Of all the big movie franchises making appearances in the overstuffed summer (or indeed year) of 2015, Mission: Impossible stands alone. Not to say it’s necessarily superior, just that unlike all the others, it’s basically remained unchanged for the last 20-odd years. Some series are getting reboots now that hadn’t even had their original iterations when Mission: Impossible had its first sequel, while others have evolved in such a way as to only bare a vague resemblance to what they once were. Yet M:I is still here, trundling solidly along, delivering a new movie every 5 years or so.
The series has always been producer-star Tom Cruise’s baby, hiring a different director each time to produce tonally different, mostly standalone spy-action movies. The younger Cruise began by hiring more established auteurs but in recent years has gone for less experienced directors. For this fifth instalment he’s opted for his Jack Reacher director Christopher McQuarrie, who’s primarily worked as a screenwriter (for several other Cruise films).
Rogue Nation is actually the most direct sequel in the series so far, referencing a few previous events and being much more similar in tone to Ghost Protocol than any of these movies have been to each other before. At the same time, its plot owes a little more to Brian De Palma’s original, rendering it something of a blend of the series’ 2 best entries (so far?). Indeed the film’s opening title sequence uses an identical technique to the original.
Just before that though, we’re given an immensely fun, brief set-piece that features the Cruise-dangling-from-an-ascending-plane beat that’s been in all the promo materials. Can we just take a minute to acknowledge how brilliant a piece of marketing that was? Concentrating on a mostly unrelated stunt that appears 3 minutes into the movie rather than giving away the film’s central one – if only more big action movies had the smarts to do this.
The plot also bears some resemblance to the first film as Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is forced to go off on a solo mission, thankfully not because his team are wiped out again as their dynamics in the film are highly enjoyable to watch. Instead the IMF has been discontinued due to pressure from the CIA chief (Alec Baldwin) following their “unorthodox” actions in the previous film. Hunt has been on the trail of a Spectre-like organisation unimaginatively named ‘the syndicate’, believing them to be responsible for a number of destructive events designed to appear as natural disasters or military coups.
After a daring escape from their icy leader Lane (Sean Harris – who famously loved rocks in Prometheus), Hunt pursues him across the globe whilst hiding from the CIA. Rogue Nation jumps from one exciting set-piece to another with ease. Not long in, McQuarrie engineers a fantastically exciting attempted assassination sequence that takes place during a performance of the opera Turandot. He cuts between several characters, some of which are chasing others but always keeps it completely cohesive, utilising various real opera props and humorous, Bond-esque spy gadgets (a flute-gun, a laptop disguised as a programme), while believable having this all take place out of sight of the audience. He even synchs the action well to the opera’s music – it’s a set-piece worthy of, albeit indebted to De Palma himself.
Similarly, Rogue Nation has a central heist sequence in which the team must break into an impossibly secure location and steal a vital piece of data unnoticed. On paper it might sound derivative of sequences that have occurs in this series before, such as the legendary Langley break-in, but the different obstacles that they must get past, which include a giant water-filled black hole, render it singular. It’s a wonderfully tense sequence, yet also possesses a shred of knowing humour – Simon Pegg’s returning character jokes about how it’ll be no problem for Cruise to hold his breath for the required time considering what he’s done before.
What’s also great about all this is that all these scenes serve a purpose to the ongoing story, it never feels like the film was reverse engineered from a required number of action scenes, even those these are frequent and sometimes lengthy – there’s barely a pause for breath (and Cruise really needs one) between the heist and a subsequent, thrilling motorcycle chase.
McQuarrie is also apparently aware enough of the current climate to avoid simply trying to go bigger with each subsequent scene. He doesn’t need to end with a sequence of citywide destruction or the fate of the world at stake, instead opting for a more measured finale that makes sense both in terms of the film’s plot and its level of self-awareness.
Considering that he wrote The Usual Suspects, I had thought that perhaps McQuarrie might have written a more twist-filled screenplay than what we get here. He hasn’t lost all of the complications of the first movie, but dialled them down a little to strike a balance between that and the more dumbed-down M:I II, there’s still at least an entertaining mask-reveal here. What’s a little more interesting is the back-and-forth between Lane and Hunt; both trying to outsmart the other by predicting their next move.
The core cast comprises of more returning faces than ever before, the aforementioned Simon Pegg gets more do to with each instalment, and whiles he provides plenty of it, is not just there to be comic relief, he’s an integral part of the team who’s formed a strong bond with Cruise over the years. We also get a reliable turn from series veteran Ving Rhames, the only actor besides Cruise to have been there from the start, and Jeremy Renner finds a more suitable way to fit into the group than he had previously.
The stand-out though comes from a newcomer – Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson (of last year’s Hercules) plays Ilsa Faust. She’s initially introduced as a double agent working for both Lane and the British government, but her loyalties are always kept slightly ambiguous. She’s key to the story throughout and represents a welcome example of an action movie fashioning a female character intended to be the protagonist’s “equal” and completely nailing it. She’s as competent as Cruise is in almost every capacity, she’s never reduced to eye-candy or being a damsel-in-distress, in fact if anyone fits that latter description it’s Pegg. She and Cruise work well together but also thankfully aren’t set up as a needless romantic pairing (in case you’re wondering, 22 years). She’s the latest addition to what’s turning out to be a good year for female action heroes; I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes a star-making turn for Ferguson, and hope they keep her around for the next movie.
Rogue Nation does still suffer from a few modern blockbuster issues, there’s a rather poorly staged knife fight in the third act that is, as the MPAA demands, completely bloodless, removing any impact it might have had. The first film portrayed violence considerably more appropriately. In fact one of the participants in that is the film’s weakest character, a dull henchman/torturer called “The Bone Doctor” who feels like a cheap Bond baddie knock-off.
Otherwise Rogue Nation is a hugely enjoyable movie that feels somehow old-fashioned in its plotting and use of practical stunts, yet is bang-up-to-date with its tech. This series has come to emerge as one of the most reliable today after the bumpy second movie. M:I – 5 is another more-than-satisfactory entry in this series, ranking probably second to the original, that delivers almost everything you could want from a Mission: Impossible movie. On with number six!