When the theatre lights go down, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation starts to play the breathless beginning of Lilo Schifrin’s famous theme before the Paramount Studios mountain has even left the screen. With the Mission Impossible franchise now securely established, this is not a film that intends to waste time winning over its audiences. No, Rogue Nation is a performer that knows just how good it is, and from the first minute to the last spares no effort in wowing us with one demonstration after another of its desire to entertain. And while it’s not quite high art, Rogue Nation‘s level of craftsmanship means that it more than accomplishes its mission.
That eager opening score introduces us to Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and his crew from the Impossible Mission Force (played, this time around, by Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames, and Simon Pegg), where they are in the midst of retrieving the first of the movie’s string of macguffins from a cargo plane. This mission achieved, Hunt finds himself on the trail of an evil spy organization (the “rogue nation,” according to Hunt), which calls itself “The Syndicate” and has nebulous but evil plans for affecting world events. It even goes so far as to pervert the iconic “Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” sequence for its own ends; these are bad, bad people.
Hunt’s righteous quest to bring down the Syndicate is complicated by the fact that the CIA, led by Alec Baldwin playing himself, believes the Impossible Mission Force to be corrupt and the Syndicate to be a myth. In the name of “increased transparency” (of all things) the IMF is disbanded and Hunt is forced to pursue the Syndicate on his own. From this starting point, Rogue Nation proceeds for two hours of increasingly impressive action sequences as Hunt and his team bounce from the Ukraine to London, Vienna, Morocco, and beyond.
Every Mission: Impossible movie has served as a director’s showcase and Rogue Nation is no different. The director this time around, Christopher McQuarrie, was most recently responsible for the ugly and mean Tom Cruise vehicle Jack Reacher in 2013. But here he shows, if not quite pizzazz, at least admirable competency at building action. His direction seems almost bored with dialog, and it’s only when the movie’s action engines are firing on all cylinders that his talent comes out. Especially notable: a sequence at the Vienna Opera House that suggests Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much in the way it counterpoises action and music, even as it adds technical flourish on the action front that Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart couldn’t have dreamed of providing.
It goes without saying that, after a series of twists and setbacks, Hunt is vindicated and the Syndicate is brought down. The pleasure and the achievement are in the journey; after all, the Mission: Impossible films traditionally show most of the movie’s plot elements in the opening credits. And that journey is almost all there is, as the story rarely if ever stops to breathe. And its characters, especially Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, sometimes seem to exist as little more than sprites on a computer screen.
Of the cast, series newcomer Rebecca Ferguson fares the best at giving inner life to her role as the duplicitous Agent Ilsa Faust. Her character is British, but the actress herself hails from Sweden, and her features often resemble Ingrid Bergman’s. She has the same delicate balance of honesty and unknowability that made Bergman so captivating, and it can hardly be coincidental that Rogue Nation names her character Ilsa and sends her to Casablanca. It’s admirable, too, that Agent Faust is never sexualized; she isn’t a conquest for Hunt to attain, but simply a competent agent with whom he has to work. She’s a peer, not a plaything.
It’s because Hunt and the rest of the characters have so little depth that Tom Cruise’s legendary commitment to actually doing his own stunts is so important. In the course of Rogue Nation, Cruise clings to the side of an airplane in flight. He fights, hand to hand, on the rigging above an opera stage. He holds his breath underwater for an unbroken six-minute take, all so that we forget that we’re watching a movie. Our subconscious awareness of and investment in Cruise’s work on screen involves us in a way similar to characterization. When we watch him pursuing a fugitive into the mountains on motorcycle, the cinematography’s cuts to POV shots rushing headlong towards oncoming traffic excite and startle us because that knowledge about Cruise’s work ethic has conditioned us to care.
Cruise’s single-minded dedication to entertaining his audience at any cost is a neat parallel to his character’s dedication to doing his job. Always something of a superhero, Ethan Hunt has developed, over the course of the series, into a righteous juggernaut. Rushing headlong from set piece to set piece, Cruise is called on to communicate his character almost entirely through action. When he speaks, it’s rarely if ever more than functional. In the third installment, JJ Abrams gave Ethan Hunt a wife, a life, and a dinner party to host, but in McQuarrie’s hands Hunt is pure audience surrogate. He exists so that we can watch him do things.
About two-thirds of the way into the film, Alec Baldwin’s character sings Hunt’s praises to another politician who doubts Hunt’s abilities. Hunt, he says, is an unstoppable force, “the living manifestation of destiny.” It’s hyperbolic language, but also a phrase that can’t help calling out to “manifest destiny.” And there’s something about Hunt, as he’s presented, that mirrors the present state of affairs in American foreign policy.
In its original TV incarnation, Mission: Impossible was based on the security of routine; every week, the Impossible Mission Force would receive a task, then apply their skills as a team, solve the problem, and ride into the sunset. Their work, and the show, had a comforting professionalism to it. In contrast, the Mission: Impossible films exist in a state of perpetual crisis. In every film since MI3, Hunt has found himself working alone, either disavowed by the IMF or forced to save the world alone by his organization’s destruction. This is partly a function of the need to raise the plot stakes for the move from TV to theater. But it also reflects a world where we believe ourselves to always be under threat, where we are told that we are constantly being defended from imminent threats. Like the IMF, America’s freedom seems to lurch from one crisis to another.
There are plenty of corrupt and compromised authority figures in the film’s world, people who put self interest above what the world needs. But in that dirty world, Hunt shines like a light. His opponents toil in bureaucracy. The IMF, on the other hand, has no visible infrastructure or organization. It exists simply as an invisible resource for Hunt to use in his work, and so the dividing line between good and evil, in the end, boils down to the simple question of whether or not one is helping Ethan Hunt. The implicit parallels between Hunt and America’s foreign policy could make the film a troubling experience, if it played that theme more strongly. The film even ends with the winking suggestion that the US government as a whole would be better off if it were to let Ethan Hunt guide it, and while he has magnificent form as a runner, that kind of trust would be a bridge much too far. But that undertone in the plot is a quiet one, and one which is mostly drowned out by the film’s relentlessly well-executed action entertainment.
What audiences expect out of Tom Cruise’s missions as Ethan Hunt is not the asking of deep questions. What we want to see when we go to a Mission:Impossible film is both he and his character doing their job — Hunt in saving the world, and Cruise in creating well-produced entertainment. And after five installments in the Mission:Impossible series, both actor and character seem to have hit their stride. It’s hard not to look forward to what they will bring us next.