When you’ve walked into the theatre, plopped yourself down on your seat, taken a sip of your soda, and not five minutes into the film you find yourself watching Tom Cruise dangling by his grip to the side of a military aircraft, you know you’re in for a Mission: Impossible film. Ever since the first one came out in 1996, Cruise has consistently managed to have himself dangling from wires into Langley, jumping off skyscrapers in Shanghai, wall-climbing the Burj Khalifa, and basically blurred the lines between actor and character. The Mission: Impossible franchise is one of the better-faring action franchises, and in its fifth film – and I wouldn’t be wrong in calling it the best fifth film in a franchise – we get a sense of world-weariness, maturity and camaraderie that let small moments like a knowing smile get through to fans and let them share in the journey so far. Yes, Ethan Hunt is back, muscle-bound, fearless, considerably redder in complexion and still giving the Flash a run for his money every other scene.
The film begins as almost always, with Ethan on one of his missions and things signalling trouble for the IMF back in Washington, D.C. On strongly worded arguments from Alec Baldwin’s character – the Director of the CIA – the IMF is disbanded while Ethan is shadowed by the Syndicate, an organisation antithetical to their own, that he has been tracking for some time. Oh, perhaps it isn’t sensible of me to dive headfirst into the specific plot when the knowledge of Mission: Impossible mythos isn’t readily assumed: To start from scratch, Ethan Hunt is a spy working for the IMF – revealed to be ‘Impossible Mission Force’ in Mission: Impossible 3 – which is known for exploding messages, use of the word ‘disavowed’, elaborate plans, highly futuristic weapons that turned less impressive with the turn of the decade, and their best field agent.
Another thing that the IMF is known for at this point is an almost constant threat of disbandment and having to ‘call in every field agent’, which is what strikes again in Rogue Nation. This is something that has been followed now for two films consequentially, and is perhaps MI’s answer to the spy-film block that is encountered when contemporary technology surges well at par with the imaginary futuristic. To put things in perspective, the face-printing technology used by IMF to justify its impeccable disguises is now used by nerds worldwide to make their own Marvel figurines, all the while overlooking the fact that the market price is infinitely cheaper. Disbanding the IMF and isolating Ethan from the extensive resources of the Force makes things a little more interesting, and the scenarios a little less predictable than ‘oh, I’m pretty sure he has a gadget for that.’ I would say it ups the stakes and reflects in an increased sense of danger for Ethan, but this is Tom Cruise and who are we kidding. The man is both Hollywood’s patch on the sleeve, as well as its greatest criticism: a hero who can do no wrong and is the ultimate crash-test dummy managing to get back on his feet no matter the number of times he’s shot at, thrown off buildings, into the ocean, onto vehicles and whatnot. There is literally a scene in Rogue Nation where he runs away from the bad guys through a straight tunnel into which they open fire, and yet he somehow manages to avoid every shot. Classic Tom Cruise, classic Hollywood.
But contrary to the unbelievable stunts created on the green screen or with stunt doubles on other action franchises, what makes the impossible feats on the Mission: Impossible series stand apart is the fact that they are possible, and all physically done by Tom Cruise himself. Opening with Risky Business in 1983, Cruise has now come to embody the action genre in the 90s, the 2000s and even the present day; and in doing so he has also gradually transcended the barriers of character and become one with his alter-ego Ethan Hunt. While the first Mission: Impossible amazed audiences everywhere with the revelation that the rope stunt was real, and 2011’s Ghost Protocol had him scaling the tallest building in the world with gloves, apparently we’ve reached an age where the immortal/adrenaline-junkie Tom Cruise can strap himself to the side of a plane and dive into a turbine and people go ‘Oh that’s just Tom Cruise, Tom Cruise-ing his way through another movie.’ For being not the most physically dominating man at 5’6”, or bursting with youth at 53, the amount of physicality he brings to all his roles is nothing short of insanity. I mean, I am pretty confident that he is either a covert agent doing a pretty bad job of being discrete, and if not, I would still trust him with preventing a global crisis.
Needless to say, the action displayed on screen in Rogue Nation is perfectly executed and a delight to watch, perhaps second only to that seen in Fury Road earlier this year. What warrants special mention more than anything else is a certain road chase sequence that takes place midway through the film, the sheer energy and pace of which serve as the perfect transition between conversational scenes. In this one scene you can see the brilliantly meticulous vision of the director and his deviation from the singular style we see in most films these days. There is a fluidity to the way the scene unfolds, having an in-shock Ethan start out the chase in a car, and then without losing pace taking it to the highroad on bikes, when the camera smartly swerves around explosions and behind Ethan in a wide-shot as we see the bad guys crash and burn on the side. Every Mission: Impossible film boasts at least one death defying stunt, this one features two apart from the chase: an intense and claustrophobic underwater task, and the previously mentioned plane escapade; the latter of which I personally think was the best one to insert in the trailer, being placed as it is in the film. Although there is a significant paucity of tension in the general execution of the plot as compared to its predecessors, none of it is lost during the mission sequences that possess this stark reality to them on account of, you know, being actually shot on film.
