It’s unfair to say that the Mission: Impossible movies have been uniformly terrible. Like unhappy families to Tolstoy, each is terrible in its own way, with some—I’m looking at you, J.J. Abrams—far, far worse than the others. They’ve all had different directors, and they’re connected sequel-wise only as much as James Bond movies are, i.e barely at all.
Which brings us to Rogue Nation, the newest Impossible mission, written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who lately co-wrote the surprisingly enjoyable Tom Cruise sci-fi flick, Edge of Tomorrow. It’s what the James Bond series used to be: absurd and fun.
It’s the best Mission: Impossible movie yet, the only one I’ve enjoyed at all. I mean let’s not get carried away here, it’s no Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s your basic spies running around shooting each other flick, but it’s well-made, the action sequences make sense, it’s not afraid to be knowingly dopey, and though it overstays its welcome, on the whole it genuinely works.
Unlike the recent James Bond debacles of misery, where mopey-Bond cries about his damaged childhood and supervillains exist only to taunt him, Ethan Hunt is just some bad-ass trying to stay alive. Does he have a backstory in past movies? Who cares? In Rogue Nation he’s just trying to stay alive long enough to prove that the shadowy anti-IMF organization known as The Syndicate is real, and to take down its creepy leader, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), before he sows discord across the globe.
That’s right. Solomon’s goal is total political chaos, a restructuring of the world! Why? Who the fuck knows? This is what bad guys do, people! We get a little blah blah blah about how he used to be an agent like Hunt, but grew tired of working within the system. Now he wants to destroy the system.
Back in the U.S. of A., CIA director Hunley (Alec Baldwin, chewing the scenery) tells a Senate subcommitte the IMF must be disbanded. They agree. Hunley hunts Hunt, but Hunt is always one step ahead, thanks to his former partners Benji (Simon Pegg) and Brandt (Jeremy Renner), now employed by the CIA. Renner is, as ever, annoying, but fortunately he’s supposed to be annoying as Brandt, a character who may or may not still be on Hunt’s side. He’s designed to be vaguely dislikeable. A perfect fit.
Quite a bit of Rogue Nation is essentially a buddy spy movie with Cruise and Pegg as the buddies. One’s the cool guy, and the other is the nerd in awe of him. So probably exactly how Pegg the actor feels starring in a movie with Tom Cruise. Their dynamic is totally convincing.
One of the best sequences takes place in the Vienna opera house during a performance of Turandot. It’s sneaky and quiet, as various nefarious characters creep around backstage, with Hunt and Benji trying to figure out who to shoot first. If only more action movies played a sequence with something other than explosions on the soundtrack, with patiently building tension.
One of the potential opera assassins is Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who works for the evil Solomon, unless she doesn’t. Turns out Rogue Nation is more Faust’s story than Hunt’s. She’s in the driver’s seat, and Hunt spends much of the movie chasing her down, unsure whether he’s being played, and if so, by whom.
Cruise, as is oft-noted, gives the movie his all, hanging off of airplanes, racing motorcycles, etc. The man certainly works for a living, as much as being a movie star is work. He even kind of acts now and again, though most of the time his job as Hunt is to be smugly heroic, not exactly a stretch. McQuarrie plays on this a bit, with Benji assuming Hunt is capable of literally anything, even holding his breath for something like five minutes. Not wanting to disappoint his little buddy, Hunt goes along with all that’s asked of him.
Even the car/motorcycle chases are shot well. Who’d expect such a thing these days in a non-George Miller directed picture?
The plot grows steadily more absurd and entangled, but does so without any long-winded explanations. It’s a movie happy to be outrageous, and I liked that about it. At two hours ten minutes, I’d say it’s a good twenty minutes too long—I felt it dragging during the final chase—but McQuarrie wraps it up without resorting to anything maudlin. He goes out on a joke.
So who knows? After twenty years (!) of these movies, maybe they’ve finally figured them out. If Cruise really wants to send the series in the right direction, he should hire Edgar Wright to direct the next one.