It’s been a joke for quite some time that Tom Cruise, like Prince or Keanu Reeves, never ages. Actually, now he’s starting to show some age, and I like it. He has a few more lines on his face, a little more character. Good work, Tom. Also his new MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie is good.
It has been a tradition in the series to have a respectable actor in a position of authority over Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his Impossible Mission Force team. In part 1, Jon Voight played the boss and mentor. In part 2, Anthony Hopkins sent Hunt on his missions. In part 3 there was Laurence Fishburne to question his actions, and in part ghost Tom Wilkinson was “the Secretary.” Now in part 5, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION (M:I-RN), we have the most involved of all of these characters, Alec Baldwin as CIA director Alan Hunley. He gets the entire IMF agency disbanded and tries to capture or kill Hunt, who is still in the field trying to finish his last mission.
What I’m getting at is that Alec Baldwin’s famous narrator voice gets to deliver a very good Just How Badass Is He? speech for Ethan Hunt, which includes the appropriately hyperbolic phrase “he is the manifestation of destiny.” That’s one of the many advantages of having Christopher McQuarrie aboard as director and co-writer. The man made JACK REACHER. He loves a good Just How Badass Is He? speech.
The series has mostly avoided continuity, which fits well with their different-director-each-time tradition. In this installment, though, there’s discussion of the Kremlin break-in in GHOST PROTOCOL and even the CIA headquarters break-in from part 1. Hunley says it happened toward the beginning of his career with the CIA. This is a huge missed opportunity to digitally composite footage of young Alec Baldwin into that scene. Hunt has disappeared into the vent with the NOC list, the puking computer tech comes in and sees the knife stuck in his desk, and then Baldwin circa-HEAVEN’S PRISONERS comes in and says “Excuse me, I’m new here, do you know which way the bathroom is?” Or whatever a new guy would ask. I think it would’ve been a really cool scene, you guys.
By part 3 it seemed like Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) would be the only supporting player to return in sequels. But Simon Pegg’s comedic cameo as Benji in part 3 grew into a full-fledged team member in parts 4 and 5, and part 4’s William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) – introduced to take over the series from Cruise, was the story going around at the time – now makes a really good side man, the guy in the suit who placates the bosses and then steps into the field when necessary. Renner also has a good comedic rapport with the others, especially Rhames, it turns out.
One thing that has been a bummer: never any returning women, other than Hunt’s non-agent wife (Michelle Monaghan), who was seen in 3 and 4 but he had to abandon her for safety purposes. Thandie Newton was very capable in 2, but she was a civilian. Maggie Q was badass in 3 and Paula Patton in 4, and she was present at the end when Hunt declared that “the only thing on that mission that worked was this team.” So I hope they at least asked her. Luckily, ROGUE NATION introduces the most formidable female of the series so far, and the one with by far the best name: Ilsa Faust (played by Swedish actress I never heard of before Rebecca Ferguson).
Ilsa is a stranger who Hunt first sees while he’s hung up shirtless in a torture dungeon. One of those meet cute scenes. She works for The Syndicate, “an evil IMF” who nobody else believes exists even though Hunt was told about them in his mission message at they end of GHOST PROTOCOL and they abducted him right out of a record shop that’s an IMF front (the “your mission if you choose to accept it” message is hidden on a jazz record that he has to play in a listening booth – pretty cool). Ilsa helps him escape, but stays behind, and he (and we) spend most of the movie torn as to whether to have faith in her because she helped him or assume she’s gaining his (and our) trust for a future betrayal. I mean, what does her name mean? Is she involved in a Faustian bargain, or is she Faust? We don’t know.
Whichever side she’s on she’s a total badass, clever and daring, able to defeat and disarm large men using awesome moves, even while wearing a fancy gown.
So Hunt is out there tracking the Syndicate, and when he fails to stop, say, an assassination, the CIA sees that he was there, and blames him. So it’s similar to the first movie in that he’s left without the resources of his agency, and hunted by his own government for crimes he didn’t commit. But because of the events of the previous four movies, this time he has loyal friends that he knows he can trust to help him. He doesn’t have to go to a list of other disavowed agents and risk working with a Jean Reno or a Dougray Scott. Ensemble teamwork is one quality that has thankfully increased as the series continues. Hunt is still the focus, but he’s not alone on a cliff. For most of the movie he has Benji, Brandt, Luther or a combination of them on his headset helping him, or else he’s the one helping them.
Hunt and his team are usually one step behind The Syndicate, and three ahead of the CIA. There are many clever tricks. At least one I figured out ahead of time, but it was fun anyway.
McQuarrie previously wrote for Cruise on VALKYRIE and EDGE OF TOMORROW, and directed him in JACK REACHER. I can’t say the action is quite as squeaky clean as in REACHER, but it’s not too far off, and there’s way more of it. The ad campaign was based around the incredible stunt sequence where Cruise hangs onto the side of a plane as it lifts off, clearly done for real. It’s a huge one-upping of part 1’s climactic Chunnel sequence, where he gets blown around on top of a train, but using green-screening effects that don’t hold up too well to the scrutiny of the modern eye. Surprisingly, this now-spoiled highlight is only the opening scene. And there are other maybe less death-defying but probly even cooler set pieces. (Of course Cruise has the airplane stunt under his credit at the end. I would’ve requested that too if I was him.)