Christopher McQuarrie followed Tom Cruise from Edge of Tomorrow – another film from last year with defining action-fare – into the latter’s home project and the ease with which the two interact is easily seen on camera. The director makes it a point to capture the smallest moments shared between the members of the team, all of whom represent not just the remnants of IMF, but also the journey over four films that have brought them here. What started out with randomly assigned teams has now culminated in trusted partners Ethan finds in Simon Pegg’s Benji, Jeremy Renner’s Brandt, and Ving Rhames’ Luther Stickell. The true highlight of the film is the chemistry between all of its characters, something felt through every clichéd dialogue uttered and every frame occupied with spy gadgetry and face-masks. All of them have clearly seen and been through a lot since we last left them at a seaside cafe, but it’s all routine for them – at least as routine as it can get for an agent whose job description has ‘life-threatening’ in it. What interested me the most about the film is a commentary that runs unsaid on everyone’s faces: a sense that we’ve been here before, this is our job and we’re all getting a bit weary. It is not necessarily a stagnation or a sign that it has lived beyond its time, but rather that it will perhaps soon be time for the team to be ‘called in’ for one last time. Unlike the audience’s relief of the franchise ending which usually accompanies fifth instalments (See: Terminator Genisys), the relief reflected is in the eyes of Ethan and the team as they exchange nostalgic ‘here we go again’ glances at one another. It is light, subtle and showing immense character progression.
It is into this well-bound team that are introduced Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa and Alec Baldwin’s Hunley, both of whom do a great job aligning with the tone and the gang of Mission: Impossible. She is a former member of British intelligence, and quite admittedly the female Ethan Hunt. From the first encounter when he asks as to whether they’ve met before to exchanging way-too-knowing glances for a duo who have only known each other for days, Ilsa is the agent to give Ethan a ‘run’ for his money. This is also slyly inserted into the film as the opera that they attend – Puccini’s Turandot – which is a story of a prince and princess at arms with each other, constantly trying to show the other up. But aside from the elaborate action sequences and the scenes where she incapacitates anyone around her, there was a lack of character to Ilsa. The film failed to incite curiosity about her character and past, something which perhaps cannot be attributed entirely to her performance. All said and done, it’s still pretty amazing to see her in action, twisting people with her legs even just to prove a point. Alec Baldwin, I feel was left unused in this film, being written into a character that speaks in serious and stereotypical lines, devoid of the actor’s uncanny charm and humour. I understand that you can’t have the Alec Baldwin from SNL running around as director of the CIA, but in a light-hearted spy thriller such as Mission: Impossible which has a charming Tom Cruise and a hilarious Simon Pegg, Hunley comes off as dry and leaves the audiences expecting more, something which will hopefully be granted in the next one.
Awesome death-defying stunts and timed ‘impossible’ tasks aside, the film can get taxing at times with the dull script that totters around on overused trailer-lines and quips that fall into the bag of action film tropes. Sure, Mission: Impossible was never about anything other than embracing the spy genre as a whole, and it sure never did attempt to change the game. But at this point, is that really enough? The audiences continuously expect more of what they’ve never seen, something that will keep pushing Tom to risk his life until it’s 2030 and Mission: Impossible 10 comes out; and to satisfy them, something that can accompany the adrenaline-pumping action is required. This is perhaps the biggest fault with Rogue Nation, where every line seems somehow cheesier and more used than any before. The pacing is another factor that drags the film and the energy down for a while, as unnecessary conversations tend to hang around for a while and the plot of ‘The Syndicate’ not really made clear. When you have breathtaking visuals and chase sequences every now and then, you can only expect a comedown when things start taking a slow route.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation isn’t the best or the worst of the series – personally I go 1>3>4>5>2 – but serves you most of what you need out of an espionage thriller. There are no innovations in plot or character here, but just the layers that have crept beneath each character through their journey that make it special. For those wondering why I’ve forgotten the villain, it’s because of two reasons – one, I’ve been trying to cut down on spoilers, and two, there’s nothing memorable there. With a cheesy swagger that reminds me of Major Toht from Raiders of the Lost Ark, he is a trope of the action genre, an evil mastermind with the sole intent to stop our meddling heroes. I read somewhere recently that Mission: Impossible is the ‘quintessential action franchise helmed by the quintessential action star’, and believe that nothing could be closer to the truth. In an age where the word ‘sequel’ induces nightmares for everything not under the superhero head, the greatest feat of this franchise is having survived with consistency to this far a point. This new instalment is both warming and glorious, both a harkening to the old days and a realisation of things coming to an end. This is at the end of the day a film for franchise-fans and casual moviegoers, both deriving pleasure in their own way out of watching Tom Cruise almost die every other minute. I for one am glad this film exists, for it shows its heroes as though highly skilled and invincible, capable of being worn out after years on the job. One thing’s for sure, as long as Tom can keep running, so will Mission: Impossible.