A decade ago, people claimed to jump off the Tom Cruise bandwagon when he started jumping onto couches and generally coming off as crazy. Even ten years later, that Oprah moment is still as surreal and bizarre as when it first happened, but Cruise looks less and less crazy the more distance is put between he and that moment by the passage of time. A lot of people wrote him off in 2005 (myself included) and said that his antics during the publicity for War of the Worlds ruined the box office of that movie. Funny enough, it’s the biggest box office hit in Cruise’s career, not adjusted for inflation, so you can’t always trust narratives.
Despite its earnings, War of the Worlds is seen as a turning point in the career of Tom Cruise, where he was a bit hit, wobbled a bit, but eventually found his footing again at the box office. While they don’t follow the exact same narrative arc, the Mission: Impossible film franchise shares a similar trajectory to that of its main star. While 1996’s Mission: Impossible wasn’t the greatest movie of Cruise’s career or of the franchise, it was a solid enough beginning for a franchise, only to be followed up with an overcooked, outlandish, and ultimately disappointing Mission: Impossible II. But then the franchise started to turn things around with Mission: Impossible III and really hit its stride with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation marks the latest, and, arguably, best entry in the franchise and it’s unlikely resurgence that coincided with its star’s own resurgence.
Rogue Nation kicks off, refreshingly, with a cold open that is unrelated to the rest of the film, with Cruise’s Ethan Hunt needing the help of his crew, Benji (Simon Pegg), Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Luther (Ving Rhames) to get into a plane taking off, a breathtaking sequence that was all over the promo spots for the film. After the opening credits, the story proper kicks immediately into gear with Ethan finally having the existence of The Syndicate, an underground criminal organization, a “rogue nation,” revealed to him. He is forced to go on the run from his own government, with CIA Director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) absorbed the IMF into the CIA after a hearing that calls for them to answer for their actions in previous films, as he tries to track down and take down the leader of The Syndicate, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). Ethan is aided on the inside of the Syndicate by Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a mysterious woman under deep cover in Lane’s group.
Director Christopher McQuarrie and his co-writer Drew Pearce do a great job of tying this story into the previous films. Aside from the on and off involvement of Luther in the franchise and the cameo callback of Ethan’s wife at the end of Ghost Protocol, most of the franchise has just been a series of stand-alone stories. The government hearing that Brandt attends with CIA Director Hunley calls into question the actions of Ethan Hunt and his fellow IMF agents over the run of the franchise. They do a good job of questioning Ethan’s tactics, even if the audience is never supposed to completely believe it’s “wanton brinksmanship” and that Ethan’s “unorthodox methods are indistinguishable from chance, and results, perfect or not, look suspiciously like luck.” This could be a simple display of bureaucracy, but the film comes back to this questioning of Ethan’s motives several times in important moments when stakes are high and other team members are in peril.
The action is top-notch, arguably the best in a movie this summer not named Mad Max: Fury Road. The already-mentioned plane sequence to open the movie kicks things off on a high note, including introducing us to Cruise doing what he does best: running. There is the requisite break-in/heist sequence that most Mission: Impossible films employ, this time underwater, that leads into a high-speed chase, barely giving the audience a moment to breathe in between. There’s even a tense set piece at the opera that is well-executed with several moving pieces. It is a little ludicrous that Ethan is able to assemble the resources he has at his disposal given that he is working on his own, but the Mission: Impossible universe has life-like masks and other silly devices (which have thankfully been used more judiciously than in the first few entries of this franchise), so the suspension of disbelief isn’t too much of a leap to make in this area.
Every Mission: Impossible film has a new female lead, and, though Paula Patton was no slouch in Ghost Protocol, Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust is the best yet. She is given the biggest role next to Cruise’s and has the most complex character in the most complex circumstances. She and Cruise have terrific chemistry working together in several scenes as two agents whose skills highly complement one another. The interaction between the two is mostly platonic too, surprisingly. She is another strong female performance in a year of great female roles.
The rest of the cast is a bit hit or miss. Cruise and Pegg are great. They have developed a great buddy-buddy rapport over the course of three films together, and Pegg’s Benji even gets to be more involved in the action and not just provide the comedic, light-hearted moments. Renner and Rhames are fine in their smaller, supporting roles, though they are often backgrounded into the action of the larger story with Renner feeling the most wasted of all the talent on-screen. Baldwin excels in a limited role; I felt a hint of suspicion towards his character the whole time, wondering whether he was involved with The Syndicate given the timing of events at the beginning of the film. The one letdown here, though, is the lack of a truly compelling villain in Sean Harris’ character. Harris himself is fine in the role, playing a cold and calculating villain, but he is not as compelling as Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s villain in M:I III. His scheme that Ethan is trying to stop is daunting and significant, but the man himself feels underdeveloped. In a film where the female lead is equally as compelling as Cruise, a truly memorable villain perhaps could have put this film up in a higher level.
As it is though, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is a pretty awesome movie-going experience. Like the Fast & Furious franchise, it has achieved a certain degree of reverse aging where it is not getting bloated and beginning to sag with each successive sequel. The stories are getting leaner, slicker, and more taut. It is the perfect summer action movie.
Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars