‘Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation’ becomes a franchise high by playing it safe

Here we are at the end of another summer movie season, and what better way to close it out than with a ever-accessible, ever-engaging, ever-improbable Mission: Impossible film?

 

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The plot:

“Ethan Hunt and his team take on their most impossible mission yet, eradicating the Syndicate – an International rogue organization as highly skilled as they are, committed to destroying the IMF.” – IMDb.com

The review:

Ethan Hunt is a special agent. His and a small, usually inter-changeable, sometime returning team that helps him thwart evil people. The clandestine organization they work for, IMF (Impossible Missions Force) is perpetually on the verge of being disavowed and/or dismantled.

These are the only things you really need to know going into any of the Mission Impossible films. In an age of connected universes and crossovers, it’s refreshing to have a series like this and it’s dumber (yet equally entertaining younger brother, the Fast and the Furious franchise, that present easily accessible, popcorn fuel. You can literally watch these movies in any order, and get the same amount of enjoyment from them. Sure, there are some connecting threads amongst them but they are utterly superfluous. These are dumb movies made smartly.

 I find this series to be a bit more stimulating than the Fast movies however if only because I never feel backed into a corner when I defend them. These movies actually have something called subtly to them as well as the ever important depth. Something I’ve always appreciated about the Mission Impossible franchise is that never once do the characters seem like they are having very much fun. While the plots are mainly nonsensical, they are played straight. Ethan Hunt, much like John McClane in the first Die Hard film, doesn’t want to be in these situations. He is literally the only person who can do them though. It’s delicate tight rope, but Cruise has always done a fantastic job at pulling it off time after time.

Like the Alien franchise, each entry has a new director and with the promise of a new director this series has found ingenious way to remain fresh while never straying too far from the established formula. In the director’s chair this time out is Christopher McQuarrie, who directed Cruise in the highly underrated Jack Reacher as well as contributing his writing talents to a last year’s equally underrated yet poorly named Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow. Instead of branching out too far, McQuarrie plays it somewhat safe by bringing a “Greatest Hits” package by taking the most successful elements of each preceding chapter and molding it into a cohesive whole: Brian De Palma’s mistrust and shifting loyalties; John Woo’s kinetic, well shot action beats; JJ Abrahams’ haunting, omniscient main baddie, and Brad Bird’s set pieces. Unlike a recent shitty reboot that shall remain namelessRogue Nation honors what came before all while forges its own path. In other words, it doesn’t rest on the laurels of the iconic moments of the earlier films; it wants to top them. Put together, this may just be the best of bunch thus far. It’ll require another viewing, but right now its neck and neck with Bird’s series high, Ghost Protocol. 

I think what I liked most about this movie is that I never knew what was going to happen next. Sure, I know Ethan Hunt is going to save the day before the credits rolled but as with any movie like this it is all about the journey not the destination. While I’d still give the edge to Fury Road (literally the only movie that I think stands a chance of bringing me as much joy as that masterpiece is Star Wars and even that has its work cut out for it), it’s been quite a while that I actually felt like I truly let my mind go during a movie. Rogue Nation ultimately succeeded in keeping me guessing and that is as high a compliment as I can give. There is a scene in an Vienna opera house that feels as if it was ripped straight out of a Hitchcock film. There are so many spinning plates added but it never once gets confusing. Nor does the tension release. Every development only adds, and once it reaches its zenith, I almost felt like I needed to leave the theater for a breather. Speaking of breathers, Rebecca Ferguson’s  dress though…

 

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The cast this time out is packed with some welcome familiar faces as well as some great new ones.

Tom Cruise is, in my opinion, perhaps one of the few honest-to-Xenu MOVIE STARS we have. He has the uncanny ability to bring any role with a level of  charisma that most actors can only dream of. The only draw back is that he can no longer play “ordinary people.” I’d even go so far as to say that he can’t really even play characters anymore. He is Tom Cruise. If I see him in a movie, I see Tom Cruise. (The only aspect I didn’t buy in Edge of Tomorrow was Cruise’s character being a coward at the beginning.) Luckily, Ethan Hunt isn’t so much as a character as he is an avatar for the audience. We want to be as cool and awesome as Tom Cruise…er I mean Ethan Hunt so in that respect there is absolutely no one better to play this character than Tom Cruise.

I just want to take a moment to say how happy I am how integral Simon Pegg’s Benji has become to this series. I was worried that he would become a one-and-done Q rip-off. Instead, he is almost the second lead here  as he travels with Cruise’s Hunt for a majority of the movie and actually gets his hands dirty this time around. Pegg’s actual chemistry with Cruise provides some of the film’s funniest moments but also add a layer of honesty that I think a lot of modern action movies lack. I buy that these two guys are friends and therefore care what happens to them. While they aren’t given as much to do, series veterans Ving Rhames and Jeremy Renner also get some fun moments later in the movie. But let’s get to the new blood.

While she is easy on the eyes, Rebecca Ferguson plays one of the best characters of the franchise as the mysterious Ilsa. I’ve seen a lot of double agents in movies, but I genuinely did not know where Ilsa’s loyalties were. Her arc contains so many twists and turns that I was actually engaged in what side of the fence she was going to land on by the film’s end.

Sean Harris plays the main baddie, Soloman Lane, the head of the titular Rogue Nation, who comes off as a sort of mix between Steve Jobs and Javier Bardem’s Silva from Skyfall. While I don’t think he reaches the ultimate menace and intensity the late, great  Philip Seymour Hoffman brought to the third movie, I think this certainly the best villain this series has had since Hoffman. He is truly a threat to Ethan because he is a hell of a lot smarter than him and thus always at least two or three steps ahead.

The main draw of this series is not Cruise or the cast however; it’s the increasingly preposterous yet utterly thrilling set pieces they find themselves in. At this point, one would think filmmakers would be digging  the bottom of the preverbal barrel by now. Well fret not because the set pieces are just as thrilling as ever.

I don’t want to spoil specifics, but the now-famous “Cruise dangling outside a plane FOR FUCKING REAL” sequence that has been at the very center of the marketing thus far takes place within the first five minutes of the movie…AND THE BAR IS ONLY RAISED FROM THERE.

The only element that I found a tad bit tedious was the whole subplot about the IMF being dismantled AGAIN. It didn’t play too much into the main plot and it stank of “been there, done that.” I’ll give it a pass however as it allows Alec Baldwin to be in the movie, and I’m all for Alec Baldwin being in any movie…ever. As Team America taught us that he is the greatest actor ever.

Tom Cruise recently said in an interview with Jon Stewart (who is leaving the Daily Show two days from this blog’s creation -sob-) that he would keep doing these movies as long as he can. Given the level of entertainment we’ve gotten from the last three installments, I hope that he is able to for a good long while.

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