Five Mission: Impossible films across 19 years, five different directors, each man solid in their own way, though John Woo was simply not a good fit for the franchise. The idea is to keep the series fresh and re-invigorate it with each installment, and it has worked like gangbusters; the fourth and now the fifth films find the series at the top of its game and better than ever before. Rogue Nation director and writer Christopher McQuarrie already proved himself an exceptional visual storyteller in Jack Reacher, and he delivers a barn-burning yet elegantly-made action film that keeps the Mission: Impossible franchise on cloud nine.
The plot: The Impossible Mission Force (IMF) is embattled on two fronts. They are being shut down by the influence of CIA head Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), and they are frustrated by their attempts to combat the shadowy terrorist organization known as the Syndicate and its enigmatic killing machine Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). IMF specialist Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), tech support/comic relief Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and CIA liaison William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) must bring down the Syndicate and convince Hunley of their relevance – both tasks seem equally impossible.
Audiences have been conditioned to go into a Mission: Impossible film expecting not only good action, but setpieces that stretch the limits of practical stunt work. Cruise set the bar literally as high as human architecture has risen when he scaled and ran down the side of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in a watershed sequence in previous installment Ghost Protocol. How do you follow that up? Rogue Nation makes the brash decision to open on its answer: strapping Cruise onto the side of a plane as it takes to the sky. (For those interested in the logistics, Cruise hung on for eight complete ascending-to-landing takes of 45 minutes each!) Students of film discuss an opening scene as establishing a contract between a film and the audience – this intro promises a film worthy of such a show-stopping cold open… and it delivers. The action throughout is beautiful, always creative, and at times pleasingly elegant – my favorite action scene is the opera house sequence, which masterfully uses geography and editing for maximum tension and payoff.
The setpieces are there, and thankfully so is the supporting cast. The team dynamic that carries this franchise is utilized very well here, but the centerpiece of the ensemble is Ferguson as Ilsa Faust. Her character is a specialist like Ethan, and the pair establish a relationship of true equals; each ultra-competent agent complements the other, while neither lose touch of the humanity at the heart of their characters. And satisfyingly, there is not a hint of romantic tension between them – in fact, Ethan Hunt has not been portrayed as sexually available since Mission: Impossible 2. And finally, as the film’s villain, Sean Harris does a lot with relatively little screen time, solidifying my theory that only the odd-numbered films in the franchise feature effective villains.
All these potent elements are in service of a film that is very interested in engaging with why and how this franchise works. The missions are supposed to be impossible, right? And yet they’re accomplished every time because the team have a secret weapon: they’re the heroes in an action movie. When Benji reacts to exposition of a daunting task requiring the utmost precision to carry out, he blathers, “Well, that doesn’t sound impossible”. The line works on a couple levels: Benji is using humor to deflect the mission’s difficulty while still clearly uncomfortable with what the team has to do; and we as the audience are cued to the fact that there is no impossible mission the writers can throw at the IMF. Given his role in the films, Ethan Hunt is unkillable, unstoppable (but that doesn’t mean he can’t be battered like a rag doll time and time again). And Rogue Nation plays with Ethan’s status as the action hero in very fun ways throughout.
The film bears out these larger themes while always focusing on its own identity. And of course there is no clearer mechanism to defend the Mission: Impossible franchise in its venerability than including a subplot of the CIA shutting the IMF down. This film takes the over-familiar tropes of the franchise and consistently deploys them in fresh ways – it feels like a celebration but injected with new energy. And it all culminates beautifully in the most triumphant moment in the series.
I did have a small issue with the excessive twists and turns of the plot. This is the most complicated plot in the series since 1996’s debut installment, and in a couple instances I was at sea. But then again, part of the appeal of the franchise is how seriously it takes itself, and a labyrinthine plot fits right into that. Also, it might be argued that since techie/comic relief duty is split between Benji and Luther that each gets a little less to do.
Five films in, the series and its ageless star show no signs of slowing down. The setpieces in Rogue Nation are show-stoppers that deserve to be seen on the big screen. And even when the series’ main theme doesn’t accompany the action, it sort of feels like it is because the score is so big and brash – this is a confident film. Pyrotechnically and thematically alive, bolstered by the formidable Ilsa Faust and the evergreen Ethan Hunt, Rogue Nation makes the case to be possibly the best Mission: Impossible yet. 9/10.