The bar has been set, Mr. Bond. Four years after Brad Bird kicked the Mission: Impossible franchise into hyper drive with the exhilarating Ghost Protocol, Tom Cruise and writer-director Christopher McQuarrie successfully keep the momentum going with the breezy Rogue Nation. Like its manic predecessor (and fiercely committed leading man), Rogue Nation slavishly aims to please. It’s an intoxicating cocktail of high octane action, a twisty narrative, witty comic banter, beautiful locales and kick-ass characters. If it doesn’t scale the franchise-highs of Ghost Protocol, that’s hardly a knock on this effortlessly elating thriller because from where I’m standing, this is—aside from the unimpeachable Mad Max: Fury Road of course—the best action movie of the summer.
By now you’re undoubtedly aware of the titanic action sequence in which Cruise hangs off the side of a cargo plane as it taxis and then takes off a runway. How couldn’t you? It’s only been the centerpiece of the entire marketing campaign. But what’s most impressive about this virtuoso sequence, aside from the fact that Cruise performed the stunt himself, is that it takes place during the movie’s first 10 minutes! Like the best Bond pre-credit sequences, there’s no set-up, no chit-chat – it just puts you in the driver’s seat and throttles it into top gear, hurling you head-first along with Ethan Hunt at 200mph.
Rogue Nation is at once, a tribute and a progression of the Mission: Impossible franchise. The twisty plot is a direct homage to Brian De Palma’s series opener while the riveting motorbike chase on the highways of Casablanca instantly recalls a similar action scene in John Woo’s subpar M: I-2. Although J.J. Abrams’ third entry doesn’t get explicitly referenced, there’s a wonderful blink and you’ll miss it Easter egg during a prison break. As for Ghost Protocol – the entirety of Rogue Nation feels like an extension of Brad Bird’s feature, from its returning characters, including Benji (Simon Pegg) and Brandt (Jeremy Renner) to its behind-the-scenes crew (cinematographer Robert Elswit and production designer James D. Bissell) to its deft mix of comedy and action. Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
Ghost Protocol ended with Ethan assigned to investigate the Syndicate — a SPECTRE-like organization that served as a recurring adversary on the 60’s television show. As Rogue Nation opens, Ethan is still in search of the group but no one else is convinced they even exist—least of all, CIA Director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin). Hunley—who Brandt reminds us is still pissed over Ethan’s theft of the CIA NOC list from Langley headquarters in the first film—wants the IMF absorbed into the CIA. He’s tired of the IMF’s recklessness and penchant for destruction. He uses the bombing of the Kremlin from Ghost Protocol as an example to cement his case.
As Hunley puts out a warrant for Ethan’s arrest, the latter realizes that he’s also being sought out for elimination by Syndicate leader Solomon Lane (a serpentine Sean Harris). But in order to unmask the shadowy terrorist unit, and prove their existence to the CIA, he’ll need help, and not just that of his IMF team Benji, Brandt and Luther (Ving Rhames) but also of MI6/Syndicate double agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who, like Ethan, is as adept at physical feats as she is with mind games. But can she be trusted? Ferguson, who is the best addition to the series since Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mission: Impossible III, nails the enigmatic nature of the character, constantly making us question her loyalties and motives. It’s an assured breakout performance for the Swedish actress who will undoubtedly find her stock rising after this.
Like its high-spirited predecessor, Rogue Nation’s plot isn’t anything to write home about. It’s formulaic and structured very similarly to the previous films in the franchise. But, as the saying goes, the tale is in the telling. It’s the execution that makes this mission soar. The key to the durability of the Mission: Impossible series has always been producer Cruise’s shrewd selection of filmmakers. De Palma infused the 1996 film with aspects of a Cold War-thriller while Woo brought his over-the-top action sensibilities to the second movie. Abrams cut straight to the heart of Hunt, bringing emotional heft to the franchise, and Bird grounded the outlandishness of the series by emphasizing the comedy while also upping the series’ visual flair.
McQuarrie, who has now worked with Cruise on three of his last four pictures including Edge of Tomorrow and Jack Reacher, borrows heavily from his predecessors but nevertheless adds his trademark touch of twist-filled narratives and knowledge of film history to the mix. The Usual Suspects anyone? An intricate yet highly suspenseful scene in which Ethan has to subdue not one, not two but three assassins during a performance of Puccini’s “Turandot” at a Venice Opera House is a direct homage to the opera scene in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, down to the very note. The writer-director also goes far in proving his worth as a world-class orchestrator of high-throttle action sequences. The airplane sequence deserves all the acclaim it’s receiving but the aforementioned motorcycle chase, a car chase that immediately precedes it, and a literally breathless underwater caper scene are just as impressive.
Still, this is Cruise’s show from start to finish. Pulling off every action sequence with aplomb at the ripe age of 53, the star/producer shames upstarts half his age in the fitness department. He’s faster, more energetic and more determined than ever to entertain his audience. With every entry in the series featuring a crazier stunt than the previous film, I can only wonder what wild stunt he’s going to attempt next. His dedication to the highest quality of action filmmaking ensures that even 20 years later, this is the rare blockbuster franchise that hasn’t lost an iota of its spark.
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Screenwriter: Christopher McQuarrie, Drew Pearce
Cast: Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames, Alec Baldwin
Producer: Tom Cruise, Bryan Burk, David Ellison, J.J. Abrams
Running time: 131 minutes
Companies: Paramount Pictures
Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of action and violence, and brief partial nudity)