Here’s a little drinking game for you to play during Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation: drink every time you hear some variation on “…or maybe that’s just what he wants us to do!” Sure, we could infiltrate that underground dungeon filled with Nazi crocodiles to steal the nuclear codes from a robot torture doctor, but maybe that’s exactly what the bad guys want! And that’s why we have to do it! They’ll never expect us to do exactly what they’re expecting!
This is a movie that would have us believe that a bad guy expected Ethan Hunt to free-dive into an underwater server farm to infiltrate a preposterously complex spy facility, to switch the chip to the “gait analysis” machine, to find the data, to connect the bank deposits, that would lead to the terrorists, who conducted the operation, to destabilize the region, to get the money… If earlier Mission: Impossibles were about a “cat and mouse” game, Rogue Nation is more of a swallowed the dog to catch the cat who swallowed the bird who caught the spider who swallowed the fly game. And all of the animals are death-defying stunts.
In other films, this “you’re playing right into his hands!” trope would be a crutch, a way to justify one more scene of running and shooting. In Rogue Nation, it’s an entire motif, an idea taken to such ridiculous extremes that it becomes almost conceptual art, the first action movie fractal. It’s a repeating pattern that always ends where it begins, with Tom Cruise outsmarting, outpunching, outdriving and outxxxtreming some nefarious businessman or sexy lady, like some combination of Vin Diesel, Sherlock Holmes and Leelu Multipass. At one point, Alec Baldwin’s character (great addition to this franchise) growls that Ethan Hunt is “the living manifestation of destiny.” Tom Cruise isn’t just a hero, he’s manifest destiny! That’s so beautiful you’d think David Miscavige had written it.
There’s nothing better than a movie that knows exactly what it is. People go to Mission: Impossible movies to see ridiculous stunts and Rube Goldberg-style heist montages. I doubt anyone ever showed up for stakes or believability. It’s spectacle, spectacle, spectacle, and Chris McQuarrie just sort of throws out the cake, boils the frosting down to fine crystals, and lets you smoke it like crack rock. I thought Furious 7 was going to be the most ridiculous movie I saw this year, but watching Tom Cruise drown, ditch a motorcycle on a cliff while helmetless, crash a BMW in every way imaginable, and fight some kind of beautifully-never-explained cyborg man backstage at a Vienna opera at least contends for the title.
Rogue Nation is a ridiculously expensive, stunt-and-aerial-photography sizzle reel. How extravagant is it? They toss out that plane stunt from the trailer in the first five minutes. That was just them warming up. There’s an underwater sequence later that might be the most well-staged action set piece I’ve seen since Quicksilver in Days Of Future Past (everything in Mad Max notwithstanding).
Much like Furious 7, the area where Rogue Nation really falls flat is in the hand-to-hand combat. It should come as no surprise that (the lovely and otherwise well cast) Rebecca Ferguson and 53-year-old Tom Cruise (as freakishly spry a 53-year-old as he is) aren’t going to look like Iko Uwais and Tony Jaa when they knife fight and jitz people. But if you can’t do hand-to-hand sequences without cutting them all to hell, maybe find a way around them? The quick-cut stuff blurs choreography and destroys spatial awareness, so it’s basically a rhythmically edited montage of outcomes and reactions. It’s dull. I already know the good guys are going to beat up the bad guys; if you can’t show me the “how,” don’t bother.
Luckily, wisely, Rogue Nation is much more about car stunts, plane stunts, motorcycle stunts, ridiculous sets, Tom Cruise running, and Rebecca Ferguson having to slip into skimpy clothes for some reason. Sometimes Simon Pegg says something glib in between massive wrecks, and it feels much more natural than, say the “light” moments in Ant-Man. Pegg actually commits to a character who’s honestly terrified, he’s not just jumping outside the text to play the witty guy.
It would be easy to get hung up on plot details in Rogue Nation, but I recommend just letting it all wash over you like a warm wave (or like the cooling jets of an underwater server farm containing the names of all the world’s spies, say). If Ethan Hunt is chasing someone down one-way streets in a picturesque European capital on a Ducati, rest assured he probably has his reasons. There are no “good guys” and “bad guys,” only sexy people and weirdos. What do the weirdos want? I don’t know! Bad stuff, probably! The story is so convoluted that it basically makes you a passive participant, which is somehow okay. It serves to highlight the spectacle even more. “Was that some kind of mind-control device they never bothered to explain? Wow! Did he just pull off his rubber mask like Scooby Doo? Gee!”