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Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)

Double Your Agents, Double Your Fun

Whatever the opposite of franchise fatigue is, Mission: Impossible has it. Unlike action series that pump out slick CGI product until box office returns start to flag, Tom Cruise's serialized spy adventures offer audiences a familiar yet absolutely essential moviegoing experience every four years.

Once again, Cruise stars as the greatest spy in a shadow organization of elite American spies. For nearly two decades, Ethan Hunt and his globe-trotting tech-support team have prevented all manner of disasters, usually due to traitorous senior-management and/or rogue ex-agents. Hunt's Impossible Mission Force is so top secret that Washington officials only recognize collateral damage in their work, and the Senate eagerly agrees to fold the organization into the CIA, at the behest of director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin). Unfortunately, Hunt gets the news that he's been disavowed after narrowly escaping a cabal of terrorists (nicknamed "The Syndicate") whose reach may extend to the highest level of global governance.

Hunt's only hope of proving that this "anti-IMF" exists is to track down an elusive double-agent named Ilsa Faust (the excellent Rebecca Ferguson), and find out who she works for. The truth of Faust's loyalties is spoilerifically convoluted, so I'll just say that she's involved with a weaselly villain named Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the weaselly head of MI6* (Simon McBurney), and several shaved-headed henchmen who have code names like "The Bone Doctor" and "European Motorcycle Assassin #15". Rogue Nation filibusters its way through crosses, double-crosses, reveals, and illusory twist-backs, and the actors do their best to rise above writer/director Christopher McQuarrie's marble-mouthed machinations. Luckily, the action setups are just as elaborate and not a tenth as confusing, meaning Mission: Impossible 5 makes visual sense--if not sense-sense.

Like Mad Max: Fury Road, from earlier this summer, Rogue Nation succeeds largely because the pulse-pounding spectacles on screen are, for the most part, filmed practically, which solidifies the illusion of reality in even the most fanciful scenarios. What are the odds that Hunt could almost single-handedly recover a crate of nerve gas as it flies from Minsk straight into terrorists' hands? Not great, on paper. But the opening scene finds Tom Cruise clinging to the side of a plane, with the camera positioned just right to let us know that A) the tiny figure is neither a stunt double nor a digital creation and B) we're about to get collectively air sick. It's a shame that this stunt is the focus of Rogue Nation's marketing, but I understand why they showcased it: in a box office landscape lousy with computer-generated parachuting cars, avenging supermen, and rampaging dinosaurs, movie studios must go out of their way to assure audiences that their next trip to the multiplex won't detour through the Uncanny Valley.

The film's centerpiece is a triple-whammy spin on the Heist Gone Wrong. Hunt, Faust, and scrappy sidekick Benji (Simon Pegg) must switch out a personnel file that's stored in a an underwater safe. Of course, the files look identical, and of course the furiously spinning turbines that Hunt must navigate in order to reach his target will cause a mix-up at the precise moment he needs everything to go right. But the scene's payoff is not that the superhuman spy comes puffing and quipping out of the water. Things go south on this mission, and the consequences compound across two back-to-back chase scenes. Rogue Nation doesn't let up for what seems like thirty straight minutes, and by keeping the stunts practical and the actors vulnerable (in character), he fries our nerves instead of trying our patience.

It's not all high-flying explosives, though. McQuarrie stretches his creative legs in a doozy of an opera scene that finds Hunt stalking three assassins who've targeted Austria’s Prime Minister. As if trying to cosmically make up for the climax of Godfather III, McQuarrie and company put on an intense, old-fashioned-spy-movie chase through catwalks, stage controls and box seats. They take a kaleidoscopic approach to revealing the killers, and just as quickly cloud their allegiances--putting us squarely in the shoes of the protagonist, who’s as confused about the bad guys’ identities as he is the evolving nature of his mission.

