Back in 1996, Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible was just another entry in a seemingly never-ending wave of Hollywood big-screen remakes of '60s and '70s television shows. As good as it was, I never imagined at the time that it would be the start of such a venerable franchise and the cornerstone of Tom Cruise's late career (no such luck for Lost in Space, The Mod Squad, or The Saint, all of which followed). Yet, here we are, two decades later, with the fifth installment, Christopher McQuarrie's Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation, which builds nicely on the previous installment, Brad Bird's franchise-resuscitating Ghost Protocol (2012).
The film is again headlined by Cruise's Ethan Hunt, the lead agent of the IMF (Impossible Missions Force), although one of the film's primary strengths is the way it spreads the wealth evenly, giving all the major characters plenty of screen time and narrative emphasis. There are, of course, a number of familiar returning faces, including computer genius and all-around comic relief Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), IMF head William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), and stalwart mainstay Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), the only other character besides Ethan who has appeared in every film. The primary new addition is Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a double (or maybe triple or quadruple) agent who is working for MI-6 to infiltrate the Syndicate, a complex terrorist organization responsible for all manner of destabilizing disasters. Or is she? Ilsa's true loyalties are a huge question mark throughout the movie, which makes her relationship with Ethan particularly fraught. Ilsa is very close to Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the Syndicate's ruthless leader, which makes her a particularly important asset for Ethan, even as she continually refuses to play by his rules. Ethan's mission is further complicated by the fact that he is a fugitive from his own country since Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), the head of the CIA, convinces Congress to dissolve the IMF at the beginning of the film.
That's a lot of narrative juggling, but McQuarrie's screenplay (from a story he concocted with Iron Man 3's Drew Pearce) deftly keeps all the balls in the air. This is only the third directorial effort for McQuarrie, who won an Oscar for writing Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects (1995) and previously worked with Cruise on the underrated Jack Reacher (2013), but he manages the action with style and aplomb. The film has a definite sleekness to it, but McQuarrie reserves just enough grit to keep it from looking and feeling like a cartoon (he probably had nothing to do with it, but the film's one-sheet is a nice graphic throwback to hand-drawn '70s movie posters). Unlike the Fast and the Furious films, with which it shares a number of qualities (including the family-like connection among recurring characters operating outside the law to preserve it), Rogue Nation maintains the franchise's style by not slipping into absolute cartoonishness, partially because the films embrace the raw power of stuntwork.
Each film boasts some kind of outlandish moment of real-life derring-do in which Cruise appears to risk life and limb, and Rogue Nation gets right down to brass tacks by putting the money shot of Cruise hanging on the side of a Russian cargo plane as it takes off in the film's opening sequence. It's a daring conceit to put the biggest moment up front, since that risks everything that follows being a letdown, but that's hardly the case. There is nothing else in the film quite that in-your-face outlandish, but the subsequent action setpieces are nothing to sneeze at, either: a high-speed motorcycle chase through the North African desert, an escape from a torture dungeon in London, a thwarted assassination attempt high above the stage of an opera in Vienna, and, of course, a signature "impossible" mission that involves Cruise diving into an underwater abyss and having to hold his breath while swapping out a computer card that will allow his team to steal a crucial list prized by the Syndicate.
At 53, Cruise is still as lithe and hungry as ever, and his age actually enhances the film, suggesting that Ethan, wily and determined as he is, still needs help to get the job done (there is a comical and touching moment in which Benji dramatically insists that he join Ethan on his mission, a point that Ethan almost immediately concedes). His relationship with Ilsa and her undetermined loyalties gives the film a nice undercurrent, one that is sustained by suspense and tension, rather than compulsory romance. There is definitely heat between Cruise and Ferguson, but McQuarrie downplays it nicely, leaving us wanting more. Given the strength of the last two Mission: Impossible films and the purposefully open-ended nature of Rogue Nation's conclusion, there is little doubt that there are more missions to come, and one can only hope that Cruise will continue recruiting good talent in keeping this franchise humming.
Copyright 2018 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (3)
Get a daily dose of Los Angeles Herald news through our daily email, its complimentary and keeps you fully up to date with world and business news as well.