Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

miiiii-compressorParamount Pictures presents a film directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Screenplay by McQuarrie; story by McQuarrie, Drew Pearce. Based on the television series “Mission: Impossible” created by Bruce Gellar. Produced by J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Tom Cruise, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger. Music by Joe Kraemer; “Mission: Impossible” Theme by Lalo Schifrin. Photographed by Robert Elswitt. Edited by Eddie Hamilton. Production designed by James D. Bissell. Starring Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, Jingchu Zhang, Tom Hollander, Alec Baldwin.

Tom Cruise isn’t a movie star; he’s the movie star. Forget his personal life and talk show appearances; where it truly counts, Cruise is the whole package: talented, charismatic, energetic, and dedicated to a near-suicidal degree. In fact, let’s reconsider that use of “near.” In Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Cruise clings to a jet in mid-takeoff, holds his breath for six minutes during a high-tech underwater heist, crashes a rental car through a Moroccan street, drives through one of the most exciting and intricate motorcycle chases ever filmed, runs like crazy, battles through various knife-and-fist-fights, and more. Like in the previous four Mission: Impossible films, his character’s name is Ethan Hunt. But Cruise doesn’t play Hunt; he is Hunt, and although the franchise has maintained its identity as a commercial for Cruise’s own awesomeness, Cruise is one of the few players left in Hollywood to instinctively know that even a vanity project has to give the audience its money’s worth.

Each Mission: Impossible film is pretty much the same. The villains are a clandestine group spreading terror and stealing MacGuffins, a bureaucrat is trying to shut down the Impossible Mission Force (today it’s Alec Baldwin as, essentially, Jack Donaghy, CIA), and the heroes have to go on the lam and outthink the baddies in a series of preposterous action setups. Yet each film is decidedly different, as filtered through the series’ pointedly revolving roster of accomplished directors: Brian DePalma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird. This man behind this one is Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher), and he bestows upon Rogue Nation exemplary craft—this is as well-made an action film as you will see this year (aided, undeniably, by Robert Elswitt’s typically beautiful photography). But McQuarrie is also a screenwriter (The Usual Suspects), and so he has given the franchise its most cohesive and thematically elegant script; one that doesn’t just connect the action dots but tells a thrilling, old-fashioned spy story, with characters you care about and reversals that matter. He strikes a tone that is playful, but not stakes-free. He boldly mixes film noir and fantasy, and drops balletic wit into his action scenes, Hitchock-style (in one sequence, quite deliberately). He pulls off the neat trick of telling a story that is about vertiginous moral confusion without ever becoming confusing. And in a summer that has been good for women at the movies, McQuarrie gives us a female heroine who is a complete equal in every way to Ethan Hunt.

That would be Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), a woman in the classic femme fatale mold: deadly, mysterious and alluring, but also highly capable and strong-willed. Ilsa is a disavowed secret agent—one of many who populate the mysterious, evil entity known as “The Syndicate,”–but she plays a near-impenetrable game of double-triple-quadruple-cross (tricky when your plan involves earning back the trust of people you betrayed). Ilsa is a captivating, vulnerable and formidable enigma, and Ferguson, in a star-making role, is electric. She exists not as eye candy but as a three-dimensional person; a spy who, like a John Le Carre protagonist, realizes they’re deep into a game they are very much sick of. Ferguson is the movie’s violent, beating heart.

Both Ilsa and Ethan are co-leads here, but they’re aided by a fine support team. There’s Jeremy Renner as the wryly exasperated Agent Brandt. Ving Rhames, a series staple, reappears as Luther, a man who can convey his loyalty to Ethan with a single grunt. Simon Pegg is back again as Benji, the computer-savvy field agent who isn’t just a source of comic relief; he’s the very personification of the series’ sly tone, which approaches the absurd spectacle with wit that stays just on the right side of self-parody. The villain, a sneering toad played by Sean Harris, isn’t as vivid as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s MI3 baddy (the series’ best bad guy), but he finds an appropriate way to simmer resentfully, as the movie paints him as Hunt’s mirror image.

The movie is just plain fun: stuffed with humor, excitement, suspense, escapism and supreme confidence. It’s a wonderful entertainment, made with intelligence, verve and confidence, if Cruise’s goal each time is to prove that a decades-old franchise can thrum with brilliant life, then consider it mission: accomplished.

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