By Preston Wilder
Just when you wonder if Hollywood’s forgotten how to make sleek, intelligent popcorn fare, something like Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation comes along to reassure you. It’s an odd coincidence that this fifth instalment in the M:I franchise comes just a couple of weeks after the fifth instalment in the Terminator franchise (the mediocre Genisys), and comparing the two may be instructive. Genisys has repetitive action scenes that end up blurring together; Rogue Nation has discrete action set-pieces – the opera, the bike chase in Morocco, the underwater stunt – and makes them individually memorable. Genisys broaches big ideas (mostly about the complexities of Time-travel) then doesn’t know what to do with them; Rogue Nation also has ideas (about control and destiny) but uses them for subtle underpinning. Genisys employs an ageing icon (Arnold Schwarzenegger) self-consciously, plying him with ready-made catchphrases; Rogue Nation employs an ageing icon (Tom Cruise) iconically, placing him in the thick of the action without even the luxury of James Bond-ish punchlines.
James Bond comes to mind while watching Rogue Nation, in the busy globe-trotting and occasional gadgets (though the latex masks that were once an M:I trademark are conspicuously near-absent). John le Carré comes to mind too, in the double agents and weedy British spymasters playing politics behind the scenes (the Yanks are more belligerent, the CIA represented by Alec Baldwin at his most bull-headed). So does Brian De Palma, the Hitchcockian director noted for grand, baroque thrillers – notably in the film’s undoubted high-point, the opera scene about halfway through which blends ‘Nessun Dorma’ with knife fights, backstage chases and random shots of rifles being readied. There are two assassins (plus Tom), one of them primed to shoot the Austrian Chancellor just as the music crescendos to the final “Vincero!”, like the cymbal crash in The Man Who Knew Too Much.
For sheer symphonic intensity, that scene could stand with Mad Max: Fury Road, the summer’s other popcorn-movie miracle. The rest isn’t quite on that level – more prosaic, and a bit exhausting – but it’s very solid. The film is shrewd, and intricately written; it’s also funny. Even the opening shot might be a joke (a shot of an empty field, and the caption ‘Minsk, Belarus’), then we get the various members of the IMF (Impossible Missions Force) bickering among themselves – then Ethan Hunt, a.k.a. Tom Cruise arrives and the music erupts (as it’s been threatening to do) into the Mission: Impossible theme. The target is a plane with a cargo that can’t be allowed to depart, so Tom climbs on the plane as it’s taking off, gets IT genius Simon Pegg to hack the doors open, straps himself to the cargo – a shipment of missiles – then, as a thug comes to the back of the plane to see what’s going on, gives a little shrug as if to say ‘This is what I do’, pulls on a parachute and shoots off. Cue, exhilaratingly, credits.
Describing the scene doesn’t do it justice, of course; the alchemy comes in how it’s shot, cut and played (that little shrug is magnificent). That’s the point about Rogue Nation: it does nothing new – it’s a Mission: Impossible sequel – but it does it superlatively. Cruise seems to be working in a different register than in the fourth film, Ghost Protocol in 2011, which was partly about Ethan Hunt’s relationship with his wife (glimpsed from a distance at the end of that movie) and his slow emergence from behind a shield of technology. There’s no such emotional subtext in Rogue Nation; Ethan’s relationship with fellow spy Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) is ostensibly romantic, but too vague to register. Cruise is simply an athlete here (he apparently did his own stunts, holding his breath for over six minutes in the underwater scene), a physical force and iconic presence – and, like any top athlete, his commitment is fierce. Like the film, he knows his limits and works within them superbly.
Not that Rogue Nation is simplistic, or stupid. Connections are made, reflections noted. The title refers to ‘The Syndicate’, a terrorist cabal engineering accidents in order to control world affairs – but the Syndicate, as the film makes clear, is a mirror-image of the IMF, another ‘rogue nation’ which works without transparency or oversight. Ethan is described as “the living manifestation of Destiny” and that’s another recurring motif – destiny vs. dumb luck, the constant effort to “control the outcome” (like a tarnished 53-year-old star attempting to control his career, one might say). Mostly, however, the film is propulsive entertainment with canny details – a punchline is provided by a single glimpse of the Eiffel Tower in the background – and grace-notes like a shot of a subway train crossing a bridge in the night, its green lights reflected in the river below. Hollywood still lives, for now.
DIRECTED BY Christopher McQuarrie
STARRING Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Jeremy Renner
US 2015 131 mins