world-building and synthesis—of movies meshing with TV and of Batman battling Superman—these films are largely self-contained, eschewing continuity in favor of methodical reinvention and authorial vision. (Each installment has been helmed by a new director.) Models of energy, style, and craft, the Mission: Impossible movies don't care about building a world; they just want to astonish an audience.
And does Rogue Nation ever do that. The fifth and flashiest entry in the Mission: Impossible series, Rogue Nation
is a fleet and exhilarating affair, dazzling viewers with gripping
stunt work and expertly conceived set pieces. To complain that it
elevates action over story is to miss the point. Here, the action is
the story. Each crackerjack chase sequence, each audacious stunt, each
close-quarters combat scene—all are executed with the rigor and
thoughtfulness typically reserved for screenwriting. When two men in
this movie trade blows while cartwheeling along a rafter beam hundreds
of feet in the air, you aren't just taking in an obligatory fight scene.
You're watching art.
Of course, there can be no art without muses, and there would be no Mission: Impossible without Tom Cruise. Still wielding a high-wattage smile and a disarming directness, and as fit as when he dangled precariously from the CIA's ceiling
for Brian De Palma nineteen years ago, Cruise's no-frills technique and
glinting charm is what makes this franchise run (and run, and run).
Well, that, and his insistence on performing most of own stunts, a level
of dedication that borders on fanaticism. If you have browsed the
Internet at any point in the past several months, you have likely
learned that, to shoot Rogue Nation's opening sequence, Cruise voluntarily clung to an airplane during its flight, and that he did so for eight different takes. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Rogue Nation is that this death-defying achievement is far from the most impressive moment in the movie.
He also gets himself kidnapped, and lucky for us, since it puts him on a
literal collision course with Ilsa Faust, a slinky number played with
verve and poise by Rebecca Ferguson (buy stock while you can). Exactly
who Rebecca works for isn't initially clear, and the picture only grows
cloudier as Rogue Nation progresses. Is she a loyal undercover
officer of MI6, a sinister traitor serving the Syndicate, or both? I'm
not entirely sure, but it doesn't much matter, as the convoluted plot is
really just a reason for Cruise and Ferguson to light up the screen
together. As the Mission: Impossible sequels have progressed,
they have grown increasingly disinterested in romance (only J.J.
Abrams's third entry, with Michelle Monaghan as Ethan's fiancé, showed
the hero grappling with the consequences of real love). That's a
sensible sacrifice—it's difficult (though not impossible: see Casino Royale)
for standalone action films to invest heavily in relationships when
there is so much mayhem to unleash—but even though Ethan and Ilsa never
lock lips, Cruise and Ferguson nevertheless develop some real chemistry.
Their bond is different from your typical flirty banter—it's more about
a shared sense of excitement, a palpable enthusiasm for solving puzzles
and kicking ass. (They even get their Luke and Leia moment at one
point.) Up till now, the franchise has regularly discarded each of its
heroines (I'm ignoring Monaghan's Ghost Protocol cameo), but Paramount is advised to bring Ilsa back for volume six.
That would be in Casablanca, which means Rogue Nation is the
second (and by far the loudest) movie to place a woman named Ilsa in
that immortal city. It's during this extended North-African interlude
where McQuarrie (who also wrote the screenplay, sharing a story credit
with Drew Pearce) and his team settle into a relaxed and pleasurable
pattern, alternating between stupendous action scenes and giddily
implausible spy craft. The Casablanca passage also features the return
of Luther (Ving Rhames, fine wine), Ethan's longtime comrade in
espionage, here partnering with Brandt to supply crotchety backup and
delightful Laurel-and-Hardy patter. Luther is there to help the crew
obtain a MacGuffin in the form of a hard drive, which is of course just
an excuse for those aforementioned action scenes. Nothing in Rogue Nation quite rivals Ghost Protocol's historic Burj Khalifa sequence,
but that's hardly a fair standard. We're still treated to a beautifully
filmed underwater sequence, where Ethan juggles multiple pieces of
equipment while eluding gigantic rotors, all while racing the clock and
holding his breath. And then there's that motorcycle chase, the riders
dipping their bikes sideways with every curve of the road; it's an
absolute rush that makes an analogous scene from John Woo's Mission: Impossible 2 feel like a film-school project by comparison.
This is all tremendous fun, even if it's a bit hollow. Yes, there's a villain, a pretty good one in the form of Solomon Lane ('71's
Sean Harris, slippery and scary), the Syndicate's remorseless leader
who speaks about his anarchic aims in a chilling whisper. (His line, "If
I were a terrorist, I would be trying to spread fear," is one of
cinema's more thoughtful defenses to insane megalomania.) But despite a
few calculated deaths and some ominous words, the stakes here never feel
all that high, maybe because we know that, as Hunley puts it, Ethan is
always prepared for every conceivable scenario. (To wit: Those infamous
masks return, though not before McQuarrie pulls a clever fake-out.) When
the heroes are so heroically capable, there can only be so much
But this feels less like a failure than a choice, and the right one. Injecting Rogue Nation with gravity would weigh it down, which would run contrary to the buoyant, puckish spirit of the franchise. The Mission: Impossible
movies aren't about life or death. They're about frills and thrills,
and mesmerizing viewers with their uncanny combination of ludicrous
action and practical, spit-and-glue filmmaking. That's why the only
truly alarming moment in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation comes midway through, when Brandt gloomily tells Ethan, "This may be our last mission." God, I hope not.