Talking about a film’s marketing is possibly a weird way to start off a review, but perhaps apropos for a thrill-based, episodic franchise that has no end in sight. Recent one-sheet posters celebrating the “Mission: Impossible‘ series touted the memorable stunts that have marked each episode: ‘Ghost Protocol,’ defined by its harrowing Dubai-set, Burj Khalifa sequence; Brian DePalma’s inaugural installment delivered its tense wire/robbery scene; and, of course, the “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” poster trumpets the airplane sequences that audiences haven’t yet seen in full (but have been featured heavily in the film’s advertising), while declaring itself a new classic you will love and remember fondly. Perhaps this sums up the ‘Mission: Impossible’ series best: a spectacle of enjoyable stunt sequences that are unquestionably for the ages. But the stories, the characters — what drives their motivations? Well, those elements are fairly forgettable in pretty much every series entry.
Trying to discern the ridiculous plots of ‘Mission Impossible’ movies is a fool’s errand, but generally they are about Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and the IMF (Impossible Missions Force) being disavowed by the government, going rogue, ghosting themselves off the grid, trying to stop superpower terrorists, saving the day, and being reinstated into the good graces of the powers that be. And ‘Rogue Nation’ follows this formula to a tee, including the often convoluted, overly elaborate heist trope that defines each film.
After the opening credits (which nod to the television series, but also amusingly acts as yet another trailer for what you’re about to see), episode five centers on The Syndicate, a shadowy anti-IMF organization who get the drop on Ethan Hunt early on in the picture and, through many calculating deceptions and deceits, manipulate him and his IMF team to pull off a grand heist so one of their members won’t die. The complex scheme involves kidnapping the Prime Minister of England (for the greater good of course), a sexy, swim-suit-ready MI6 double agent playing both sides (Rebecca Ferguson), and lots of lots of set pieces.
What’s more apparent than in any ‘Mission: Impossible’ film is how ‘Rogue Nation’ is led by and stitched together via its stunts: Ethan Hunt jumping on the side of a plane, an intricate assassination at the opera, a complicated underwater set-piece, a death-defying motorcycle chase, and more. It’s as if each one of these (admittedly terrific) sequences are the tent pole delineators of each act and the plot is then reverse-engineered to connect all the action dots. Strangely enough, it all works fairly successfully, but it’s slightly depressing to be able to see the framework so transparently. Of course, almost none of these sequences are of much consequence either; they’re a bit like Road Runner ACME moments, and when the dust settles everyone is up and at it again plotting the next action beat.
When those pesky plot elements get out of the way, there are some extremely well-crafted, clean, and deftly edited action sequences that are fantastically shot by DP Robert Elswit (“Nightcrawler,” “There Will Be Blood”) and awesomely staged and orchestrated by writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (perhaps best know for the Oscar-winning “The Usual Suspects” script). It’s amazing to remember that McQuarrie was in director’s jail (his words) for over a decade and that three years ago he was mounting the fairly banal, ‘70s inspired tough-guy film “Jack Reacher.” Cruise has put an inordinate amount of faith in McQuairre over the years — he wrote “Valkyrie” and script-doctored and tailored many scripts to Cruise’s specifications (many of which Cruise decided to ultimately not make), and the results of been decidedly mixed — but, much like Ethan Hunt’s powers of predestination, it seems as if Cruise knew what he was doing as McQuarrie slam dunks the execution of what is really a preposterously written movie (even for the preposterous ‘Mission: Impossible’ series).
It’s funny to think Jeremy Renner was once pegged to take over the ‘Mission: Impossible series post Cruise’s public, Oprah-couch meltdown in 2006. Nothing could be further than that once-outdated plan, as Renner is deeply sidelined in ‘Rogue Nation,’ playing mostly a well-dressed, bureaucratic role as the liaison between the IMF and Alec Baldwin’s easily-agitated CIA director (Baldwin, of course, being militantly anti-IMF early on in the picture with great blustery rhetoric, only to naturally change his mind in the last act when Hunt saves the day).
Oh, but what’s that about precognitive powers? One of the more delightfully absurd recurring motifs of ‘Rogue Nation’ is how it basically frames Ethan Hunt as a telepathic superhero. Described as an irresponsible gambler several times in the movie, by friend, foe, and everyone in between (in case you didn’t get it the first three times), Hunt shows everyone just how many chess moves he is ahead of the rest of the world as the manifest destiny incarnate. ‘Rogue Nation’ stops just short of revealing that Hunt can see into the future.
In fact, the deliciously silly ending is essentially Hunt facing off against a Syndicate baddie — he himself seemingly possessing even greater perceptive fortune-telling powers — and forcing the super spy into a Kobayashi Maru corner. It basically ends with Hunt outmaneuvering, pulling an ace out of his premonition sleeve, and yelling, “Infinity!” much to the shock and dismay of the antagonist.
A classic sentiment in movie criticism gaining traction lately is the “do not turn off your brain” maxim. But arguably the crucial key for maximum ‘Rogue Nation’ enjoyment is doing exactly that, because otherwise you’re forced to reckon with a narrative that holds little water (and is fairly silly). In this case, for once, that’s largely ok. The plot is really beside the point; any twists or conceits are pleasurably ludicrous, and ‘Rogue Nation’ possesses a self-aware sense of humor. As far as very entertaining (though inessential) blockbuster filmmaking goes, with outrageously outlandish feats, and over-the-top thrills, ‘Rogue Nation’ is probably the summer film to beat. Ultimately, as inconsequential as it all is, ‘Rogue Nation’ is not pretending to be anything it isn’t. And as a sensory escapist experience with laughs, pleasures, and excitement, ‘Rogue Nation’ will likely be a most satisfying mission audiences choose to accept repeatedly. [B]