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Josh Reviews Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation!

August 10th, 2015
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Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible series has always been a somewhat weird franchise.  Rather than having tight continuity between films, every film has felt like it’s own unique one-off adventure, usually very driven by the style of the director.  And so it’s been something of a pleasant surprise to see how smoothly the third, fourth, and now fifth films in the series have fit together, and how much creative energy this series still has even in its fifth installment.

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In Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, Ethan Hunt and his team at the IMF (Impossible Missions Force) find themselves beset by adversaries on all sides.  They face an internal political challenge from CIA chief Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), who wants to shut down the IMF.  Meanwhile, Ethan Hunt has been, for months, on the trail of a secret agency known as The Syndicate.  This “anti-IMF” is a cabal of villains aimed at disrupting the global status quo that Hunt and the IMF aim to protect.  Soon Ethan and his handful of friends and allies find themselves all that stands against this terrorist organization.

Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie.  Mr. McQuarrie wrote The Usual Suspects, and he made his directorial debut with Jack Reacher, which also starred Tom Cruise.  I thought that film was a something of a bore (click here for my review, in which I think I was kinder than the film deserved), but I guess second time’s the charm because Rogue Nation is a terrific film, a fast-paced romp that is stuffed full to overflowing with great action and humor and fun, telling a story that is intense and compelling without ever being dour.

The film starts off with a bang, with a whopper of a pre-credits action sequence (see photo above).  This sequence, which involved Tom Cruise actually hanging off the side of a plane in flight, has been hugely promoted in the weeks and months leading up to the film’s release.  What a surprise it was to discover that the whole thing takes place in the very opening minutes of the film!!  Well played, folks.  (This is a nice contrast to the very first Mission: Impossible film, about which I just wrote last week, which spoiled its big action climax in all of its trailers, something I am still sore about to this day.)

The tone is perfect in what I want from a Mission: Impossible film.  There is strong momentum from start-to-finish, as the film moves smoothly from one tremendous action set-piece on to the next.  The action in this film is extraordinary.  There are quite a few spectacular sequences that each might have been the stand-out sequence of another film, but here they are piled one atop the next with apparent glee by the filmmakers.  That opening plane take-off.  The cat-and-mouse game backstage of an opera.  The race through the streets of Morocco.  The motorcycle chase.  The underwater break-in.  And on and on.  Each one of those sequences is clever and unique and intricately well-constructed to allow the audience to always be perfectly aware of the geography of the different characters.  This is something that many action films bungle, but Mr. McQuarrie and his team make it look easy here.

I have really enjoyed that the third and especially the fourth Mission: Impossible films have placed an increasing emphasis on the team surrounding Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt (as opposed to the first two films which were more about Ethan Hunt as a solo super-hero).  That continues to be the case here, and I love it.  I’m thrilled by how Ethan’s new partners introduced in recent films, Benji (Simon Pegg) and Brandt (Jeremy Renner) are key players in this film, combined with Luther (Ving Rhames) who has been popping up in the series ever since the very first film.  (I do miss Ghost Protocols Paula Patton a LOT, and I hope she returns in a future installment.)  In particular, I really adore the friendship the films have developed between Ethan and Benji, playing off of the wonderful chemistry between Tom Cruise & Simon Pegg.  They are a bizarre comedy pair, but it really works, and this film in particular gives the two men a lot of room to play together.

The film provides a tremendous showcase for Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust, a beautiful super-spy whose true loyalties remain a mystery until the third act of the film.  Ms. Ferguson is terrific, able to hold her own in a fight sequence as well as in a dialogue scene with Mr. Cruise.  I’d love to see more of this character in future M:I films, and I look forward to whatever film projects Ms. Ferguson pursues next.

Alec Baldwin is also a fun addition to the ensemble, and I also hope we get to see more of him in a future film.  Just try to ignore (spoiler alert!) that his character has exactly, and I mean exactly, the same story as Ralph Fiennes’ character did in Skyfall.

The Mission: Impossible films have had a habit of being a bit weak in the villain department.  (That was the biggest flaw of the otherwise very-strong Ghost Protocol.)  That is still a little bit of a problem here, though Sean Harris (playing Solomon Lane, the head of the Syndicate) creates a very memorable character.  He’s well-established by the film as a credible threat for Ethan & co. (his brutal shooting of the cute young blonde IMF agent early in the film was quite a surprise to me).  I just wish that Lane had more of a character to play than just “evil guy.”

