We once lived in a cinematic age when pushing a series to five or more installments was a generally unwise move. Rocky V. Friday the 13th: A New Beginning. Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. Superman Returns. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. An unwatchable army of various grade-Z horror also-rans that made it to #5 only through the undiscerning benevolence of the direct-to-VHS market. Many of us remain thankful the producers of Jaws and Lethal Weapon quit while they were behind.
Today, sequel failure is no longer a given. X-Men: Days of Future Past and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix may not be the greatest of either franchise, but they’re nonetheless commendable works that furthered their sagas, asked more of their actors, challenged themselves to create their own unique moments, and validated their existence. They confirmed it can be done. Along that same line of logic comes Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. Any other series built around any other A-list star might be accused of being a soulless cash-grabbing machine if they repeated a role this many times. Maybe not all the parts are brand new, but the ones that worked before shine up really nicely and fit together into interesting new shapes if you know how to tweak them.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Tom Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt, superstar agent of America’s Impossible Missions Force, bringing along some old friends from before to take down an evil organization that threatens to kill lots of spies, turns the US government against Our Heroes, and concocts elaborate plans to retrieve the most important MacGuffin in the world.
Wait, I think I summarized one of the previous films by mistake. My fault.
So Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, and Jeremy Renner are back on board, and they’ve sent an invite to newcomer Rebecca Ferguson, who’s mostly done overseas works and commands more action scenes than those three gents combined. She may or may not be on their side, but offers some assists when it suits her. Or saves the world. Or furthers her evil scheme. Which might be a ruse. But probably isn’t. Unless she really is the enemy. Except when she isn’t. OR ISN’T SHE. In the end, Ferguson more than holds her own as the most ambiguous female lead in the series to date, and the only female in MI:RN with more than five lines.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Snapping at Cruise most of the way is Alec Baldwin as the CIA director who accuses the entire IMF of being a loose cannon that doesn’t play by the rules, a maverick that’s crossed the line too many times, a rabid dog with no respect for authority, et cetera. After so many seasons of 30 Rock it’s a pleasure to see Baldwin back in his dramatic element, even as a glorified angry police captain.
But he’s a frustrated, frustrating distraction from the Big Bad pulling strings behind the scenes. As played by a radically transformed Sean Harris, one of the guys who got killed by his own stupidity in Prometheus, new nemesis Solomon Lane is a creepy, raspy, gawky, bug-eyed, daunting puppeteer who schemes several moves ahead of everyone, who has Act Three sketched out in his head while our man Ethan is still improvising through the prologue. As befitting a sinister master planner, he mostly works through violent proxies, but I wish we’d seen more of him.
Also on site: Tom Hollander from the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies as England’s Prime Minister; Simon McBurney (Stephen Hawking’s dad in The Theory of Everything, and the voice of Kreacher in the Harry Potter series) as the head of MI6; and Jens Hulten, a henchman in Skyfall, as Lane’s chief henchman nicknamed the Bone Doctor, because it’s about time anyone in this series had a super-villain name.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Add MI:RN to the large pile of spy flicks in which the bad guys used to be good spies until they started hating their job or their government or whatever. Maybe I’m seeing all the wrong spy flicks, but considering how many of these conflicts boil down to Spy vs. Ex-Spy, I’m getting the impression that we wouldn’t have so many of these guys masterminding complicated reigns of terror (chiefly targeting other spies as their victims) if espionage had never been invented to train them for it in the first place. MI:RN takes an extra half-step and lays the blame for high turnover in their field on the know-it-all handlers who rule their workplaces with too much amoral gamesmanship. Not that that’s a new thought, nor does it absolve any bad guys of their murders, but in a summer like this one I’ll take any glimmer of nuance I can find.
An early scene sees IMF on trial for the right to continue operating, but its days feel almost justifiably numbered as Baldwin testifies that, viewed from a certain perspective, the team’s successes in the first four films owed more to dumb luck than to actual strategy, protocol, or organized teamwork. To an extent he’s probably got a point. Leave it to Ethan, then, to go out of his way to prove them wrong this time. When the fate of the world in general and these participants in particular is determined in the very end (HUGE SPOILER: the movie doesn’t end with billions massacred), the critical resolution happens specifically, precisely because Ethan’s team makes a plan come together. And it’s far-fetched by just a tad. The merest of tads, really. A tidbit of a tad. A tadbit.
