it was wise to pair him with an actress who – get this – feels like a real person. She can ride a motorcycle, fight, and wear sexy dresses, but never once feels like a fetish object or a prize. Ilsa is not an adolescent fantasy. She is an adult woman.
Tom Cruise, while often seen askance for his bouts of very occasionally off-the-way proselytizing, is still most assuredly an appealing screen presence – there’s a reason he became the biggest movie star in the world. With Ethan Hunt, Cruise is in full-bore action hero mode, a mode he has always been game to play, but has never been, I suspect, fully comfortable with. Up until recent years, Cruise has always chosen to play a variety of complex and emotionally distant ciphers like Jerry Maguire and Frank T.J. Mackey, easily his best performance. When he was rounding 50, however, Cruise – perhaps through a begrudging acknowledgment of film trends – began to embrace action roles like Ethan Hunt. With Rogue Nation, we can see an Ethan Hunt who seems to out of his element; a recurring plot point indicates that Hunt may be going mad. As such, there is a mild and welcome deconstruction of a character we’ve known for neatly 20 years. Cruise, in addition to showing off his awesome physique (seriously, wow), is also finally coming down to Earth with Rogue Nation.
Well, as down to Earth as a fun, lightweight spy fantasy gets.