Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Cast: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg
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Rogue Nation is the fifth entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise and the fifth to star Tom Cruise as IMF agent Ethan Hunt. Which gives you a clue to the series’ ultimate weakness: has Ethan Hunt ever faced a mission that actually is impossible? In the 19 years since the first movie’s opening assignment went wrong, we’ve had Mission: Difficult and Mission: Improbable, but never a Mission: Impossible. In this film, that all changes.
It’s not Cruise’s fault: as athletic now as he was in 1996, the star’s commitment to physical stunts has singled him out as a rare commodity in Hollywood’s A-list. In an age of CGI spectacle, he allows himself to be blown up, strapped to a train, glued to a building and – now – tied to a plane as it takes off. It’s a jaw-dropping sight, but the biggest stunner of all is that it occurs before the credits have even rolled: Rogue Nation is only just getting started.
That puts M:I-5 in the same trap of the previous films: having to level up repeatedly just to outdo the set pieces that have gone before. The challenge of bringing something new to the table has bizarrely given Mission: Impossible the key to its success: the series isn’t really about Tom Cruise at all. It’s about its directors. Every film has been a showcase for a different action auteur, from Brian De Palma (dutch tilt and deception) and Brad Bird (live-action cartoon) to JJ Abrams (blue filter, meta-script) and John Woo (slow-motion doves). They all bring their own style, which is partly why the cycle of one-upmanship delivers such entertaining results: what counts as “impossible” is interpreted differently by different people.
What does Christopher McQuarrie bring to the table? He’s always been a smart writer (The Usual Suspects), and his signature on the page is tangible. Hitchcock nods drive the largely retro plot, including red phone boxes on London’s Great Windmill Street and a riff on The Man Who Knew Too Much in one superb, opera-based sequence. The introduction of Simon McBurney and Tom Hollander as British officials, meanwhile, recalls the labyrinthine intrigue of TV’s Spooks (this is the first film since the original to be about espionage). McQuarrie’s camera is just as impressive, from his swooping over musical manuscripts in Vienna to his visceral presentation of a car chase – the visuals here are so precisely composed that even during the most grippingly chaotic tussles, you always know what’s going on.
The other key figure in any Mission: Impossible film is the composer. Or, to be more precise, Lalo Schifrin, whose signature theme from the original TV series has an almost Pavlovian effect upon people. Audiences hear it and they automatically perch on the edge of their seat. Tom Cruise hears it and he starts dangling off the nearest skyscraper. After Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer and Michael Giacchino, Joe Kraemer steps up to bat and knocks it out of the park. Relying more on the Lalo theme than any of the others, he restricts his whole orchestration to instruments from Schifrin’s ensemble, delivering something that has the sound of Mission: Impossible, as well as the style and energy.
Together, they drive the thriller forwards at a relentless pace. Rogue Nation literally rushes from one chase to another – a daisy chain of thrills that combines bikes and cars with electrifying speed. The result risks being too long, but unlike Ghost Protocol, the final act in the UK capital feels like a crucial part of the plot; an emphasis on Simon Pegg’s sidekick Benji (promoted from tech guy cameo to best mate/active field agent) even stops him from feeling too much like the token comic relief.
But Pegg’s recurring role, alongside the familiar ensemble of Jeremy Renner (as William Blandt, sorry “Brandt”) and Ving Rhames (as hacker-supreme Luther Stickell) only emphasises the fact that the series has never given a proper second appearance to a female character. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol was promising because it ended with a team of agents, including Paula Patton’s Jane Carter, ready to carry on the torch from Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. To see them all sidelined for more of the same male-heavy action is a disappointment.
Thank goodness, then, for Rebecca Ferguson, who steals the show from both its leading man and its director. Who? If you haven’t seen The White Queen, in which she played Elizabeth, you may not know, but that only makes her turn even more effective. She is sublime as Ilsa Faust, an enigmatic secret agent whose character is that she is an enigmatic secret agent. On the one hand, that means she’s the stereotypical elusive female upon whom the largely male cast can project their various ideals. On the other hand, that means she get on with the business of espionage without having to explain or justify herself, as any efficient operative would.
McQuarrie’s camera dives in for a cliched shot early on, but even as she and Ethan clash in Vienna, both dressed up for a glamorous concert, there is no forced romantic subplot between them. The nearest she gets to being the movie’s love interest is her implied relationship with Sean Harris’ villain, who is in charge of The Syndicate (the “anti-IMF”). One scene with McBurney, on the other hand, gives her the kind of depth that could power a whole season of the BBC spy series.
Most importantly of all, Faust saves Hunt’s life (rather than the other way around) without it being a big deal. That sense of his weakness is McQuarrie’s main achievement: for the first time, he conceives a challenge that is genuinely not possible for a human to overcome – a fact that gives this film’s ludicrous action a surprisingly grounded sense of peril. Visceral thrills? Check. Intelligent plot? Check. Actual female character? Check. It’s just a shame, then, that Ferguson, like the women before her, likely won’t return in the next sequel. It makes you wish for more screen time devoted to her – say, the whole of M:I-6. A whole sequel without Tom Cruise as the main character? After managing the implausible feat of rediscovering its mojo five times over, that, you sense, is the only impossible mission left for this franchise.