What is the difference between intuition and tunnel vision? Where is the line between effectiveness and blind luck? These are just a couple of the questions that writer-director Christopher McQuarrie uses to galvanize the scintillating Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. The fifth film in the blockbuster action franchise continues to up the ante for spectacular set pieces. More importantly, this is the fourth script penned for Tom Cruise by McQuarrie, who understands how to maximize Cruise’s particular skill set. Their collaboration, along with stunning cinematography and a solid supporting cast, makes this, arguably, the most entertaining entry in the series.
Whether you love Tom Cruise or hate him (and judging by his flagging box office numbers of late, there are more people joining the hate camp), there is no denying his leading man pedigree. Sure, it would be nice to see him stretch his dramatic wings a bit, but that chicken flew the coop back in the ‘90s. Where Cruise continues to shine, though it doesn’t receive nearly enough credit, is his deft comic timing. Christopher McQuarrie understands how to seamlessly blend these talents into Cruise’s patented action mayhem. Time and time again, M: I-RN benefits from a subtle wink or hesitant stammer. It’s those moments were Cruise moves beyond action star—beyond the confines of the script—and draws you into the story, no matter how preposterous or convoluted it is. You can hate Cruise all you want (see: Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief for added ammunition), but this movie would sink like a stone without him.
Mission: Impossible, be it the television or film iteration, has always been about the subterfuge. Who is on your side and who is pretending to be on your side? As one character eloquently sums it up, “There are no allies in statecraft, only common interests.” Most of the double-crosses and shady motivations in M: I-RN revolve around the newest addition to the team, a disavowed British agent named Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson). Ilsa is somehow connected to an organization of disgraced or presumed-dead spies that is wreaking havoc around the world. The organization is called the Syndicate, and their leader, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), is intent upon destabilizing the institutions that created him (see: Silva from Skyfall).
Meanwhile, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) are under fire from CIA Chief Hunley (Alec Baldwin) and a Senate sub-committee. The CIA wants to absorb the IMF, claiming their impulsive and destructive methods are a danger to national security. Observing the smoldering ruins of the Kremlin after an IMF incursion, the concerned chairman remarks, “Your results look suspiciously like luck.” Ethan’s luck may have finally run out, as Chief Hunley wants him neutralized, while his own team doubts the very existence of the shadowy Syndicate.
Of course, none of this cloak-and-dagger nonsense makes any difference. It merely functions as the framework on which to hang globe-trotting action sequences. M: I-RN succeeds because Cruise keeps you invested in the convoluted story long enough to actually reach the action. And when the action starts, it is glorious.
Whether he’s clinging to the outside of an ascending cargo jet or racing his motorcycle along a hairpin mountain pass, Cruise passes all standards of believability. For all of his faults, Cruise’s dedication to maximum authenticity cannot be questioned. That’s him in harm’s way, and despite the obvious safety protocols, it adds an element of genuine danger to the action. He’s all leather jacket and windswept hair, and we love watching him risk everything for our entertainment.
McQuarrie’s direction is remarkably lean and economical. Even at a robust 135 minutes, there’s not much gristle in this steak. His pacing is crisp, his edits are clean, and he makes excellent use of Lalo Schifrin’s iconic theme to propel the action forward. McQuarrie also leans heavily on cinematographer Robert Elswit to create the appropriate mood. Whether it’s the chiaroscuro lighting on a foggy night in London, or the fractured prisms illuminating an underwater cooling vault, Elswit makes everything look distinctive and striking.
Most of the faults we find in M: I-RN reside in McQuarrie’s script. Though the dialogue is generally sharp and intelligent, too often we have characters stopping to explain the stakes. It’s nice to see Ving Rhames back in the fold, but he’s relegated to keeping us oriented in the plot. Given how little the plot actually matters to an action extravaganza like this, it seems a waste of his considerable talents. After five movies, there isn’t much to left to learn about these characters, but a few added wrinkles might have been nice. With the exception of Ilsa, people behave pretty much how we would expect, which takes away some of the suspense.
That said, there is also much to like in McQuarrie’s script. The themes of intuition and luck re-emerge throughout M: I-RN, each time with added significance. Is Ethan being a perceptive super-agent, or does he suffer from an extreme case of selective perception? Having members of his own team doubt Ethan’s claims about the Syndicate is a nice touch. Also effective are frequent references to Ethan pushing his luck. Established early in the story as a whimsical notion, as when scaffolding collapses immediately after fostering safe passage for Ethan and Ilsa, it has more dire implications as the story plays out. Minus a bit too much hand-holding, McQuarrie’s script mostly gets out of the way and lets the action do the talking.
And the action is spectacular. We get elaborate heists, prisoner extractions, fist fights, foot chases, and enough motorcycle stunt work to make Evel Knievel smile from the Great Beyond. The practical effects and CGI wizardry are seamless. Again, having Cruise front and center in the action gifts the entire production with an added layer of authenticity.
Cruise is surrounded by a terrific supporting cast. We haven’t see brass-balls-toting Alec Baldwin in over 20 years, but he gives us a tantalizing glimpse of the actor he can be when he isn’t content to play some version of himself. Jeremy Renner continues to show Cruise-esque flashes of subtle comic timing, though he doesn’t have much to do here (see: Hawkeye). The real story is Simon Pegg, who settles into a terrific groove as Cruise’s hyperactive sidekick. Honestly, a standalone movie featuring the adventures of Pegg and Cruise has tremendous potential. Ferguson is also wonderful (and stunningly beautiful) as a whip-smart agent who doesn’t need rescuing. Harris doesn’t fare nearly as well as the criminal mastermind, Lane, settling for a whispering affectation that makes him hard to understand and somewhat silly-sounding at times. Still, the principal cast delivers the fun and energy they need to hang with Cruise.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is the best action movie this summer not named Mad Max: Fury Road. It looks spectacular, delivers plenty of imaginative action, and makes you laugh a lot more than you might expect. So put your Cruise hate aside and enjoy big-budget Hollywood at its best.