Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation review: Cruise control

Early on in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, a grizzled and grandstanding head of CIA (Alec Baldwin) accuses the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) — the anti-terrorist spy team starring Tom Cruise and a rotating supporting cast — of being a throwback to another era. “Your results look suspiciously like luck,” he decrees, noting that every successful mission is preceded by high-risk hijinks and wanton destruction (cf. the last four Mission: Impossible movies).

It isn’t subtle. The whole scene plays out as a meta discussion on Mission: Impossible itself, a 19-year-old, high-thrill film franchise (its roots as a TV series are moot at this point) that has long served as a tentpole for Tom Cruise: Action Hero. It’s a series that waits years between installments and purposely brings in a new director every time to add their own spin to a well-worn format (past helmers include Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, and Brad Bird). Director and frequent Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Jack Reacher) has a lot of history to live up to, but more importantly, he also has to make Mission: Impossible exciting in a post-Avengers, post-Fast Five, post-Snowden world.

So Baldwin’s meta-question is very relevant: can Mission: Impossible stay relevant in this new era of popcorn film? The answer is decidedly maybe. Definitely maybe.

Rogue Nation opens on Ethan Hunt (Cruise) tracking down The Syndicate, a group of evil agents ("the anti-IMF," as Simon Pegg puts it) that no one seems to believe exists, led by the anti-Hunt (a surprisingly beard-and-emotion-free Sean Harris). Why is The Syndicate so bad? Because we’re told they’re bad; aside from one (relatively) minor act of espionage, the movie fills in pieces with several lines of exposition. We’re supposed to hate them because of their ideals and capabilities — because Hunt hates them — not because of anything we really get to see. At the same time, the IMF is dissolved, leaving Hunt with few resources outside his own (admittedly impressive) arsenal of wits, safe house gadgetry, and obsessive sense of right and wrong. Mission: Impossible isn’t exactly known for taut storytelling, but the problem here is that there’s very little emotional investment offered for the audience.

Of course, the throughline is just an excuse to tie together a series of action sequences, which for the most part shine brightly — chief among them is Cruise hanging off the side of a plane, which has been played up during the marketing campaign as this movie’s holy-shit-Tom-Cruise-actually-did-that moment. Unlike the time Cruise actually climbed the Burj Khalifa in Ghost Protocol, though, this scene doesn’t quite elicit the same visceral feelings as the tower climb. It's also much shorter — if you've seen any of the trailers, you’ve pretty much seen the whole scene. The other sequences are impressive, a mixed bag of the great (one prolonged scene at an opera house shines as the film’s best) and the maybe all too familiar (a pretty by-the-numbers car chase).

Mission Impossible 5 Art

That said, even the most rote sequence is exciting, thanks in large part to Cruise himself. Ethan Hunt is reckless and risk-taking; he rarely comes away from a fight without a few bruises, cuts, bullet wounds, or various near-death experiences. There’s an air of levity interspersed between the scuffles — a self-awareness that made Brad Bird’s entry (2011’s Ghost Protocol) so compelling — which carries over for the most part here. Cruise nails these moments, projecting at times both confidence and incredulity that he survived yet another precarious situation.

Joining Cruise is computer whiz Benji Dunn (the always-talented Simon Pegg) and de facto femme fatale Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who is without question the best part of the film as a fully-realized, very capable, complicated foil to Hunt (note: not a love interest). The few remaining speaking roles — including older computer whiz Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), secret agent project manager William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), and Alec Baldwin — are woefully underused but make the most of their screentime with wit instead of weaponry.

"I think this movie is a really great popcorn film and has what I would want in a movie."
— Tom Cruise at the Rogue Nation premiere

Not that anyone else in this movie matters except Tom Cruise. Mission: Impossible is and has always been about Cruise wanting to push the limits of what an action star can do for the camera. But for all its style — and there is a lot of style, not to mention more than a little luck at some precarious moments — Rogue Nation feels lacking in substance. With Skyfall, Sam Mendes gave us a reason to care about James Bond, a flawed killer. The Fast & Furious franchise, which at this point is just pretty much a good vs. evil thriller with cars, has turned into the new high point for ridiculous stunts (some practical, some CG) and yet still manages to tug on our heartstrings every time Vin Diesel says the word "family." There’s no reason we can’t be blown away by big explosions and strong emotional choices, and Cruise is more than capable at delivering such a nuanced performance.

Maybe next time. See you in four to six about two years, Ethan.

Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation opens on Friday, July 31st.