If like me you are old enough to have been a fan of the original Mission: Impossible TV series in the late 1960s, you will remember that the suspense came from watching the MI team figure out how to pull off their mission by using elaborate deceptions and disguises (Martin Landau was a makeup expert and a “man of a thousand faces”) and technological wizardry (Greg Morris was something of a proto-computer geek), and then get away with it. They weren’t action heroes and didn’t engage in impossible chase scenes or blow things up. In the first Mission: Impossible film, director Brian de Palma added the exotic locale of Prague and a few heart-pumping action scenes, but also managed to keep a good deal of the elaborate schemes (Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt hanging from that wire while breaking into the CIA, and later using a lifelike mask to pass himself off as Jon Voigt), so that the film seemed to give us what the original series did but more. Subsequent installments in the Mission: Impossible film series have not understood that original concept and have gone mainly for the straight action-film genre.
Perhaps this is the result of Cruise’s involvement—the most reliable of “action” stars in terms of bringing the money in, he seems most interested these days in challenging himself physically and makes no secret of doing his own stunts in his films. In the opening sequence of this fifth MI movie, Rogue Nation, the 53-year-old Cruise leaps onto the wing of a cargo plane and clings to a door handle as the plane takes off—a stunt he repeated eight times to allow director Christopher McQuarrie (reteaming with Cruise after their earlier successful collaboration in Jack Reacher) to shoot the footage he wanted. In a later scene, Cruise swims underwater in a vault where he has a complex task to perform, switching one computer chip for another. Again, Cruise did multiple takes of this grueling scene, during one of which he was required to hold his breath for six minutes.
And, of course, there is a rollicking chase scene involving cars, guns, and motorcycles, and I’m pretty sure Cruise is riding his own cycle there. So yes, the MI series has been dominated by the action scenes because its star likes to be thought of as an action hero. But one good thing that can be said about Rogue Nation is that it is so much more than an action movie.
It turns out that the plane Hunt boards in that opening scene contains weapons that are evidence of the nefarious activities of a secret organization known as the Syndicate whose director Solomon Lane (played with cold malevolence by Sean Harris) sponsors major terrorist acts with the intent of toppling the global political and economic system. Meanwhile the Impossible Mission Force’s current head William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) is appearing before a congressional committee to defend the tactics, and even the very existence, of the team from an attack by CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), who doesn’t believe that this Syndicate even exists. The hearing ends with the disbanding of the Impossible Mission Force and the absorbing of its members by the CIA.
Hunt essentially becomes a rogue agent as he tries to track down Lane with the CIA chasing him. Ultimately, of course, he is helped by Brandt and by his comic sidekick Benjy Dunn (Simon Pegg, like Renner reprising his role from the previous Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), as well as Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames, returning in his role from earlier films). They are also joined by Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), an agent apparently working for the Syndicate who saves Hunt’s life and then proceeds to help or hinder him at various points of the plot, so that the audience, like Hunt himself, is kept guessing as to her ultimate loyalties.
The film does take s to some exotic venues, including Vienna, Casablanca and London, with pivotal scenes at the Vienna Opera House (where an assassination is planned during a performance of Turandot—from which motifs beautifully pervade the film’s soundtrack) and the Tower of London, where the climax of the film plays out. It also contains two fairly complicated schemes set up by the team: The first, which the audience is let in on, is an elaborate plan (involving Hunt’s underwater escape) to break into an impenetrable fortress (recalling the break into the CIA in the first MI film); the second, which the audience is kept in the dark about, involves the final plot to foil the bad guy’s evil plans for good—a plot that also satisfyingly recalls the first film of the franchise, but I won’t include any spoilers here.
There are lighter moments in the film—with Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames how could it avoid them? And although it focuses particularly on the heroics of the action star Cruise, the overall theme of the film has more to do with camaraderie and solidarity: the MI force as a team working together, and one that refuses to leave a brother behind. The lead actors work well as a team, and some of the supporting cast—notably Harris and Simon McBurney as the head of British MI6—are impressive in their roles. But the most memorable performance in the film is turned in by Rebecca Ferguson as Faust. Her character’s name, of course, suggests her selling her soul to the devil (Harris?), but her playing both sides, her true motives which are always kept just out of reach of the audience, and her own feats of martial prowess that rival those of the “action star”—though she is careful to remove her fashionable shoes before plunging into action—make her the antithesis of the 1960s “Bond girl” of earlier spy films, all of which make her the most interesting part of this movie.
In my view, Rogue Nation is the best action film of this summer. It’s smart, well-made, well-acted and well-paced—the action scenes don’t go on for twenty minutes of one explosion after another until the audience is numbed, but just long enough to remain intense and compel us into the next actual plot element. I’m recommending this one highly—three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare.