Maximum Tom Cruise
Thus far, each entry in the Mission Impossible series has felt like the distinct brainchild of its director: Brian DePalma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird respectively. Their trademarks can be found stamped on every scene and every memorable moment, with Tom Cruise’s battle against global terrorism being the vessel for their take on the spy genre. Enter Christopher McQuarrie, a man with less experience as a director than the rest, but more experience working with Tom Cruise. He co-wrote Edge of Tomorrow and Valkyrie, and his first directorial effort in over a decade, Jack Reacher, starred Cruise in the lead role. If there’s one thing the series is known for more than letting directors work their magic (much, much more in fact), it’s Tom Cruise and his star power.
The age of the leading man is on its way out. Apart from Leonardo DiCaprio, Cruise feels like the only remaining male box office certainty (even Robert Downey Jr. has a tough time without his armour), and it’s not just because of his charm, his good looks and his ability to run in a straight line, although those are all certainly factors. No, ever since the last entry in the series, part of his allure as an action star has been what he’s willing to do for the role. In Ghost Protocol, it was swinging from the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. This time, the A-lister (pictured above) takes it a step further and hangs off the side of an airplane (also pictured above), a stunt he performed on his own and an image that sold most of us on the movie. Surely that must be the high point, yes? How could a movie possibly get any better and crazier than that? Well, considering that’s just the opening scene, and the rest of it still manages to be a hell of a wild ride, I’d say anything’s possible when you’ve got Tom Cruise’s name above the title, and the series is now also completely awarene of that fact. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is a movie that beats him down, kills him, brings him back to life, and then props him right back up on the pedestal we’re used to seeing him on, the one where he’s stood for almost three decades as we’ve worshipped him, despite all the, uh…. cult stuff. It’s a movie that takes full advantage of the fact that we adore Tom Cruise, as a presence and as an action hero, to the point that it even attempts to work his implicit plot armour into the text, and it works wonders!
Our team is back at it again, swapping out Paula Patton from the last movie in favour of a returned Ving Rhames (her absence is the only real downside), as the story picks up a year after the events of the last film. Ethan Hunt is still chasing leads in the hopes of finding The Syndicate, a shadow organization comprising former government agents that aren’t supposed to exist anymore. They gain the upper hand early on, and Ethan once again finds himself on the run from not only the bad guys, but from the good guys too. This time it’s the CIA, since they finally managed to shut down the IMF, and the closest thing Ethan has to an ally in the field is one Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a former British intelligence agent who’s apparently gone rogue, and seems to be carrying out the orders of the sinister Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), a presumed-dead MI6 operative causing global catastrophes in order to bring down the entire spy system. Essentially, he’s undoing the very mechanics that allow these films to exist, and Cruise is having none of it!
The series is and always has been supremely set-piece focused, and this film was never going to top Ghost Protocol in that regard, so it doesn’t try and go bigger. Instead, it goes smaller, more personal, and way, way more complicated. Ethan follows Lane to an opera in Vienna, where he and Benji have to simultaneously track the sinister terrorist, while also attempting to stop the assassination of the Chancellor of Austria by not one, but three of his gunmen at three different vantage points inside the theatre, and they have to figure out a way to pull off that juggling act while also being discreet. One of the gunmen happens to be the afforementioned Ilsa Faust, who already helped Ethan escape from the Syndicate, but whose loyalties are still extremely murky. For most of the film, she comes within a hair of stealing the entire franchise away from Cruise the way Furiosa did from Max Rocktansky this summer, and the duo keeps having to alternate between partnering up and fighting each other off in order to get a hold of this film’s MacGuffin: a flash-drive containing information that would allow Lane access to $20billion worth of untraceable finding in order to bring down every agency in the world. The death of the spy genre as we know it! And Ethan’s ideas to stop him grow so complicated and flat-out ridiculous at every turn that even his teammates start to look at him skeptically.
The global adventure trademark where someone mentions the country they’re about to go to before we immediately cut to it, accompanied by region-specific music, is soon replaced by looks of doubt and confusion before the film jumps to the next step of the plan anyway. Because no matter what’s going on, Ethan is dragging his team into the worst possible situation, but perhaps justifiably so. Because at every turn, it seems to be the only available option, as the film sends the remaining IMF agents into underwater data chambers, and right in the middle of more triple-crossing masked hijinks, not to mention a stellar four-way car & bike chase on the outskirts of Casablanca. There even comes a point where once the plot is being unraveled, somebody makes a statement about how Ethan Hunt is “the manifestation of destiny itself,” capable of overcoming any obstacle in order to survive or extract information. The image this first brings to mind is one of supernatural ability, but within the context of the film, it simply boils down to Ethan being not only the most capable super-spy on the planet, but somebody who’s willing to take any risk, drag his crew into any situation, and surround himself with people who have his back when things start to get nasty. Just like Tom Cruise. Ethan Hunt can’t die because he won’t die, and it’s the damnedest combination of will, dumb luck, and friends who can pretty much do all the stuff he can do.
It reads like a cheap ploy to allow for over-the-top set pieces, but it doesn’t once think of going that route after it’s revealed itself. In fact, even before it’s brought up, Ethan messes up constantly. He and his crew have been messing up in high stakes situations for 20 years now! But that’s exactly where the fun of the Mission: Impossible series lies. Watching these characters get themselves into situations that even they are barely capable of handling, and still coming out of it on top. It’s the implicit conceit of all action movie laid bare, and then the film has the audacity to subvert it completely by concocting a climax in which the villain, who’s always been a step ahead, puts Ethan in a situation which he simply cannot walk away from no matter how capable he is. His options involve being shot dead or being blown up depending on what course of action he chooses, and he STILL manages to get himself out of this situation. How? Not by fighting his way out of it, although that he most certainly does, but by flipping the tables on the villain and turning himself into the MacGuffin. Every trace of the information that Lane needs has been destroyed, and Ethan is the only person who knows it all. Suddenly, the climax is centered around keeping Ethan alive amidst all the chaos. Not only that, instead of leading the charge, he lets Ilsa take control of the firepower while protecting her from Lane’s henchmen. They can’t shoot to kill him, and he’s now become a literal plot armour.
In short, Ethan Hunt is the most important person in the world. Because he’s going to save it, because the villain needs him alive in order to put it in danger, and quite simply, because he’s Tom Cruise. Somehow, the film manages to have its cake and eat it too, and it leaves a cup of leftover frosting for afterwards, as Cruise becomes he embodiment of the action movie itself.
It’s a smart movie parading as a dumb movie, one in which Ethan is made to seem completely and utterly insane, in a way that could only result in the kind of ballistic mayhem that makes Mission: Impossible fun. Every actor brings their absolute best to the table, and a couple of them even get to switch hats for a bit. Simon Pegg displays the kind of gravitas he’s rarely afforded in big movies, and Jeremy Renner gets to be the occasional comic relief. McQuarrie’s camera is unflinching, yielding coherent action that’s equal parts fun and exhilarating, and Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson carry the whole damn thing on their shoulders. It’d be a shame if we had to wait another four years for the next one, but it’s a good thing Rogue Nation gets to be this summer’s grand finale.