Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is the fifth installment in the Mission Impossible franchise…
Let’s just stop right there for a second and think about that: the fifth Mission Impossible movie? I like the series: the new iterations of edgy James Bond and Bourne Identity thrillers owe them a huge debt. But do you remember four whole separate movies coming out before this one, with distinct plots, interesting and fully realized characters that grow and develop over time? This reviewer did not. This reviewer remembered two scenes from the entire franchise: Tom Cruise dangling from a rope, breaking into a supposedly impenetrable vault while laser beams roamed the area, and Tom Cruise pulling on and ripping off a bewildering array of masks, tricking the bad guys every time. Cue the theme song! That’s the end of my memory reel, culled from enjoying snippets on TNT over the last 19 years. (!)
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Producers: J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Tom Cruise, David Ellison
Writers: Christopher McQuarrie, Drew Pearce (story), Bruce Geller (TV series)
Cinematographer: Robert Elswit
Editor: Eddie Hamilton
Music: Joe Kramer
Cast: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, Jingchu Zhang
US Theatrical Release: July 27, 2015
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
One of the real masterstrokes of the Mission Impossible series is its ability to make jumping into or out of watching Mission Impossible so very easy. You do not have to be familiar with the previous four movies to enjoy Rogue Nation. A single scene from a previous movie is mentioned, as a comical, throwaway joke—apparently they blew up the Kremlin in a previous installment—but other than that a viewer can walk right into Rogue Nation with no idea who Ethan Hunt is. You wouldn’t even have had to watch the first half of this movie to enjoy the second half. Ongoing plot is almost deliciously irrelevant to the pleasures of Rogue Nation. The overarching narrative is not what's important here; no character grows from lessons learned. This is action porn. We watch the good guy, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), do breathtaking, exhilarating things on planes, cars, and motorcycles, and while hacking sophisticated underwater vaults. These are genuinely exciting scenes—the kind that make you cringe and duck in your seat on multiple occasions, doing squirmy little dances of “Oh man that is so crazy” stunt appreciation.
It's hard to work out how any of these scenes related to the rest. The underwater hacking scene—apparently Cruise really did hold his breathe for six straight minutes, so we watch it as one continuous shot—is incredible. But what is he hacking, again? And what is this secret British base where he’s swimming, anyways; why is it in Morocco? The same goes for an assassination attempt that Hunt and his crew are attempting to stop in a Viennese opera house. It’s funny, it made me seat-squirm all over the place as various assassins tried ingenious ways of killing the Austrian diplomat, and it’s a clever nod to Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. But who was trying to kill this Austrian diplomat, and why, and what the hell does this Austrian opera scene have to do with the rest of the movie?
But when did you last watch porn for the overarching plot? No one does that. Only a sociopath watches porn from start to finish and then rates its quality on the cohesiveness of its narrative, on the believability of its characters and the developments they make over the course of the movie. (These sociopaths then go on to write Wikipedia articles about said plots—did you know that there's an eight-paragraph Wikipedia summary on the plot of Debbie Does Dallas? Somebody wrote that for zero dollars. Who? Why?) We watch porn and formulaic action movies for the pleasure derived from individual scenes. The parts, when done right, are so much greater than the nonsensical, formulaic whole. And in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the parts are pretty great.
For those unfamiliar with the Mission Impossible series: Ethan Hunt works for the Impossible Mission Force, usually referred to as the IMF. (Of all the possible fake government agency names and their subsequent acronyms, it’s unclear why they had to choose an acronym with a real-life agency equivalent. The poor International Monetary Fund has trouble enough as it is without being associated with Tom Cruise and super spies, thank you very much.)
In Rogue Nation, boring men in suits in Washington D.C. have started to doubt the necessity of the IMF. Should we really have a spy agency with virtually no oversight, they ask—licenses to kill without justification, access to the entire world's data at all time? Rogue Nation's response to a post-Snowden world is essentially one big “Fuck you” to the idea of checks and balances. Trust the spies, it shouts at us over and over again. They know what they are doing, and they are doing it for your own good.
The IMF is shuttered by the director of the CIA (Alec Baldwin) but a new super-villain rises. Ethan Hunt can't just retire while the villain plots; he goes rogue, wanted by his own government as he tracks down the incredibly deadly, evil, and well-coordinated syndicate of villains—in Rogue Nation, this syndicate is unimaginatively named “The Syndicate.” During his bad guy hunt he finds his love interest for this installment, Ilsa (Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson). She was British intelligence and kicks serious henchman ass, but has she been turned by the villain? Simon Pegg provides sidekick comic relief, Ving Rhames says “Ohhhhh yeahhhhh,” in an incredibly deep baritone that shakes the IMAX theater, and Jeremy Renner reprises his role as the stereotypical boss who shouts at our rule-breaking hero, “You're a loose cannon, Hunt—but dammit, you get results!” They fight the bad guys. There are terrifically close calls, but things are likely going to work out okay in the end.
It's a fun question: can a silly action movie that does nothing but rehash tropes of the genre (a lone hero who fights impossible odds, hordes of nameless henchman who never manage to kill our hero despite their thousands of bullets shot directly at him, a conspiracy theory proving that disparate accidents around the world are no mere accidents, but are in fact the secret work of an evil Syndicate)—can this type of movie be redeemed because it does the action tropes really really well? I kind of think so. The logic is pretty nonexistent and the social messages are dubious, but it delivers the big dumb fun. I can’t wait to watch snippets of it again on TNT.