While my familiarity with the television series is admittedly meager, the consistently Tom Cruise-led Mission: Impossible film entries have played like minor American efforts at aping the formula that made James Bond a success. Generally, they lack the iconic imagery of 007's finest efforts, while never really being able to hit the same critical appeal of the Bourne series (the Matt Damon installments anyway). It's a set of films where I have a hard time remembering anything that happened in the previous installment, which is insane given the pedigree of filmmaker that's been behind the camera throughout. Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, and Brad Bird have all taken a turn at the adventures of Ethan Hunt and have produced, by most accounts, competent spy thrillers, with the Bird entry being the best of the lot. But I never find myself itching to want to pull out a Mission: Impossible film as pleasure viewing, something just never clicks with me.
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation doesn't do a lot to change that mindset, but it's an impressively fun ride while you're watching it.
Instead of taking the auteur approach this time around, Cruise and the team behind the series enlisted screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, with whom Cruise collaborated with on the painfully bland Jack Reacher, for behind the camera duties. The end result leaves a lot of the stylistic flourishes at the door and trades them in for cleanly shot and exciting action set-pieces and straight-forward, if overly wordy, scheming/exposition sequences.
The plot on hand is what you expect for this kind of affair, the government, thanks to a witchhunt led by CIA Director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) is at odds with the IMF due to what they see as a reckless set of actions in order to get results. Despite the best efforts of the ever resourceful William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), the department is decommissioned and Hunt is driven underground thanks to a newly minted CIA Most Wanted status. At the same time, Hunt is attempting to prove the existence of The Syndicate, an international criminal consortium of rogue agents and assassins led by the mysterious Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), whose aims are pitched somewhere around that of the real world ISIS, but without the religious fervor.
In order to save the day, Hunt secretly recruits his team from Ghost Protocol, including computer expert Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), the aforementioned Brandt, and Hunt's closest confidant Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames). Sadly, Paula Patton's Jane Carter does not make the return trip, but she's effectively replaced by newcomer to the series, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a double-agent who functions as the film's co-lead.
There's always been a bit of a metafictional aspect to the series, with each entry having an eerie reflection of Cruise's own career status or personal life on display in some form. Rogue Nation is no different, with the driven underground Hunt somewhat functioning as a representation of the public perception of Cruise himself. Hunt's mission almost seems two-fold in that regard: take down the Syndicate on-screen and prove that Cruise "still has it" as an action star to audiences. Granted, those of us that saw last year's excellent Edge of Tomorrow already knew the latter part was true, but given how criminally underseen that film was, a repeat visit to this theme isn't unwarranted. Both missions are successes for the most part, with Cruise kicking ass and hanging off airplanes with the best of them. We often forget just how talented a performer he actually is, given his larger than life off-screen persona, but it's nice to get this reminder.
What Rogue Nation does best is pull together some really exciting action sequences. From a scene where Hunt has to hold his breath underwater for 3 minutes to a showstopping bit that takes place in the Vienna State Opera to a great motorcycle chase that you've probably seen in the onslaught of advertising for the film (think of Cruise in that awful red shiny button-up), McQuarrie knows just what audiences want with a film like this. He does a superb job roping Faust into the action as well, painting her as effective a physical threat as Hunt, but never coming so close as to pair them up romantically. Cruise and Ferguson don't really have the best chemistry anyway, so McQuarrie cleverly avoids that trap altogether, and in turn puts Ferguson in a position where this could be her major star-turn. In a year where there's been a lot of justified focus on representation of women in action franchises, it's telling that two of the better big budget offerings of the year (Mad Max: Fury Road and this one) present their female leads as fully-formed protagonists that share the spotlight with, but aren't dependent on, their male co-stars. It's a refreshing trend to see in practice finally.
Beyond the kicking, punching, and gunplay, the film's thrills evaporate a bit. Every other scene that acts as connective tissue between its better, pulse-pounding moments are just that, obligatory bits that explain away the plot but necessarily provide compelling enough personal stakes for anyone but the faithful to really care much. Again, given what this film is designed for, that's generally fine. To that end, I wouldn't have minded a somewhat more convincing reason for Hunt's obsessive search for Lane beyond the one that's given (it ends up being more "tell than show"). Lane is basically a "paper tiger", another in the long line of bad guys of this franchise that I will once again forget in about a weeks time. Additionally, if I said my eyes didn't glaze over a bit during scenes where various infiltration plans are explained and then re-explained, I'd be lying.
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation works terrifically in what it's best at, a globe-trotting adventure that focuses on the hard-hitting (literally) aspects of spy play. When it strays from those elements, it becomes something much more ordinary and less interesting, luckily those instances are minimized as much as possible. It's a film that lacks the immaculate polish of something like Skyfall, but if ludicrously convincing face-masks and flute sniper rifles are what you're craving, you will not be disappointed, regardless of how fleeting its charms are.