To take and paraphrase from this website’s review of “Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol” from 2011, there are certain things Tom Cruise does absolutely right and playing Ethan Hunt is one of them. That statement begs to be shouted out again in triumph for “Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation” which hits theaters today. Like him or not as a person outside of the multiplex, Tom Cruise remains the undisputed and penultimate action star in the world today, if not in all of the history of cinema. He pushes the envelope like no one else and, as a producer in this series, he puts his money where his safety harness is. What he dares to do on-screen pays off in superior results. For three straight films now since 2006, this franchise just keeps getting better.
The new film begins with the OMG bang you’ve been waiting for. That dramatic Tom-Cruise-clinging-to-an-airplane-taking-off scene that has dominated the marketing for “Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation” opens the film after some foreshadowing opening credits (and a new take on the classic score from composer Joe Kraemer) tease a montage of future imagery that has yet to unfold. The film doesn’t play its biggest card first. This fifth film in the series furnishs the eager audience with plenty more twists, turns, and jaw-dropping stunts to keep the pedal to the metal.
Since the closing reunion scene of “Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol,” Ethan has returned full-time to the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) tracking a new threat known only as the Syndicate. As it turns out, they are a clandestine organization comprised of former spies with terminated records and identities because their home countries list them as deceased or killed in action, allowing them to operate undetected and undocumented. Their leader, former MI6 spy Solomon Lane (Sean Harris of “Prometheus” and “The Borgias”), has been orchestrating different calamities and targeted killings around the world with the goal of collapsing the international spy network due to their collected failure at stopping him.
Lane’s operations are working. The CIA, led by Director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin, oozing cool discontent), thinks Ethan is on a witch hunt and considers the IMF more harm than good. In front of a Senate subcommittee, Hunley out-duels IMF commander William Brandt (a returning Jeremy Renner) at politics and gets his wish to disband the IMF. Ethan defies orders to desist and remains in the field chasing the Syndicate, while his team including Brandt, long-timer partner Luther Stickell (series original Ving Rhames), and tech expert Benji Dunn (third-timer Simon Pegg) all either quit or get reassigned.
Ethan’s efforts to dodge the pursuit of both the Syndicate and the CIA get him mixed up with Ilsa Faust, played by newcomer Rebecca Ferguson, a dashing MI6 agent who has infiltrated Lane’s network to play both sides. Globetrotting chases, assassinations, duels, heists, and mask reveals of all shapes and sizes of excitement and spy-movie-appropriate implausibility send Ilsa, Ethan, and company across Vienna, Casablanca, and London before its all said and done, with Faust being the key to success more than Hunt.
The growing connected history and universe that has been established since 2006’s J.J. Abrams-directed “Mission: Impossible III” is a welcome bit of structure. More is added to it in this new adventure with Ferguson’s Faust and Baldwin’s Hunley. Faust is billed as a female equivalent to Ethan Hunt and Rebecca Ferguson is a revelation of a jolt. She nearly steals the film from Tom Cruise with her own physicality and daredevil flamboyance. She easily trumps all of Cruise’s female counterparts from the previous films and pushes Jeremy Renner to the sidelines as the suit instead of the heir apparent. Sean Harris cannot match the simmering menace of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as the top villain in the series, but tries adequately without twirling a mustache or monologuing too strongly.
With a new director heading each chapter, in this case Cruise’s “Jack Reacher” director Christopher McQuarrie, and bringing their own creative eye and style, this franchise earns points for being several notches above a string of mindless standalone adventures as cheesy as the bad 80’s Roger Moore Bond films. These films have struck the right balance between the nerves of a tightly-wound thriller and the wonderstruck cool factor you need in a spy film.
When it all adds up, the swerves and heel turns may tally too many for some viewers (wait, another one?) who require oversimplification in their spy films, but their combined impact and fun here in “Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation” are par for the course when it comes to this franchise. Even at its most ridiculous, this film is blisteringly action-packed and coupled with self-deprecating humor, much of which is delivered with panache by Simon Pegg. Each inventive set piece and confrontation does a fine job adding to the peril and showmanship that Tom Cruise is always gunning to conquer. We’ve been chasing his and our own tail since 1996 to keep up with every clue in the “Mission: Impossible” films and it is a satisfying pleasure to hold or catch our collective breath to keep pace. Go ahead and score it a birdie or near eagle while you’re at it, instead of that par, for the inherent bold cheekiness that has been improving each of these films.
Lesson #1: Ethan Hunt, and, by extension Tom Cruise, is the “living manifestation of destiny”– In one of Alec Baldwin’s perfectly tuned rants as Director Hunley, he bestows this label on Ethan Hunt and it might as well go towards waxing Tom Cruise’s ego too. As aforementioned, like or hate who he is and what he does or doesn’t stand for, Tom Cruise and Ethan Hunt operate on another level greater than everyone else. Both the character and the man, for better or worse, make their own destiny and will their creative hubris to life. At this point, you have to shake your head and tip your cap at the same time.
Lesson #2: Movie star characters don’t get concussions— There is a span of twenty minutes, played in essentially real-time, where Tom Cruise’s character gets revived with an AED defibrillator, tumbles a sedan bumper-over-bumper in reverse at jarring high speed, and spins out on a motorcycle with no helmet or protective clothing at an even higher speed. Through each collision, Ethan Hunt feigns being woozy, but gets up with nary a bruise or scrape. Come on. The car crash alone would kill a man (with Benji along, two), let alone the amount of injury on bare skin from the crotch rocket wipe-out. I know this is a spy movie, but there is a strength that comes in a dash of realism to the stuntwork that makes them more effective. At least make Ethan go to the chiropractor or something. He’s 53 years old!
Lesson #3: What you will risk and sacrifice for your team and cause— Even though Ethan Hunt is the leader and star of the show, his trusted team is equally invested and important. Ethan has shown to be selfless enough to risk his life to save his cohorts for the greater good. The same goes for Luther, Benji, William, and even Ilsa. All of them are skilled professionals and know what they signed up for to be a government agent. They realize the big picture of implications if they fail not only the mission, but each other as well.
Lesson #4: Gambling with lives in the balance at its finest— The wild chances and measures that Ethan Hunt continuously shoots for to get his man or come out on top have him labeled by Lane in this movie as a gambler more than an expert. You would think that sooner or later everyone’s luck runs out, including his. Ethan’s split-second decision-making should burn him time and again, but, like any good gambler, he hedges his bets with resolve and smarts to raise the stakes higher than the other guy. He pushes the right pressure points to gamble and win because his limits exceed everyone else’s.