Nitpicking? Remember the good ol’ days of Bond villains, when bad guys who wanted to steal millions first had to build weapons and deathtraps that cost millions to invent, build, and assemble? Now those guys are in data security. One of the most important parts of every MI film is the impregnable computer room, impenetrable walls enclosing thousands of mostly empty square feet, located in the middle of forbidding terrain, with an impassable entrance guarded by trained professionals and 22nd-century technology, all dedicated to the sole objective of housing a storage device about the size or weight of a credit card, a thing that’s naturally unhackable from the outside world and ridiculously tough even for the custodians themselves to use in any practical day-to-day way.
Granted, watching Cruise maneuver around on wires (whether visible or erased) is far more interesting than scenes of Ethan retrieving digital files through furious hacker typing while spouting made-up lingo as written by elderly guys who proudly print out their screenplays and fax them to studios. But it’s amazing how screenwriters have collectively invented a vast array of information protection measures that make all the deathtraps of yesteryear seem so quaint and affordable.
Speaking of recurring MI motifs: the one time someone actually wears a trademark form-altering face mask, I saw it coming because they prefaced the next sequence with one of those not-uncommon lines of dialogue that someone says moments before the good guys pull a fast one over the bad guys. I hesitate to ruin the scene here, but as soon as I heard the line, I knew exactly what was coming. Well, okay, so I knew maybe 90% of what was coming. Once again the film took another half-step after that, but still.
Also, Hawkeye from the Avengers has zero action scenes, unless you count a short term as chauffeur for Ving Rhames. I don’t get it. Was he too sore from filming Age of Ultron?
So what’s to like? The stunts are the main reason to show up. Every trailer has focused on Cruise’s plane-surfing, but that’s just the first ten minutes. My personal favorite was an extended underwater sequence requiring Olympian lung training to counter a Poseidon Adventure swim and arbitrary whirling mechanisms. The crowded streets of Casablanca provide the perfect setting for Bourne-style vehicle chases, as well as an excuse for Cruise to show off his real-life motorcycling skills yet again. The hand-to-hand combat is showy and surprising as usual, particularly whenever Ferguson’s in command. Even Simon Pegg enjoys time away from his laptop to engage in some physical, rough-‘n’-tumble field work in a Vienna opera house, though he’s not quite ready for a title match.
The skeletal framework is standard-issue spies against spies, but the material rises above with dialogue and performances guided by writer/director Christopher McQuarrie. He previously worked with Cruise on Jack Reacher (didn’t see), Valkyrie (better than I expected), and Edge of Tomorrow (a solid A). He also created the short-lived NBC suspense series Persons Unknown, of which my son and I were among its six total fans nationwide. McQuarrie isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, but he’s working with the sturdiest rubber supply around, and gives the treads some fancy new grooves.
And I like that MI:RN finds clever little ways to be smarter than it needs to be. Along with the things mentioned above, so many other moments stick out from the international panorama — the immediate consequences of oxygen deprivation, the Dukes of Hazzard flying leap that doesn’t end well, the snipers’ standoff, the twist on the obligatory “Should you choose to accept” recording, a totally surprising thing about the ending that I can’t blow here but sets it apart from 90% of all other action blockbusters, and so on. Whether or not it transcends the popcorn-flick baseline is debatable, but it’s a pleasure to see a chef who aspires to infuse a dish with more than ordinary salt and butter.
Overall ranking: JJ Abrams’ MI:III is still my favorite, but this one might edge out Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol by a hair. It should definitely age better than the first two have. For a fifth movie in a series, that’s no easy feat.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation end credits, though this is the first movie I’ve ever noticed giving a credit to an “Aerial Microwave Technician”. I’m not sure what that job is in reality, but it sounds like, whenever the cast and crew flew to their next location, he was in charge of nuking the in-flight snacks.