Dougray Scott’s villain perfectly summed up Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible 2. “Hunt invariably favours misdirection over confrontation,” Scott’s preening bad guy tells an assembly of goons. “He’ll no doubt engage in some acrobatic insanity before he’ll risk harming a hair on a security guard’s head.”
This is Tom Cruise’s Impossible Missions Force agent Hunt in a nutshell: a romantic daredevil who seems to actively enjoy throwing himself off tall buildings. After nearly 20 years, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Cruise might have grown weary of his thrill-seeking alter-ego. But here he is in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (film number five), clinging to the sides of planes, making leaps from high places and hurtling around on motorbikes.
This time, Hunt comes up against the Syndicate, a shadowy group that specialises in assassination and acts of terrorism. Its latest plot has something to do with world leaders, British intelligence agencies and a kind of ultra-secure USB stick full of valuable information. Hunt’s soon on the case with the help of his computer expert colleague Benji (Simon Pegg), but there’s a problem: the CIA (represented by Alec Baldwin, playing Alec Baldwin from Team America) is so fed up with Hunt’s brinksmanship that it’s taken the drastic decision to shut the IMF down. Hunt therefore faces the tricky task of tracking down the Syndicate’s weasel-eyed leader, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), foiling his evil plans and staying one step ahead of the US government.
Christopher McQuarrie takes over from Ghost Protocol’s Brad Bird as the director here, and he also writes the script with a story credit going to Drew Pearce. McQuarre keeps the plot fast-paced and light for the most part, even going so far as to throw in a few references to earlier films – one character’s lucky key ring, for example, is a subtle yet clear reference to Mission: Impossible III. And while it’s fair to say that some of the story elements are also familiar from earlier movies, and that certain events stretch credulity even by the franchise’s own standards, Rogue Nation’s refusal to take itself too seriously simply adds to the fun. One of Alec Baldwin’s long monologues about Ethan Hunt’s prowess as a spy is absolutely priceless.
McQuarrie’s handling of the action is also top-notch. One of the best things about the director’s previous film, the flawed Jack Reacher, was his action direction, and he makes the most with his expanded budget here: in terms of set-pieces, this is among the best in the franchise so far. Slightly less gadget-laden than Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation comes up with some cleverly-wrought new scrapes for Hunt to find his way out of. Robert Elswit’s cinematography is just on the right side of frenetic, constantly placing the camera in the midst of the action without sacrificing coherence. We may have seen Cruise hurtle around on motorcycles before (it seems to be written in his contract – see M:I 2, Knight And Day and even the sci-fi flick, Oblivion), but McQuarrie and Elswit bring an immediacy to the chase sequences that makes them feel fresh.
One of the pleasing things about the Mission: Impossible franchise is that it isn’t all about Hunt. So once again, Rogue Nation surrounds the hero with an ensemble of fellow operatives and allies, and even manages to back Ving Rhames for a more prominent role than he got in Ghost Protocol (there, he was relegated to showing up to buy everyone a beer). Jeremy Renner’s Brant also returns, though his role has, if anything, been reduced somewhat to give Pegg a bit more screen time as Hunt’s occasional sidekick.
Rogue Nation also has an enigmatic new arrival: Rebecca Ferguson’s wonderfully-named Ilsa Faust, who is to Hunt what Irene Adler is to Sherlock Holmes – his physical and intellectual equal. She’s a great addition, and winds up getting some of the best action scenes in the entire film.
If there’s a problem with Rogue Nation, it’s one that also marred Ghost Protocol: after a late action set-piece, the suspense slackens in the final reel. Part of this might be due to the villain, Solomon Lane, who’s enjoyably spiteful and cunning rather than an outright physical threat. It’s a criticism that could be levelled at Michael Nyqvist’s briefcase-carrying toxic uncle in Ghost Protocol and Dougray Scott’s renegade shampoo model in Mission: Impossible 2. Why the franchise has never been able to consistently provide us with a menacing villain is something of a mystery; even extraordinarily talented Philip Seymour Hoffman, after a terrific introduction, was ill-served by Mission: Impossible III.
That gripe aside, Rogue Nation‘s a brisk, hugely entertaining spy thriller, adeptly mixing action and suspense with an imaginative flourish. Even as its 20th anniversary approaches, the Mission: Impossible series is still finding ways to make us hold our breath.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is out in UK cinemas on the 30th July.
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