Who would have thought that the Mission: Impossible film franchise would be entering its 20th year with a fifth film that is just about as solid an outing as you could ask for? Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is just as good as, and perhaps better in some ways than, 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and both represent a combined high-water mark for a series that started out strong, went through a couple of shaky entries, and has rebounded to become one of the premiere American action franchises around. The only comparable franchise is Bond – both have their flaws and weak spots, but both generally deliver on what they promise and seem to have an infinite shelf life at this point.
Of course, the M:I series in general adheres to a template as much as the 007 one does, and Rogue Nation plays largely by the same familiar rules. In Ghost Protocol, the IMF was publicly disavowed while secretly allowed to continue its mission; this time around the team is shut down for real (at least for a couple of hours). Just like in the very first film, lead agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has to go on the run from his own government. A character with shifting allegiances, in this case an alluring British agent (Rebecca Ferguson), plays an integral role in the proceedings, while the main villain is cut from the same vague UK/Eurocloth as those of M:I II and Ghost Protocol.
As the movie opens Hunt and his team (Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner and Ving Rhames all return, while Paula Patton does not) stop a consignment of Syria-bound nerve gas that Hunt feels certain is connected to the Syndicate, an international ring of rogue agents and assassins whose existence he is trying to prove. Hunt is captured by the Syndicate and briefly glimpses its enigmatic leader (Sean Harris) before being inexplicably freed by one of its agents, later identified as Ilsa Faust (Ferguson). With the IMF’s own existence endangered back home by the exasperated, belligerent head of the CIA (Alec Baldwin), Hunt must go into hiding and eventually reassemble his team clandestinely, all while working reluctantly with Faust – who is not what she seems – to learn the true agenda of the Syndicate and who is behind it.
At this point, the formula feels comfortable and as interchangeable as some of the narrative beats can be, one never feels like the film is pandering or dumbing itself down. A lot of that is due to the cast: while Pegg’s Benji Dunn and Rhames’ Luther Stickwell are exceptionally good at their jobs, neither of them are superheroes. Benji hits the wrong button as often as not (sometimes to the point of irritation), while poor Luther can barely jog across a parking garage without running out of steam in moments. Ferguson is quite good as the mysterious Ilsa, providing a tricky yet sexy foil to Cruise and giving the series its strongest and most capable female character to date.
And then there’s Cruise: while he seems perhaps the slightest bit subdued in this movie, there’s almost no one else who is better at looking utterly convincing while doing superhuman feats and, at the same time, making you feel every blow or fall he takes (something that, to bring up 007 again, a few of the men who played Bond were never very good at). While we’ll never really know how much of his own stuntwork he actually does, it certainly looks like he’s in the thick of it and all too human while doing so.
Ghost Protocol screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie has penned this one and also directs it, making it his biggest film yet and second with Cruise (following the excellent, underrated Jack Reacher). McQuarrie proves quite adept at the expected action set pieces, including the now-famous opening sequence in which Hunt clings to the outside of a plane, a brilliantly edited, suspense-filled passage that finds Hunt infiltrating an underwater computer vault to hack a security checkpoint that Benji must pass through aboveground, and a rip-roaring car/motorcycle chase through the streets of Casablanca that’s as good as vintage Frankenheimer.
The movie also subverts expectations – as the series has done with varying degrees of success in the past – by opening with that plane sequence, hitting the other big action scenes along the way, but making the ending much more of a personal confrontation without a lot of explosions or destruction (we read that that ending was reworked by McQuarrie, Cruise and a third writer; whatever they did, it comes off well). It’s those little tweaks – along with the character work from the stars – that keep the Mission: Impossible movies from becoming mundane and too predictable.
Five movies in, the series remains propulsive, infectiously entertaining and exciting. Cruise, McQuarrie and company have created a film that is the definition of fun summer cinema – a mission that seems much more impossible these days than it should be, but which this team pulls off with charm and panache.