Granted, there are parts of Rogue Nation that remind viewers that McQuarrie not only wrote The Usual Suspects, but seems foolishly determined to re-bake its delectable narrative pretzel. While I appreciate The Syndicate's conspiratorial, big-picture politics (the organization topples governments and businesses by blowing up factories, downing passenger planes over oceans, etc., and then steps in to "fix" things--think of it as a mass-market Confessions of an Economic Hitman), McQuarrie stops just shy of making this a thriller for grown-ups--deciding instead to bury his ideas in chit-chat. Ferguson and McBurney, in particular, get saddled with thankless exposition that drags on so long it gives us time to recall the intense actions scenes that preceded it—squirming, in fact, through all the “But how do I know that you know that he knows…” dialogue. Cruise, Ferguson, Baldwin, and especially Pegg deserve much credit for bridging the spectacular with the spectacularly dull.**

Rogue Nation continues the Cruise/McQuarrie streak as one of action cinema’s least-publicized gem duos. They've worked, in some capacity or another, on similarly twisty/intense/comedic films like Jack Reacher and Edge of Tomorrow. Cruise’s grinning, action-figure persona won’t win any awards outside MTV’s golden popcorn statue, but his ventures with McQuarrie’s just-a-tad-too-smart-for-the-summertime-crowd screenplays and direction may make you wonder why that is. The pair turned an airport-novel thriller into gripping, bloody-knuckle voyeurism; a sci-fi remake of Groundhog Day into last summer’s Big Idea hit; and now a fifth-chapter reboot of an ancient TV series into this year’s second most viscerally satisfying cinematic experience.

Frequent KtS readers may wonder how I can give the Mission: Impossible series a pass while having serious problems with the Fast & Furious movies and the last couple of James Bond entries. I wonder that, too. Seriously, I’ve been grappling with this borderline existential crisis since I left the IMAX theatre*** last week. All three franchises involve world-saving daredevils taking on bigger-than-life villains with pulp motivations. All three can be viewed as adrenaline-soaked car porn wrapped in the undercooked bacon of their respective leading men’s personas.

Perhaps I’ve fallen victim to the very branding problems I rail against weekly.

So be it.

For starters, Mission: Impossible’s characters aren’t recognizable as real people, but they’re really smart approximations of people I can get behind. These aren’t street hoods whose antics have come to include fighting international terrorists simply because the action-franchise economy of scale demanded it. Hunt, Benji, Luther (Ving Rhames), and now Ilsa are heroes who use their wits and prove their wittiness in the service of making the world a better place. There are no “big scores”, no “one last jobs”—only the missions that keep our planet from devolving into chaos. 

Nor are they brooding, insufferable jerks whose adventures have devolved into explosion-heavy couch trips. Daniel Craig showed a glimpse of charm in Casino Royale, but the last couple of Bond films have found our once dashing hero plummeting down a well of bleakness so absolute that he makes Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight look like Roger Moore. I’m all for exposing secret histories and stuff, but watching modern Bond is akin to serializing Leaving Las Vegas as a spy allegory in which Ben Sanderson combats anthropomorphized versions of Jose Cuervo, Jim Beam, and Captain Morgan. It’s boring. It’s derivative. It’s anti-fun.

Unburdened by mythology and unconcerned with universe building or fan service, Mission: Impossible (especially the last three entries) struts confidently along a high wire of popcorn danger—winking at the audience even as it intentionally throws off its balance to give us an adrenaline jolt we’d forgotten we needed.

*The British military intelligence agency, not this film's inevitable sequel.

**Speaking of which, Jeremy Renner—reprising his role as the IMF’s resident straight man—cements his status as action-movie kryptonite. I can’t tell if it’s the actor, his unfortunate choice of material, or even more unfortunate editing choices, but he seems destined to be overshadowed by better spies, better Avengers, better Bournes. He fares best when paired with other actors in Rogue Nation; on his own, he almost literally stops time.

***No price-gouging here: Rogue Nation really does put the "premium" in "premium format". Totally worth the upcharge.

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