I like the chase and fight that take place backstage at the Vienna Opera House. There’s a fist fight recklessly jumping from two planks hanging high above the stage, all nicely framed at least from the waist up, sometimes head to toe, no confusing closeup bullshit. But that’s immediately topped by a suspense scene where Hunt spots multiple gunmen seemingly with their sights set on a head of state in a balcony, and has to decide what to do. It’s all set to the music of the opera, with sheet music showing us the rapidly approaching note on which they’re supposed to fire. It’s the DePalma-iest MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE scene since DePalma’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE.
And there are car chases. And an excellent motorcycle chase that seems heavily George Lucas inspired. In case George Miller takes another decade to do his next movie it’s good to know we got some guys who can capture speed and momentum on film. Also I’m glad Tom Cruise didn’t burn his fuckin knees off. He’s leaning down low on those turns.
And then there’s another homage to the first one when the team has to once again get past an impossible security system to steal a computer file. About this scene I originally wrote: Cruise must’ve really gone underwater, but it seemed more artificial to me than, say, the submerged kitchen scene in JOSS WHEDON’S ALIEN RESURRECTION. Yet it completely works with Hunt having to perform a simple task but while holding his breath and, it turns out, dodging a giant spinning thing. Meanwhile, we keep seeing Benji’s part of the caper, which we know is about to end in his death if Hunt doesn’t finish what he’s doing.
I almost feel like I owe Cruise an apology for that after hearing the Q&A Podcast about ROGUE NATION. Turns out it’s more real than I thought. He did a ridiculous amount of training to be able to hold his breathe for over 3 1/2 minutes for the scene. They even shot it as a “oner” before realizing that it worked better as a team effort. Makes me want to see it again, but I suppose it’s a compliment that I thought it was a great scene even when I assumed it was mostly a bunch of computery business.
There’s a specific thing that happens in this scene that I want to discuss, because it’s when I knew the movie really had me. But it’s a spoilerSPOILERspoiler, so kindly skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t seen it yet. When Hunt failed to open the hatch and started to drown I realized… oh shit, Ilsa Motherfuckin Faust knows he’s in trouble, she’s gonna zoom in and rescue him! And of course she does, but I didn’t see it coming that she would show up in her underwear, like some teen that ends up at a lake party without a swimming suit. I’m not the type to complain about a beautiful woman in her underwear, but what I love about it is that it shows this was not plan B. They did not prepare for this possiblity, but she comes through anyway. She does what it takes. That’s when she steals the movie. I was also thinking it answered the question of whether to trust her or not, but then of course…
This is a very entertaining movie, and I hope it gets McQuarrie in the directing chair more. It’s the kind of movie I like best in the summer, where it takes itself seriously, but also has a bunch of laughs. And there’s some strong “oh shit, how is he gonna get out of this?” tension. I wouldn’t say it matches the level of mastery that DePalma got to, that perfect balance of artful cinema and popcorn fun. This is nitpicking, but a couple times I thought it was just slightly off… like, the almost perfect lead-in to the title sequence felt like it was missing one shot, or one beat? Maybe that’s just me.
There’s an awful lot of fighting that goes on without the people nearby noticing it. Sometimes you just gotta suspend the ol’ disbelief, like in the great fight in the scaffolding, in which it seems like all the grunting and clanging would’ve been noticed by someone. Other times it kind of says something that nobody pays attention to them. When the team sits down at an outdoor restaurant and there are guns pointed and a bomb vest that’s counting down from three minutes, there are innocent diners just a few feet away, minding their own business and not eavesdropping. Like I pointed out in my recent revisit of DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE, these background bystanders raise the stakes, and also introduce this scary idea that the IMF are just barely stopping catastrophes right under our noses, and we have no idea. The world you live in is just a sugar-coated topping.
It got out during filming that they had to stop filming for a week to try to rework the ending. According to the Hollywood Reporter, “McQuarrie was given the extra time to work out a new and improved finale with a writer friend whose identity remains a mystery and who will neither be paid nor credited.” At this time I am prepared to admit that yes, I was the unnamed, unpaid, uncredited writer. To be honest though the lack of credit is fair, because all I did was try to sell McQuarrie on my young-Alec-Baldwin-trying-to-find-the-CIA-bathroom flashback idea, so eventually he asked me to leave.
(Actually it turns out McQuarrie said on that podcast that it was Dylan Kussman, an actor known for WILD THINGS 2. And DEAD POET’S SOCIETY. He was also in WAY OF THE GUN, X-MEN 2 and JACK REACHER, all McQuarrie-connected.)
That story sounded like bad news for the movie, but in retrospect it must’ve been a good idea, because I think this has a really good ending, and it’s such a companion to the opening that they must’ve reworked that too when they figured it out. The leader of the Syndicate, Solomon Lane, is played by Sean Harris, who I didn’t recognize from playing one of the assholes in PROMETHEUS because I swear they modeled his look after the police sketch of the Zodiac killer. He’s not a Hunt doppelganger who should have a fight with him like the villain of part 2, he’s a nerd with a gun, and we know how that sort of thing usually goes. They chase him into, like, a factory or something, he keeps shooting and shouting out taunts, eventually he plummets to his death or some crap.
They skip all that and do something much more simple, but also more effective. They outsmart him, they defeat him, and the whole team is present, posing, not flinching as he takes his last shots, and as he realizes he’s lost. It’s beautiful.
You know what I say? Mission acco– actually somebody already used that one I bet. How bout “this is one MISSION I’M POSSIBLy gonna see again at some point!” Nah, that’s obvious too. Anyway point is I liked it though.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.