In a world of eternal movie franchises that are plotted out to stretch out little bits of story across years (if not decades), and where even James Bond has become needlessly serialized, the Mission: Impossible movies have emerged as the most valuable and enjoyable alternative to an endless parade of generic, low-stakes entertainment.
The secret to the franchise’s success? Tom Cruise. In the most literal and public way, because Mission: Impossible was Tom Cruise’s pet project all along. It was Cruise’s first movie as a producer, and it was personally cultivated to be his trademark action franchise. As such, the Mission: Impossible movies seem to have come out at key moments in which Cruise’s star-power seemed to have been in decline, as if they were there to remind us that he is still a valuable screen presence.
On a not so obvious way, Cruise has helped his franchise by virtue of being Tom Cruise. Not only as far as performance and charisma are concerned (although that plays a part too), but by having an undeniable interest in strong directorial visions. Throughout his career, Cruise has worked with such high-caliber auteurs as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Stanley Kubrick. When it came to finding a director for the first Mission: Impossible movie, he got Brian De Palma. The second entry in the franchise was directed by no less an action movie legend as John Woo, and the third by rising television auteur J.J. Abrams. Each of those movies -whether flawed of not- are showered in those auteur’s thematic and aesthetics interests.
Starting with the fourth entry, which was directed by Brad Bird, but showed relatively little of his auteurist tendencies except for his ability to stage incredible action sequences, the Mission: Impossible movies have become exactly that: a showcase for amazing set pieces directed by highly capable directors. In the case of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, this means Christopher McQuarrie, Oscar-winning writer of The Usual Suspects, who has recently reinvented himself as a frequent Cruise collaborator.
Most of the publicity for Rogue Nation has -rather exhaustingly- focused on the hanging-by-a-plane death-defying stunt that only a person as insane and insanely committed as Cruise could have possibly agreed to perform, but that sequence is only the movie’s cold opening. So, yes, one of the movie’s most impressive feats is not the stunt, but the fact that it doesn’t result in the movie peaking in its first five minutes. And while none of the subsequent action sequences are quite as “impressive” as the plane bit, they are nevertheless some of the very best sequences we’ve gotten all year.
Not to beat the Marvel punching bag yet again, but its movies do seem to be the standard for blockbuster filmmaking right now… In any case, nothing I’ve seen in any Marvel movie comes close to being as tense as this movie’s underwater espionage sequence, or as thrilling as the motorcycle chase sequence that follows. And even then, neither of those fantastic sequences are as perfectly executed and nail-biting as a brilliant set piece that takes place as the Vienna Opera House. In terms of invention, the sequences are not exactly iconoclastic, but their execution is on a level that I wish wasn’t as rare as it is nowadays.
Flawless execution seems to be the M.O. for Mission: Impossible as a franchise. After all, the plot of most of the movies in the franchise can be easily interchanged, and is rarely what you remember once the movie is over. These are slight entertainments, but they do adhere to a certain strict level of craftsmanship (especially in latter years). In this one, for example, McQuarrie (who also wrote the screenplay) toys with the idea of a post-Snowden spy movie, raising certain questions about whether we are right to trust our intelligence agencies. He doesn’t go as far as to turn the CIA and the U.S. government as the villains, but he flirts with the idea, and puts the British government in a rather unfavorable position.
Speaking of British government, let’s talk about the movie’s biggest asset outside of the action sequences. British actress Rebecca Ferguson plays the lead female role, and ends a streak of weak and unmemorable female characters in Mission: Impossible movies that was, frankly, my biggest objection to the franchise before watching this movie. She is Ilsa Faust, a double (or triple? or quadruple? It’s complicated) agent that crosses paths with Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, and has far and away the most involving and interesting character arc in the whole film.
It helps, of course, that Ferguson proves herself an invaluable blockbuster performer. She is a surprisingly strong physical performer, running, punching, and kicking ass with the perfect posture and delicacy. The way she positions herself in front of the camera harkens back to the days in which spy movies (and tv shows) were just starting, and the silhouette of a sexy lady was one of the staples of the genre. She also harkens back to a past era in her emotional moments -with a good chunk of the movie taking place in Casablanca and her name reminding us of the classic Ingrid Bergman character- she feels as much of a movie-star as Cruise even though I had never seen her on screen before.
While her character is not quite as instantly iconic as Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, Ferguson, like that fierce Imperator, ends up being the driving force of a movie that was sold on the appeal of the lead male character. On that note, as far as this year’s action movies go, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is only second to Mad Max: Fury Road – considering the latter is one of the most insane and extreme action rides ever put on film, I intend this sentence as very high praise.
Grade: 8 out of 10