By Matthew McKibben | July 31, 2015
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Writer: Christopher McQuarrie and Drew Pearce
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, and Alec Baldwin
One could easily make the case that the five Mission: Impossible movies have been better than the past five James Bond movies. I’m a Bond fan through and through, but when it comes to being fun, engaging, smart, and funny, the Mission: Impossible movies have surpassed Bond in nearly every possible way. It’s up for debate, obviously, but no matter what side you fall on in that debate, it’s pretty safe to say that the M:I movies have produced more iconic pop-cultural moments than the Bond movies. At the drop of a hat, I can’t remember much about what happened in Quantum of Solace and Skyfall but I can easily recall Tom Cruise hanging off that cliff in Mission: Impossible II or climbing the Burj Khalifa tower with one glove. James Bond had some great moments in Casino Royale but nothing that generated anything as iconic as Tom Cruise’s “hanging by a thread over the C.I.A. floor” moment from the first Mission: Impossible.
But for whatever reason, the Mission: Impossible movies don’t generate the same love and enthusiasm that the Bond movies produce. When a new Bond movie is in production, we’re inundated with promotional images and articles highlighting each casting choice, accompanied by speculation on who the actor is playing in the upcoming movie. But the Mission: Impossible movies always seem to come out of nowhere. Because of that, the M:I movies are a bit difficult to wrap my head around. They’re all awesome and they all make a ton of money at the box office, but then they just kind of disappear from the public consciousness until the next movie comes around.
If I had to guess as to why that is, I’d put most of my focus on Tom Cruise himself. I was looking at Cruise’s filmography the other day and the list of A-list directors he’s worked with is second to none in Hollywood history. If you’re an iconic director of the past 35 years, you’ve probably worked with Cruise. Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Ron Howard, John Woo, the Scott brothers (both Ridley and Tony), Paul Thomas Anderson et al, have all directed movies starring Cruise. From his star making turn in 1983’s Risky Business to about 2000’s Mission: Impossible II, it’s hard to think of an actor in my lifetime whose star shone as brightly as Cruise’s. After that came Vanilla Sky and that’s when his personal life (and if we’re being honest, his religion) started interfering with how we perceived Tom Cruise and the movies he made. He still produced hit after hit, but at that point, talking about Tom Cruise the person and Tom Cruise’s movies required a bit of mental compartmentalization. Watching a Tom Cruise movie meant you had to separate the man from the character… or not.
In some ways, the Mission: Impossible movies only really make sense when you kind of understand Tom Cruise the person. Much like Cruise himself, they’re movies where we really don’t get into Ethan Hunt’s head or backstory all that much. JJ Abrams came the closest to giving us a hint of what makes Ethan Hunt tick in Mission: Impossible III, showing us what Hunt’s home-life was like and bringing his wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) into the densely plotted action. But beyond that, we really don’t know much about Ethan Hunt, other than he’s incredible at his job…kinda like Tom Cruise himself. Although the movies have gotten better at this, they still seem to exist to show off Tom Cruise’s eagerness to please, whether that be via his charisma on screen, or via his penchant to perform his own stunts. And not just that, the movies want to be crystal clear in showing that, yes, what you’re seeing is Tom Cruise doing his own stunts. Cruise is so eager, some would say narcissistic, to please his audience, he’s literally willing to risk life and limb to do so. But at the end of the day, Ethan Hunt and Tom Cruise are about the show and have very little interest in pulling back the curtain to reveal what makes them tick. So in that regard, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is the perfect vehicle for 2015 Tom Cruise. Like all the M:I movies, it’s a movie that came out of nowhere, showcases Tom Cruise’s still bright star power and is a load of fun while revealing nothing about the person behind the mission, and then it kind of disappears from consciousness after seeing it.
With movies like The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie, Jack Reacher, and Edge of Tomorrow under his belt, Christopher McQuarrie is officially the go-to guy for penning elaborate, tightly wound conspiratorial thrillers. Although this movie is a little more by-the-book and predictable than his best written works, the movie still has a lot of twists and turns and doesn’t slow down long enough to allow you to catch up. This is McQuarrie’s third movie behind the camera and he clearly has a grasp at how to purposefully and slowly unwind his tightly wound stories piece by piece, while simultaneously showcasing some rather breathtaking (maybe in the literal sense) action set pieces. If the M:I movies excel at anything above nearly all other action movies, it’s showstopping, seat clutching suspense as Ethan Hunt and team break into various locations, whether it be CIA headquarters in the first movie, the Kremlin in the fourth, or into a plane mid-take off in this one.
Although I don’t consider Rogue Nation to be the best of the series, I do think it’s the first time that the Mission: Impossible series has perfected the Mission: Impossible team formula utilized in the original television series. Up until this point, the M:I movies have mostly been the Tom Cruise show, with others tagging along as sidekicks, at best. But this movie feels like a full team effort, especially with Simon Pegg’s Benji and Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust. Ethan Hunt is still quarterbacking the show, but you get more glimpses into the huddle as they plan these heists, and more action from supporting players moving the story along. This is the first of the series where Ethan Hunt’s mortality seemed a little more in jeopardy and his team is sometimes all that stand between life and death. Simon Pegg is definitely given the most to do here, and he excels with what he’s given.
Tom Cruise once again does good work as Ethan Hunt, but as mentioned above, his work in this movie is mostly in service of the mission. Gone is the family life with Michelle Monaghan waiting for Ethan to return back home. But the movie does make a subtle, perhaps unintentional suggestion that Ethan’s team is the most important thing in Ethan’s life and that his true love and loyalty is to them, even if that loyalty puts the mission’s outcome in jeopardy. Although Michelle Monaghan is absent here, Rebecca Ferguson looks so eerily like her that when she first comes on the screen as British agent Ilsa Faust, I did a double-take and wondered if Ethan Hunt had recruited his wife into the IMF.
Alec Baldwin resurrects 30 Rock‘s Jack Donaghy as CIA director Alan Hunley, who has made it his mission to shut down the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) and bring the players under the CIA’s umbrella. There’s more to the character than what we think, but it’s via his character that some of the more enjoyable moments of dialogue happen. Few can turn a phrase as well as Alec Baldwin.
Sean Harris brought a lot of frigid coldness to the part of villain Solomon Lane, but the strength of the character comes more from what’s written on page than what is performed by the actor. In what has become a staple of movies in 2015, this is one of those villainous parts where the villain seems almost preternaturally a step and thought ahead of everyone on screen. Because McQuarrie is a good enough writer of conspiratorial fiction, it was more or less able to maintain its credibility, but it got right up to that line of incredulity without ever crossing it. It’s a credit to McQuarrie that you couldn’t tell if Lane was playing Hunt, or if Hunt was playing Lane.
Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is another solid entry into the Mission: Impossible franchise. While it’s not the best of the series, (I’m partial to JJ Abrams’ M:I3 and Brad Bird’s M:I Ghost Protocol), it’s one helluva fun time at the movies and is worth the price of admission. Now, like all Mission: Impossible movies, it will now self-destruct itself from my consciousness until Cruise and Co. release the first trailer for the inevitable Mission: Impossible 6.