If there’s one thing that Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol proved, it was that it’s never too late to inject some life into your Hollywood franchise even with three installments already on the books. While the adventures of IMF agent Ethan Hunt had always been loads of fun, it was Brad Bird’s absolute joyride that was the first to make the jump from good to great. And if there’s one thing that Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation could be faulted for is that it does feel quite similar to its wildly successful predecessor.
The thing always most striking to me about the Mission: Impossible franchise was its ability to have remarkably different visual and narrative styles but still retain enough similarities to make the series feel coherent. Each new Mission was an experiment in how a new director could infuse their unique visual style with Tom Cruise’s love of practical stunts and decadent spy setpieces (a concept explored in this wonderful video essay by Sean Witzke) And while writer/director Christopher McQuarrie may not continue this sort of radical visual experimentation, Rogue Nation still offers plenty of fun allusions to film history and plenty of incredible action sequences that are among the high points of the entire series.
Rogue Nation finds the invincible Ethan Hunt on the trail of a vague network of underground terrorists known as “The Syndicate,” a group using the same amount of stealth and skill as the IMF but instead using it to spread chaos. At its head is the mysterious Solomon Lane, played with hissing menace by Sean Harris in the best villainous role of the series since Philip Seymour Hoffman’s terrifying turn in the third Mission. So to combat that threat, Hunt has to reunite the old team once again, including the hysterical Simon Pegg as Benji (finally given plenty to do in Rogue Nation, his third outing), as well as Ving Rhames’ Luther and Jeremy Renner’s Brandt.
As fun as it is to see the old faces again, the real star here is the new arrival of Rebecca Ferguson, who plays the illusive Ilsa Faust, a seemingly rogue MI6 agent practiced at the art of deception. In a refreshing change of pace from many modern roles for women in action blockbusters, Faust is given free reign to be interesting, layered and, above all, kickass. Sexy but never defined by her sexuality, the movie takes the time to let her develop nuance and make a memorable addition to Ethan Hunt’s accomplices he’s acquired over the years. (And, as an aside, having her named Ilsa and placing the action in Casablanca is a reference too lovely not to grin at.)
Just as important as the team in a Mission: Impossible movie is the increasingly madcap action sequences Ethan Hunt has to put himself through, and thankfully Rogue Nation doesn’t disappoint. From the get-go Cruise is hanging off the side of a giant cargo plane 5,000 feet in the air, and it’s clear that neither he nor McQuarrie are interested at all in scaling back the excitement or invention that makes the action of this series just so much fun. And while a heist sequence has always been par for the course in this series, it hardly gets more nail-biting than the way Rogue Nation places it underwater and gives the ticking clock even more urgency.
Cruise gives every ounce of his physicality into the role of Hunt once again and has to be considered the West’s only answer to the union of stunt and star that is Jackie Chan. Cruise is still taking hits and taking them hard in a way that makes the abundance of martial arts in this movie feel more physical and realistic. He’s still rolling off motorcycles, flipping cars and taking very ill-advised jumps because he is Ethan Hunt, and he’s the only man who can do what he does. Thematically, it’s so rewarding because he is at his most interesting when he’s at his lowest point, and the more Cruise ages the more interesting it is to see him get up again after each fall.
But if the film had to be boiled down into a single sublime sequence it would have to be the night at the opera that introduces Hunt to the true threat of the Syndicate as well as Faust’s involvement in it. In a very overt and masterful homage to Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hunt has to foil an assassination attempt on the Austrian chancellor while scaling the backstage catwalks amid the crescendos of the Vienna opera. Shot by the incomparable Robert Elswit and with some really tight editing from Eddie Hamilton, it’s the wonderfully orchestrated high point in a movie full of amazing setpieces.
While Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel in a series that has benefitted greatly from big risks, it does take some of the best elements from the previous entries and distill them into a supremely entertaining whole. By combining the twisty espionage of De Palma’s first, the kinetic action of John Woo’s second, the sadistic villain in Abrams’ third, and the themes of Ethan Hunt’s aging first explored by Brad Bird in Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation delivers another wholly satisfying entry into a franchise that continues to intrigue and excite with every turn. Just try not to smile the entire time.