At one point in Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation, the head of the CIA (Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock) delivers a speech about the unyielding persistence of IMF Agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise, Top Gun), and concludes by referring to Hunt as, “manifest destiny incarnate.” He might as well be talking about Cruise, who has survived one publicity nightmare after another and retained his position as one of America's most resilient movie stars. Tom Cruise can do whatever he wants, and what he seems to want most – to borrow an oft-repeated phrase from his recent Jimmy Fallon interview – is to entertain you. He's the king of big-budget action cinema, and no pretenders to the throne will ever take that from him... not for very long, anyway.
The Mission: Impossible series has always been a particularly comfortable fit for Cruise's patented brand of entertainment: fast-paced, adrenaline-pumping action movies which embrace all sorts of ridiculousness but rarely turn genuinely dumb. The series hit a high point with Brad Bird's giddily entertaining Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, and series newcomer Christopher McQuarrie turns in a follow-up that proves every bit as enjoyable. McQuarrie has collaborated with Cruise on a number of occasions (penning the screenplays for Valkyrie and Edge of Tomorrow, and writing/directing Jack Reacher), but Rogue Nation represents the pinnacle of their work together. It's everything a summer blockbuster should be.
Every fictional spy worth his salt is forced to go rogue eventually, and it's Ethan Hunt's turn to do just that. At the recommendation of the CIA, a Senate panel decides to shut down the IMF in response to the latter organization's history of “wanton recklessness.” Unfortunately, the news comes just as Ethan is preparing to take on The Syndicate – a powerful, secretive terrorist organization with possible ties to the British government. Naturally, Ethan decides that he's going to go after them on his own, and naturally, his old buddies Benji (Simon Pegg, Hot Fuzz), Luther (Ving Rhames, Pulp Fiction) and William (Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker) all secretly join him as the film proceeds.
By now, you've almost certainly heard about the sequence where Cruise hangs off the side of an airborne plane. What you may not have heard is that sequence (as exciting as advertised) is done with before the opening credits roll, and that the film quickly proceeds to top it with a sequence that ranks as one of the best things the series has offered. It takes place at the Vienna opera house during a performance of Puccini's “Turandot,” and McQuarrie's precisely-choreographed direction and elegant visuals turn the sequence into something that rivals the climax of Alfred Hitchcock's remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. The (literally) operatic music, Robert Elswitt's gloriously elegant cinematography and a wide variety of insane stunts make the scene a dizzying high point.
The film doesn't top that sequence, but it's never less than a great time. The first half is an outlandish summer action movie, with one large-scale setpiece after another being served up in a variety of diverse locations (there's a terrific motorcycle chase in Morocco, and an incredibly tense underwater sequence inside the bowels of a power station). The second half turns into something closer to an episode of the Mission: Impossible television series, an entertainingly tense hour filled with double-crosses, latex masks, government conspiracies, valuable thumb drives and hushed conversations between powerful men. Some viewers may find the slower, calmer pace of the back stretch a bit of a letdown after the explosive first half, but it's not unreasonable for a spy movie to do spy movie stuff.
Rogue Nation's most striking performance comes from Rebecca Ferguson (Hercules) as the wonderfully-named Ilsa Faust. “Ilsa” is a direct reference to Casablanca, and not just because a chunk of the film is set in Casablanca – Ferguson's screen presences boasts an old-Hollywood elegance that conjures the ghost of Ingrid Bergman on multiple levels. “Faust” likely springs from the fact that there are numerous powers vying for Ilsa's devotion – the British government, the American government, the Syndicate and what's left of the IMF. Her poise and beauty has a way of stopping Ethan dead in his tracks each time he sees her, but their relationship is a platonic, professional one. There's a bond between them, but it's more of a soul bond; a recognition that they share certain things in common non-superspies couldn't possibly understand.
The film's chief villain is Lane (Sean Harris, The Borgias), a tall, thin, bespectacled Englishman who speaks through his nose and rarely blinks. He's a fairly generic baddie on paper (this series often struggles to show as much interest in its villains as in its heroes), but Harris brings some nice touches to him. I like the way that he grows rigid and implosive when he's angry, and that furious death-stare he delivers during the scenes in which Ethan gains the upper hand. Save for Pegg's lovably goofy tech whiz (given an expanded role this time around), most of the British characters in the film aren't treated particularly well. The head of British intelligence (the eternally shifty-looking Simon McBurney, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) is a pitiless snake, and the unnamed Prime Minister (an enjoyable cameo from Tom Hollander, Pride & Prejudice) is a clueless fop. “You realize you've set US/UK relations back to the Revolutionary War,” Baldwin mutters to Ethan. It only seems fair: this series treats Brits about as well as the James Bond series treats Americans.
Cruise is in typically fine form, running and jumping and shouting and occasionally flashing a $500,000 version of that million-dollar grin. His depiction of Ethan Hunt has never been particularly consistent, but somehow that doesn't matter. Ethan Hunt is Cruise doing Cruise, whatever that happens to mean at the time. This time around, I was struck by the generosity of Cruise's performance. He gives himself plenty of heroic moments, sure, but he's content to take a backseat when the movie doesn't demand his particular skill set. Every member of the cast gets at least one great moment here (check out Baldwin's barely-suppressed glibness in his final scene, or that little “you get my drift?” expression Ving Rhames offers), and there's solid chemistry between every combination of players across the board. Still, when it's time for the star to leap into action, he delivers. Cruise's dedication to what he does informs every other part of the movie – the film works hard to be the best lightweight entertainment it can be. In an era filled with blockbusters that feel like cynical cash grabs, it's delightful to see a movie that genuinely wants to earn your $10.
Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 131 minutes
Release Year: 2015