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Any review of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation must begin with Tom Cruise because it really is no longer about the story and the intricate details that make it so anymore, it is about Tom Cruise and the sheer mind-boggling things he does in making these films because, as he said to Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show, “I want to entertain you all.” And we thank you, Mr. Cruise. Once again, he has put himself in a spectacularly unimaginable situation and pulled it off. Fallon said to him, “You don’t have to do that,” quipping that there are CGI and dummies for that kind of thing, but that kind of thing is nonsense to Cruise. And he’s right. Even though they could have easily used a computer to model Ethan Hunt on the side of the massive A-400 Airbus for the stunt that opens this film, the fact that we know it’s the Tom Cruise strapped to that aircraft makes a tremendous difference in the viewing experience. In fact, so powerful is this brief moment, it alters the perception of the film’s reality and one doesn’t even think about his character, Ethan Hunt anymore. All we see is Cruise, and him performing more elaborately-staged action pieces while we say to ourselves with a little tingle of euphoria, “Yup, he’s doing that, too.”
The story is convoluted and really disposable. There isn’t a person in the audience even trying to understand the plot that sees the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) answering for the calamities they have caused, most especially from the previous entry Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol that saw the destruction of the Kremlin and some nefarious dealings with a chemical weapons buyer. The head of the CIA (Alec Baldwin) calls for the agency’s disbandment and succeeds, putting Ethan Hunt on the run as he is considered dangerous. As hinted at in Ghost Protocol, and nicely tied back into this film (and an even more subtle callback to Mission Impossible III when Cruise, handcuffed to a steel post, notices that the key is a Rabbit’s Foot), there is a secret organization of operatives causing many international disasters, including government upheavals, airline crashes and more. But no one believes him, so he’s got to track them down and expose them before he himself is either caught or killed.
What does matter is who he meets along the way. Her name is Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) and she is in every way, the female Ethan Hunt. What a joy she is to watch. While the women of the Mission Impossible film series have always been lovely, their roles as agents have been significantly less profiled, with the wonderful exception of Keri Russell in MI:III, who had a short but memorable scene that was about her abilities and not her body. That’s not to say Ilsa isn’t sexualized in some way. She wears a bikini and undresses on camera (a bone of contention for my podcast host who writes about it here). This was easy to overlook for me as both moments felt organic within the story, and we can’t forget that Cruise is shirtless for an extended period as well. But that aside, Ferguson is very good here, as she works for . . . well, that’s the real twist and I dare not reveal it, but she is highly trained and gives the series a real jolt. That the two never are romantically linked or show any amorous affection for each other is a credit to writer/director Christopher McQuarrie who keeps their relationship one of action and suspense. While the two engage in scene after scene of increasingly absurd stunts that defy logic and physics, it somehow feels like the film has transcended itself and crossed over into mythology, a thought reinforced by the film’s acknowledgment of its reputation when at one point, a young agent meets Hunt and says, “So the legends are true.”
The legend has his help, of course. Returning as usual is Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), who has been in the franchise since the beginning, veteran Beji Dunne (Simon Pegg), and William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) the rookie as it were from the last film. The four men are the last of the IMF squad and fill their roles well as prescribed. Brandt is in Washington, now acting as the voice of IMF as it is under fire from the CIA. He joins the team later but sees nearly no action, a far cry from the last installment. Stickell is his same old ornery self with tech skills far beyond anyone in the history of anything (even noting himself that no mortal can do as he does), and is dead loyal to Hunt. And then there’s Benji, who after three films now is still complaining about his incredibly important job and lack of field agent work despite well, as the film begins, literally being in an actual field doing field work. Still, the team is strong and it’s good fun to see such diverse personalities finding solutions together.
But back to Cruise. Since the day when Brian De Palma asked if Cruise could perform the fish tank stunt from the first Mission: Impossible, he has consistently outdone himself with each film, and the thinking now is, has the gimmick become the movie? As I said, I no longer even thought of Ethan Hunt while watching, and the story was really nothing more than a James Bond parody, complete with an eccentric oddball evil-doer hatching plans for world domination. Even the trailers and marketing are about the thrill of the stunts. Even more, like Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the film switched to broader moments of human comedy, with Pegg doing most of the heavy lifting. It works for what it is, but for me, it’s the wrong direction. My favorite in this series is M:I III precisely because it is the darkest. Philip Seymour Hoffman as the bad guy is easily the most convincing of the lot and the film just feels, well, mature. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation feels like a comic book, which isn’t a bad thing entirely and because each film has found its own approach with differing styles, this is what it is. If you’re willing to accept that a man can hold onto the fuselage of an A-400 Airbus as it takes off, then nothing after will surprise. Fortunately, this occurs before the opening titles even happen so it makes you take a stand right from the start. I chose to go with it.
At one point, Hunt finds himself in Vienna at the opera where Puccini’s “Turandot” is being performed for a house of dignitaries, including the Chancellor of Austria. In the rafters and catwalks, another show is taking place where four agents of competing missions are trying to assassinate and prevent the assassination of the Chancellor. What’s important about this beautifully staged action ballet (with hints of Hitchcock) is to remember the opera itself.
Much later, as a continuous game of cat and mouse is played with the Syndicate, the question of just who exactly is Ilsa Faust (Ferguson) and who does she work for remains a constant. She saves Ethan’s life more than once but also sets him up. Her skills in the field are, as mentioned, on par with his, and this leads Hunt to think that whomever she is employed by, her actions are with purpose and therefore he holds no ill-will, only curiosity and respect. When they come face-to-face after a betrayal, they sit and have a talk about their jobs and the actions both have taken leading them to this moment. They’ve not only betrayed each other, but there are other things happening that prove they are also being manipulated by superiors and maybe even the Syndicate itself.
But back to the opera and why this moment speaks to a lot about the tone and message of the film. While they are talking, the score, by Joe Kraemer, is gently drubbing along with familiar themes but also, very subtly, a few key bars of Turandot‘s famous aria, Nessun Dorma. This is significant because the opera is about a prince and princess who spend the length of the show testing each other with deadly riddles trying to outwit the other. It echoes the same for Isla and Ethan, and for anyone who knows the tune and the opera, offers a smile and a knowing nod that the makers totally understand what they are doing, that they are in on the joke, and if we wait, the pay off will be as equally rewarding as Puccini’s epic work. Indeed, that moment does come in a cafe late in the film when these two agents meet again and exchange a silent look that speaks volumes about what they understand about each other. It’s almost perfect.
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Writers: Christopher McQuarrie (screenplay), Christopher McQuarrie (story)
Stars: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Jeremy Renner