At first blush, it ought to be easy to make a good, high octane, spy movie, it’s just a matter of ingredients. You need attractive and/or charismatic cast members, exotic locations, a few fun set pieces, gadgets, some banter, and an acceptable maguffin. This isn’t reinventing the wheel, it’s just copying one that has already been produced hundreds of times.
It is, of course, not that easy. Yes, there are standard elements that are generally included in such a film, but their mere presence alone doesn’t turn straw into gold. There are just too many pitfalls along the way, too many things that could go wrong.
I tell you all of the above so that I can then tell you this – virtually none of those things go wrong in Tom Cruise’s fifth outing as Ethan Hunt in “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.” I don’t generally talk in quotable one-liners (unless I’m quoting someone else’s one-liner), but will say that the movie offers some of the most fun I’ve had at the theater this year. Cruise is charismatic and enjoyable in the way that he has shown us so many times before and was, just a few years ago, seemingly on the verge of losing.
But, it isn’t only Cruise who makes the film, this is one of the best IMF groupings we’ve seen on the big screen, with each of the actors—Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, and new-to-the-franchise Rebecca Ferguson—deserving the credit for that. By this point, both Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg know exactly what they’re about in a “Mission: Impossible,” and both do a great job blending humor with the more serious moments required of them. Rhames as Luther Stickell is a little short-changed in his return to the franchise (he only had a cameo in “Ghost Protocol”), but makes the most of his time. Pegg, who is playing Benji for a third time, appears ever more at home opposite Tom Cruise and is a perfect sidekick.
Truly though it is Jeremy Renner and his portrayal of William Brandt that helps put the whole thing together. It falls to Renner to play the guy who has to repeatedly face Hunt and ask if the team is going too far. Not only that, but he also has to turn to his government higher-ups and defend the team. It is a difficult position for the character and could easily make him unlikable to those watching the movie. Renner, however, overcomes the challenges and leaves the audience with nothing but respect, admiration, and quite possibly affection for Brandt. The biggest shortcoming in the film is its portrayal of Ilsa Faust, Rebecca Ferguson’s character. While Ferguson acquits herself exceptionally well and Faust has some great moments in the film, both on the dramatic and action-oriented side of things, the camera lingers on the character in a way that ought to make the audience uncomfortable more than once. It is out of place and each instance would better have been left on the cutting room floor (or not filmed at all).
When it comes to Faust, on the other side of things is the fact that she regularly gets involved in the action sequences as Hunt’s equal (or more). She gets to rescue him, she sometimes gets the better of him, and she is in control of their relationship on more than one occasion.
Does this mitigate the problem? I tend to think that it does to some degree. Ferguson is present as more than just eye candy, and that isn’t something that we would have seen in years’ past, she would have been there solely for the camera to pan over. She most definitely is not here. She is spectacularly good in the action sequences. “Mission: Impossible” and other films obviously have further to go before we get to equality—the camera lingers over Cruise, too, just not quite as much—but it hints at what could be.
Christopher McQuarrie is the director for “Rogue Nation” and also took on screenplay duties, writing the script from a story developed by himself and Drew Pearce. Perhaps then, it is McQuarrie who deserves much of the credit for making this one of the best entries in the franchise (and the blame for the movie’s treatment of Ferguson). The director has worked with Cruise before several times, including directing “Jack Reacher,” and as a whole this is their best collaboration.
One of the film’s highly touted moments, Cruise’s clinging to the side of an airplane in flight is, as expected, a truly wonderful moment, but certainly one that is also moderately diminished for having been so well publicized. “Rogue Nation” actually gets the stunt out of the way very early on, which is great for the movie as it leaves audiences free to ponder what the next set piece will bring, or even the one after that. No one will be disappointed either, because while the plane stunt may be huge, there are plenty of other great bits of action throughout.
While the action is one of the big pluses, one of the big minuses is the villain. This time out Hunt is going up against the Syndicate, a shadowy organization responsible for all sorts of villainy in the world. They are an organization so secret that most people believe they don’t exist. It falls to actor Sean Harris to play Solomon Lane, the head of the Syndicate and while he is acceptably menacing, the organization never feels truly ominous, they just feel like yet another bad guy out to wreak havoc with a group of underlings. There is really just lip service to how bad a bunch they are and no true sense of threat. The Syndicate’s plans may be broad in scope, but they never feel so on the screen, there is simply too much other stuff going on and the film is always too invested in getting to the next set piece.
In the end, the biggest threat to Hunt comes not from the Syndicate, but from Alec’s Baldwin CIA director, Alan Hunley. It is Hunley’s desire to shutter the IMF for good, a move which sends Hunt into the wind to pursue his mission alone.
Okay, confession time, the real reason that I wrote the opening to this review that I did is because, as I hope is clear, “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” is incredibly formulaic. It succeeds not because it deviates from the formula, but rather because it is the formula’s purest distillation. Get the most charismatic and/or beautiful actors. Get the biggest set pieces. Use the coolest gadgets. Have the best banter. Go for the most average of maguffins possible (and if it seems like the audience has seen such a maguffin in an early “Mission: Impossible,” all the better!).
“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” is by no means perfect, and some of its flaws are all too obvious, but it feels like another move in the right direction for the franchise and Cruise. I still list the original as my favorite of the films, but this is certainly close to it.
photo credit: Paramount Pictures