Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation REVIEW: Cruise, McQuarrie deliver a must-accept mission

In case you might have been thinking that at this point, 19 years after the first Mission: Impossible film hit theaters, that making another film in the series that could possibly be as much fun as the last few entries have been, that there had to be a letdown at some point and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation could be it, well, you thought wrong. Rogue Nation proves to be a very strong follow up to 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, bringing together all the key elements that have to come to characterize this film franchise while also displaying enough of a difference in style and tone from its predecessors to keep it from feeling at all like a retread.

A little over a year since Senior IMF Agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and a hastily-assembled team of IMF agents went rogue in order to stop a former Soviet nuclear strategist from initiating a massive missile attack against the U.S. and setting off global war, the fallout from the team’s unsanctioned actions and the collateral damage they caused is still being felt. CIA Director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) has made it his personal mission to have the IMF permanently shuttered, its agents and assets folded into CIA operations, and Ethan himself called on the carpet for all the “mayhem” he’s caused throughout his career in the name of protecting global security.

Ethan, meanwhile, has been on the trail of a shadowy group simply known as “the Syndicate”, which he believes is a network of highly-trained non-official cover operatives very much like the IMF that’s responsible for creating political instability around the world via carefully coordinated “accidents” and “disasters.” When Hunley’s efforts on Capitol Hill result in the IMF’s shutdown, Ethan does what he’s always done and goes off the grid in order to stay on the trail of the greater threat.

His investigation brings him in contact with a British MI6 agent, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who has already infiltrated the Syndicate and hopes to bring them and their leader, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), down from within. Ethan and Ilsa, with some help from Ethan’s old team mates Benji (Simon Pegg), Luther (Ving Rhames), and Brandt (Jeremy Renner), thus embark on a series of capers to keep top secret information from falling into the Syndicate’s hands, information that would support their operations for decades to come. But Lane and the Syndicate are every bit as skilled as Ethan’s team, especially in the area of misdirection and subterfuge, and as the chase takes them from London to Vienna to Casablanca, the question of just how much the IMF boys can trust their new ally Ilsa looms large as their enemy seems to stay just one step ahead of even Ethan’s considerable skills.

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The Mission: Impossible series of films has always been characterized as more of an “anthology” and a “director’s series”, rather than a set of direct sequels, with each film — 1996’s Mission: Impossible, 2000’s Mission: Impossible II, 2006’s Mission: Impossible III, and the aforementioned Ghost Protocol — all easily distinguishable from each other by the signature style and vision of the director at the helm. But since J.J. Abrams took the reins to direct the third installment, and his production company Bad Robot took an active hand in partnering with Cruise to produce every installment since, there has been greater consistency between the films in terms of the type of plot and action audiences can expect when they choose to accept a new “mission.”

For Rogue Nation, Cruise and Abrams turned to writer Christopher McQuarrie, who is arguably still best known for penning the screenplay for The Usual Suspects and has now collaborated with Cruise on four projects, including 2008’s Valkryie, 2012’s Jack Reacher (which he also directed), and last year’s Edge of Tomorrow. If you’ve enjoyed McQuarrie’s previous suspense-driven screenplays and the directing work he put into Jack Reacher, work characterized by a devotion to “old school” (translation: little to no CGI) film making and action choreography, then you’re bound to enjoy what he delivers in Rogue Nation.

Once again sticking to practical effects and stunt work, McQuarrie shows he’s just as adept at large scale set pieces with lots of moving parts as he was with the smaller, grittier action he’s given us previously. Particular standout examples of McQuarrie’s skill and vision in the film include a cat-and-mouse pursuit backstage at the Vienna Opera shot almost entirely without dialogue, an equally-elaborate underwater sequence shot in a single long take, and a thrilling motorcycle chase shot using multiple cameras mounted directly on the bikes and chase vehicles, among others. While these set pieces aren’t as outlandish and frenetic as the ones director Brad Bird brought to bear in Ghost Protocol, they certainly stand among the best crafted for the film series, and are certainly among the most memorable sequences audiences have been treated to this summer thus far.

As for the actors in the midst of those incredible set pieces, once again Cruise lives up to the reputation he simply must have at this point as a studio’s worst nightmare in terms of insuring a Hollywood film, as he continues to insist on performing his own stunts in these films at the ripe old age of 53. The “aerobatic insanity” of Cruise’s stuntwork in the Mission: Impossible films have become as characteristic of these films as their exotic filming locations and stunning leading ladies, and here he maintains that fine tradition by literally hanging by his fingertips off of a cargo plane thousands of feet in the air, holding his breath far longer than any human reasonably should to shoot the aforementioned underwater sequence, and indulging his lifelong “need for speed” riding a crotch rocket at top speed along with a group of stunt riders in what is arguably the most exciting motorcycle chase on film in years. How much longer he’ll be able to do all these things is anyone’s guess, but here, as it has all these years in these films, Cruise’s commitment to taking part in these scenes and eschewing the use of a body double just adds to the tension and excitement of what we’re seeing. It’s what we’ve come to expect from these movies, and he delivers.

That said, Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson turns in an equally-committed and commanding performance as the formidable and inscrutable Ilsa, one that will no doubt leave fans hoping she might return for a future installment the way Renner did from the previous film, Pegg did from the previous two films, and Rhames has throughout the series. Ferguson’s role in the plot demands just as much physicality as Cruise’s and far more nuance in terms of drama and conflict, and thus what she gives to audiences is captivating from the moment she first enters to her final exit. While most of the other supporting players — Renner, Pegg, Rhames, and even Baldwin, whose character is new but whose demeanor and archetype are not — are known quantities to each other and the audience, Ilsa is the wild card, the living embodiment of the trust issues career intelligence agents are forced to deal with in order to do their sometimes nasty business in a world of shifting alliances and fluid loyalties. For those familiar with her Golden Globe-nominated work in the British TV series “The White Queen”, perhaps the depth and quality of her dramatic non-action work here won’t come as much of a surprise, but to those for whom Ferguson is a new face, she’s sure to make a lasting impression.

Considering all that, a strong case can certainly be made for Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation being the most satisfying action movie experience of the year overall, and thus it’s one that should not be missed in theaters. It has cinematic ingenuity and adrenaline-fueled excitement that are easily on par with this summer’s other tentpoles, and like Mad Max: Fury Road back in May accomplishes its thrills almost entirely without the use of the green-screens and computer imagery that the other big summer movies of 2015 — the ones with the superheroes, the dinosaurs, and the aliens that look like 80’s video game characters — all so heavily relied upon. Put another way, if you just love movies or you enjoy a good spy thriller but you’re generally not a fan of Cruise, who certainly is as polarizing as ever at the box office these days, make an extra effort to put those negative feelings aside for a few hours and choose to accept this mission. You won’t regret it.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Starring Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, and Alec Baldwin. Directed by Christopher McQuarrie.
Running Time: 131 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, and brief partial nudity.

Felix Albuerne
Felix Albuerne
One-time Blockbuster Video manager, textbook editor, trivia host, and community college English/Humanities teacher. Now a digital media producer, part-time film critic, amateur foodie, semi-retired beer snob, unabashed geek, and still very much a work in progress.