Movie Review: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
By Ben Gruchow
August 4, 2015

Look out. He's making his movie.

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation is a gloriously silly action movie, ceaselessly kinetic, populated by game actors. Its slow moments involve people sitting on triggers with bombs strapped to their chest counting toward zero. It has a pre-title sequence that would suffice as the climax in a more earthbound thriller: Ethan Hunt's IMF super spy, played by Tom Cruise, clings to the side of a jet as it takes off. Cruise is known for doing his own stunts, and this one seems designed more than ever to give the movie's insurance agents heart palpitations.

Its biggest problem - its only problem, really-is that it comes after Brad Bird's superlative 2011 series entry, Ghost Protocol. That film had the same confident chemistry between its players, a sharper narrative focus, and one of the all-time great set pieces in modern action cinema, with its climb up the side of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Rogue Nation is rougher around the edges. We get a basic understanding of the Syndicate, which functions as the new movie's antagonist: a sort of collector of disavowed agents of covert agencies like Hunt's IMF. We also get an intimidating villain in Solomon Lane, rogue Syndicate agent; he's played by Sean Harris with a presence that makes you want to lean back from the screen. We don't get much of an idea of his grand plan, though, beyond making the Syndicate bigger; instead, most of the movie's incident involves the acquisition of assets by Lane. I'm grateful for a movie that purports to investigate how the bad guys got to where they are, at least.

I was perhaps being a little overly charitable. Rogue Nation's biggest problem is still that it comes after Ghost Protocol; its next biggest problem is that the movie can't help but take a step down in urgency and clarity after its central action set piece, which occurs about halfway through the film. That sequence revolves around fooling a power station's security system so that an IMF agent can pass a series of intelligent cameras and body-language detectors and get into the top-secret control room and download encrypted data containing Syndicate names. Whatever.

The sequence is an excuse, as all of the big sequences in the Impossible films are, to show off the very limits of feasible technology to achieve exciting scenes of tension and agility. This one doesn't disappoint, although it's a notch or two below the Dubai sequence and the Langley break-in from the first Mission: Impossible. In fact, I'm pretty confident that the next appropriate obstacle for the team is going to have to be outright sorcery; that's the only thing that'd present much of a challenge (Cruise's facial acting when Simon Pegg's Benji describes the layers of security around the power station, and continually expresses confidence in Hunt's covert abilities, is a minor highlight).

So, not the best heist centerpiece in the franchise; the power-station sequence is still thrilling. Most of the action takes place in an underwater core that looks rather like the nexus of the Death Star. Ethan Hunt must swap out ID cards while dodging rotating mechanical arms and water current, all on a strict three-minute oxygen timer (he can't use oxygen tanks, because then there wouldn't be a scene). The team around him is mostly old faces: Ving Rhames returns as disavowed agent Luther Stickell, Jeremy Renner's Brandt spars with CIA director Alan Hunley (played by Alec Baldwin in the film's one completely superfluous and anonymous role), and Renner scores the movie's best punchline in these scenes.

Rebecca Ferguson is Ilsa Faust, a spy just as capable in infiltration and combat as Hunt; her surname would lead you to guess the character's true nature well in advance, but the movie doesn't take advantage of that opportunity. I've already mentioned Pegg, who functions nominally as most of the movie's comic relief; I say “nominally," because the whole enterprise operates at such a heightened pitch that it's rarely anything other than comic, anyway. What's impressive is that the sequence still manages to generate tension, despite the objective sense of danger being slight-to-nonexistent.

The security-system subterfuge is followed by a series of vehicle chases, followed by more subterfuge, foot chases, et cetera. The masks from earlier films make a return, and this time they come with a neat added feature: the voice of whoever's wearing the mask somehow alters to flawlessly match the voice and tone of the person being imitated, regardless of nationality, accent, or age. The first movie's use of masks, where the agent had to get by without speaking in order to keep the disguise going, seems quaint now.

I mention the logistical stone-skipping as observation, not as criticism. In truth, this is all great fun, and very nicely constructed; the movie is about as far from realistic as you can get without resorting to animation, but it doesn't behave that way scene to scene. It appears that director Christopher McQuarrie has mostly used real locations for his sets, and he gets a lot of mileage out of exploiting that naturalism as a grounding backdrop for truly impressive stunt work and action choreography. When CGI and compositing are so commonly used to create an environment, it's a pleasure to watch real actors cover a scene in a real location against real lighting.

Aiding immeasurably here is Robert Elswit, cinematographer for Paul Thomas Anderson going all the way back to Hard Eight; he also shot Ghost Protocol and 2010's Salt. His trademark is clear-eyed, handsomely textured compositions, which almost always communicate a heightened sense of reality; that's perfect for this franchise, and arguably better-suited here than in the last film. There's an extended set piece at a Vienna opera house that's delightful in its exploration of the theatre space, and a backlit shot with Ilsa and a sniper rifle that proves without doubt that a Mission: Impossible film can sell mature and seductive with the best of the Bond films.

That's possibly the most amusing achievement of Cruise's series; it's reinvented itself from dry espionage thriller in its first outing into a snappy Americanized version of Ian Fleming's superspy, complete with outsized technology and stuntwork. This one also reminds me of a better Fast and Furious movie, in its willingness to throw absolutely anything at the wall when it counts. There's a more literate voice here than in that franchise, but no less playfulness.

It's not perfect; in the spare instances where CGI is used, it's obvious (a highway motorcycle chase with digital cars and trucks looks appalling, like something mid-budget from 2003). The climax is too hectically cut to make as much of an impact as it should, and Ferguson's Ilsa is convincing within the narrow demands of a role that doesn't let us into her mind nearly as far as it needs to in order to sell the character's development. Still, Rogue Nation is a confident and decisive success as action, as espionage, as chemistry between actors, as an effects piece. It's about as good a film as you could hope for in late summer.