Tom Cruise has been on a hot streak lately, and for unusual reasons. Unlike most actors, even those on the A-list, Cruise enjoys unparalleled control over the movies he makes. He does not direct them, but as a producer, he can choose directors, screenwriters, and high-level creative decisions (the only other actor who had such power was Schwarzenegger at his peak). Cruise commits to entertainment through sheer spectacle – namely, his recent stunt work – so I can only imagine that the rest of his team must meet that standard. Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation features Cruise in peak form, both in terms of star power and as a physical specimen, and it also happens to be a terrific thriller.
The early press for Rogue Nation highlights a daring sequence where superspy Ethan Hunt (Cruise) clings to an airplane as it takes off. This is the film’s opening, a Bond-esque set-piece that functions like a standalone trailer, not part of the movie. Cruise and writer/director Christopher McQuarrie, who previously collaborated on Valkyrie and Jack Reacher, have the bravado to open the film with most dangerous thing we’ll see. The rest of Rogue Nation unfolds at a breakneck pace, with same visual flair and comic timing, so the real surprise is how McQuarrie transitions from spectacular to genuine suspense.
Hunt’s enemy is “The Syndicate,” a group of disavowed, presumed dead spies who subvert the international status quo through a series of terror attacks. The Syndicate has no trouble capturing Hunt, yet he escapes with the help of a mysterious woman (Rebecca Ferguson) who plays both sides. Back in DC, the CIA Director (Alec Baldwin) ends the IMF program, and since Hunt won’t stop his search, he’s now a fugitive. Hunt recruits ex-IMF agent Benji (Simon Pegg) to help him find the Syndicate leader (Sean Harris) at the Vienna Opera House, and the conflation of several spy organizations is a disaster. Reeling from the Syndicate’s victory, Hunt and Benji chase the Syndicate through Morocco and back to London, and they’re never quite sure whether they can trust the woman who wants to help them.
Every Mission Impossible film has been an opportunity for the director to indulge in their preferred kind of visual storytelling, whether it’s Brian DePalma’s career-long Hitchcock riff or John Woo’s operatic approach to action choreography. McQuarrie does not have the same visual fetishes, yet he’s a workmanlike director who is comfortable with several different modes. There is a terrific high-speed motorcycle chase, one where Cruise’s knee nearly touches the pavement during sharp turns. There’s the big high-tech set-piece, and this time it involves Hunt spending three minutes in a large underwater hard drive (my favorite dialogue is the shamelessly expository stuff where secondary characters breathlessly explain the high level of danger). Still, the best sequence in Rogue Nation happens at the Opera. McQuarrie borrows from DePalma (and Hitchcock by extension), so hair-trigger decision accompanies the low-tech danger. Also, the use of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” creates a level of drama/camp that would make DePalma smile.
At this point, Ethan Hunt is barely a character and more an extension of Cruise’s personality. Mission Impossible III – my personal favorite – made an attempt to give Hunt a personal life, and they wisely dispatched her in the next film. Now Hunt is a pure avatar for Cruise, and nothing matters more than the next chase, the next play, the next kill. This is not a meta-narrative like the recent James Bond films; instead, Cruise/Hunt raise the stakes so that we care for Hunt simply because we know he’s right, and he puts himself in danger. Hunt also cares for his friends, including franchise stalwart Luther (Ving Rhames), so there’s a personal touch to the espionage. The supporting actors, notably Ferguson’s badass double agent, have one-liners and moments of exasperation with Ethan, as if McQuarrie/Cruise are too single-minded in their pursuit of entertainment. When they do slow down, unsurprisingly, their film becomes much more involving.
The Opera sequence may be an action highlight, yet the remarkable film about Rogue Nation is how it improves upon previous franchise entries by keeping the suspense high right up until the end. There is a lot of plot-driven dialogue in the climax, most of it based around tense hostage negotiations, and the surprising thing is how convincing, even serious, it sounds. There’s an existential streak to Rogue Nation that we might expect in a John le Carré adaptation, not here: these spies deal with nonstop betrayal, both on a personal level and from their country, so the meat of the plot is how this betrayal is a catalyst for revealing their true natures. Hunt’s arc is always righteous, so it’s the secondary characters/villains who deal with doubt and self-loathing. For about twenty minutes, anyway, McQuarrie links suspense with character development, and Rogue Nation unfolds without much chance to breathe.
At the screening of Rogue Nation I attended, a young man around age 18 sat next to me. He would quietly comment on all the “big hits” in the movie, saying stuff like “Oh shit!” to no one in particular or his friend next to him. It wasn’t a distraction at all: he was clearly enjoying the movie, and kept his voice down. By the time Cruise and McQuarrie got to their breathless climax, the young man’s demeanor changed. He didn’t make a sound; he leaned forward instead, hands over his mouth, in complete anticipation over what might happen next. What he experienced is exactly what I love about the movies: it makes us forget we’re in a dark room, so that we’re wholly immersed through the quality of the filmmaking, not cheap gimmicks. Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation is a reminder of what summer blockbusters can accomplish at their best.