One of things that has been most interesting about the “Mission: Impossible” series has been the way they've played with the iconography of the original '60s show. When I worked as a closed-captioner, we got a contract to do “Mission: Impossible,” and I must have done twenty episodes of it myself. I remember being struck by just how minimalist it was in terms of production value, and how clearly they relied on certain things over and over.
When the first film was released 20 years, it was interesting to watch fans of the old show freak out at the notion of Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) being revealed as the bad guy. It is exactly what I loved about it, though. Brian DePalma has always loved to tweak genre convention and the language of the thriller, and watching him make this big slick uber-commercial movie that basically cast James Bond as Blofeld, you could almost hear him cackling behind the camera. Tom Cruise was just a little over a decade into his career as an actor, and one of the things people said about him at the time was that he seemed like a movie star in search of his very own franchise. He was evidently hungry for it, and when he and his producing partner Paula Wagner settled on “Mission: Impossible,” I wonder if they knew just how limber it would end up being for them.
“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” is the fifth time out for Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), and in many ways, it feels like writer/director Christopher McQuarrie was asked to make a movie that serves as a summing up of everything that's come before this. At the start of the film, William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) has been hauled in front of an oversight committee by CIA Director Alan Hunley. Hunley makes the case that the IMF has been reckless and ridiculous for 20 years, and when Brandt pointed out that Hunley's had it in for Hunt ever since Hunt broke into Langley on Hunley's watch to steal the NOC lists, I laughed. I think it says volumes. They proceeded to lay out various highlights from the previous films, and it's great the way Hunley sees these various stunts and set pieces as mistakes and embarrassments.
Hunt is on the trail of a shadowy organization called The Syndicate (because Google was already taken, I suppose), and no one seems to believe him. He seems to find himself outclassed at every turn, and pretty soon, he is a man without a nation, on the run and underground. The kick of the movie is watching him start to slowly put his team back together, and while I deeply miss Paula Patton, it's a fun group they've put together here. McQuarrie takes full advantage of the chemistry between Simon Pegg and Tom Cruise, who are a positively delightful comedy team, especially when grievous bodily harm to one or both of them is involved. Ving Rhames is back as Luther, and I love his permanent glower and the way they cut around him because he's not exactly built to run anymore. Rhames gets winded sitting down in one scene, and as a fellow gentleman of a certain size, it only made me like him more. Renner is just as comfortable dealing with the bureaucratic hazards as the ones in the field, and he's got great dry comic energy with Alec Baldwin.
And then there's Rebecca Ferguson. Once again, an impeccably chosen female lead. Ilsa Faust, Ferguson's character, is cut from the same cloth as Paula Patton in the “kick your ass and make it look downright delightful” department, but there are some lovely nuances to the work she does. She brings just the right degree of sad to the work she does, and people who were driven crazy by Bryce Dallas Howard and her high heels in “Jurassic World” will be happy to see that, like Patton, Ferguson knows when to lose the shoes. Sean Harris is a definitive improvement after the somewhat bland face of evil in “Ghost Protocol,” and one of the things that makes this a particularly fun entry in the series is the way this guy keeps cornering Cruise, who is used to being the smartest guy in any room. It's like he's been watching the series, so he knows exactly what Hunt's go-to tricks are, and he uses them against him. It's a very clever way to build a villain.
Oh… and you know that plane stunt that has been the cornerstone of the entire campaign for the film? That's the first eight minutes of the film. It's hilarious. It's gigantic. And it's not a spoiler. That's how you do it, studios.
I love how the film stages a major scene at a performance of “Turandot” at the Vienna State Opera, and then Joe Kraemer's score continues to quote the opera for the rest of the film. While I wouldn't go so far as to call this a direct homage to “Turandot” on a story level, some of the sadness and the broad strokes feel like there's an echo in the relationship between Ilsa and Ethan and the various tests Ethan has to pass as he gets closer to her. It's a lovely touch, just one of the many grace notes that make this feel elevated, like more than just “another” in a series. McQuarrie understands the comic value of Cruise's size, and he knows that the bigger the thug he bounces off of Cruise, the funnier it gets. I would argue that this may be the funniest of the films overall, and with Robert Elswit shooting it, it's absolutely gorgeous, with crisp, clean action choreography that you can actually see.
As with most of what he does, Cruise always feels like he's giving it everything he's got, and he continues to make Ethan Hunt's adventures interesting after two full decades in the role. I was delighted by this one end to end, and I plan on seeing it again in IMAX as soon as possible.
“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” opens in theaters July 29.