A trailer for the newest James Bond film, Spectre, played immediately before my screening of Rogue Nation, and it’s interesting to me how this Mission: Impossible film feels like the M:I take on the same idea — that our hero discovers an insidious secret organization of evil-doers, headed by a criminal mastermind, that has been responsible for much of the terror our hero has been combatting.  It’s hardly an original idea, but still, it’s funny to see these two franchises explore such similar ideas at around the same time.  (We’ll see just how similar when Spectre opens at the end of the year.  I expect that Bond film will be more serious than this M:I film, which is appropriate for the two franchises.)

The biggest weakness of Rogue Nation is that — while I stand by my praise of the ingenuity and creativity of the film’s action sequences — it’s over-all story-beats mostly seem very familiar, bits and pieces that we have seen in many movies before.  Our hero discovers a secret villain/organization of villains that no one else believes exists.  This puts our hero at odds with his friends and allies.  Our hero tangles with a woman whose loyalties are in question.  These are very familiar tropes, and I can’t say that this film puts much of a spin on any of those ideas.  Heck, are we supposed to forget that the very last Mission: Impossible film, Ghost Protocol, had pretty much the EXACT SAME story as this one about the IMF being disbanded???  That’s fairly lazy story-telling.

Rogue Nation has a fairly inconsistent approach to continuity.  On the one hand, this film has by far the tightest continuity with previous films than this series has ever had before.  We get references not only to the climactic events of Ghost Protocol (with the death of the Secretary in that film being an important plot point in this film), but all the way back to Ethan’s break-in of Langley from the very first film!!  I loved that.  It’s fun to see the disparate threads of this series being woven together.

On the other hand, we’re clearly supposed to forget that the IMF was already dissolved in the last film, and I was also unclear whether the film wanted us to remember or forget that Ethan Hunt is married.  (To Michelle Monaghan’s character, introduced in M:I-III and briefly glimpsed at the end of Ghost Protocol.)  She is conspicuously never mentioned in this film.  Throughout all of Ethan’s low-level flirtations with Ilsa, I kept wondering whether the film was going to address Ethan’s marriage or not.  They chose not to, I guess feeling that it would be a distraction from the Ethan-Ilsa story in this film.  I can see how that would enable this film to stand more on its own for any newbies in the audience, but considering that this film otherwise seems to embrace the continuity of the series, it’s a strange choice.

Other thoughts:

I don’t understand the title.  The phrase “Rogue Nation” leads me to think of a country standing outside the general world order and threatening its neighbors, not a secret criminal organization.  Calling the Syndicate a “Rogue Nation” seems way off to me.  I don’t get it.

I love the IMF tech in this film.  It’s got a nice “low-level” feel.  I love the key that can open any lock.  I love the use of a vinyl record to pass info.  (And I loved the return of the “your mission, should you choose to accept it” line.)

I feel I need to lavish more praise on the tense, lengthy opera hunt and fight sequence.  What a great piece of suspense.  Loved every second of it.  I also loved the homage to Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.

I liked that there were a number of scenes in which a member of Hunt’s team (usually Brandt) challenges him on his lone-wolf actions.  On the other hand, I didn’t like that Hunt, and the movie, never seem to be able to answer those questions.  Those scenes are always left dangling, frustratingly unresolved.  (This might have been a conscious choice so that we’d wonder if Brandt had betrayed Ethan in the third act, but come on.  I would have rather gotten to see the scene in which Ethan is able to convince Brandt to continue to stand by his side.  It’s bizarre and somewhat frustrating for that critical moment to have occurred off-screen.)

I also wish we’d gotten more of a sense of the Syndicate as a vast criminal organization, rather than just Lane and a few henchmen.

I absolutely love the score of this film by Joe Kraemer.  It’s dynamite, fun and fast-paced, and it makes excellent use of the classic Mission: Impossible theme.  I also love how, in the second half of the film, Mr. Kraemer occasionally quotes from the opera Turandot (which is the opera happening during Ethan & Ilsa’s back-stage fight), particularly to underline an Ethan-Ilsa moment.  Lovely.

Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation is a hugely fun film, an extremely well-made piece of work.  I am loving how alive this series is, twenty years into it, and I can’t wait for the next one.

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