Early in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation Ethan Hunt goes to a record store and plays a vinyl album on which is encoded the details of his next mission (should he accept it). This bit isn’t just a clever wink to the modern resurgence of vinyl, it’s a statement of purpose - as much as it can be, Rogue Nation wants to be an analog film.
Sure, there’s plenty of CGI, but the movie’s thrills are predicated on the reality of its action scenes: Tom Cruise hanging off a real plane as it really takes off, Tom Cruise really riding a motorcycle at insane speeds on a winding highway, Tom Cruise really jumping and punching and hitting and running. It’s been said that Tom Cruise is the biggest special effect in this franchise, and here, more than ever, it is true.
That analog nature of the stunts is old-fashioned, but not as old-fashioned as director Christopher McQuarrie’s sense of craft. Every set piece in this film is crafted with care and precision, edited with elegance and excitement, shot with clarity and beauty and played for maximum thrills and fun. Every action scene in Rogue Nation is great, and no action scene overstays its welcome or feels shoe-horned in. I’ve harped on this with other action films, and I’ll do it again here: every action scene in this movie tells a story, has a beginning, middle and end, and every single one reveals things about characters and their relationships with one another.
I don’t know what the best action scene is in the film. Is it the opening with Cruise hanging from the plane, redefining spectacle in a post-CGI age? Is it the elaborate and gripping opera house hunt and silent battle? Maybe it’s the chase through the streets of Morocco that feels totally modern and fresh while still doing some old fashioned things like having cars careen through market stalls. Perhaps it’s the incredibly tense diving sequence that has reversal after reversal and yet still contains tons of character work. All of them are great, and all of them add up to what would have been the best action movie of the year if the phenomenon that is Mad Max: Fury Road hadn’t already come out.
This time Ethan Hunt has met his match - two of them to be exact. One is Sean Harris as Lane, the mysterious and almost omnipotent head of an evil spy group known as The Syndicate. The other is Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust, Lane’s associate whose loyalties are forever in flux, but whose badass capabilities remain forever at their peak. Lane is constantly one step ahead of everyone, and his uncanny understanding of human nature allows him to second guess every choice Ethan Hunt makes. The only person he can’t quite fathom is Ilsa, and neither can Ethan. She goes from aiding him to betraying him, from saving him to almost killing him. She’s so fucking cool.
Tom Cruise is the star of this franchise - it’s basically Tom Cruise’s Stunt Spectacular at this point - but Rebecca Ferguson is the star of this movie. She is gorgeous and lethal, tempering Ilsa’s super spy abilities with a very human underpinning. She’s more of a human than Ethan Hunt has ever been, even when there was a whole movie about his goddamned wife, but she’s also twice the badass he is. I would say that Ethan and Ilsa are truly equals, but the truth is that she is so much cooler than he is. She could be the next Imperator Furiosa, in terms of female action characters who grab the zeitgeist by the throat and don’t let go. If she doesn’t quite become that it’s only because Ferguson is such a terrific actress that Ilsa ends up with too many dimensions to be reduced to simply an outfit that can be cosplayed.
This is the first entry in the series that feels like it’s an entry in a series; there’s even a bit that explicitly calls back to the ending of the last film. While the premise of these movies have always been that they are mostly standalone, I like the feeling here that it’s all settled into a rhythm. The relationship between Ethan and his team has gone from professional to personal, and there’s a lot of talk about helping friends and being there for friends. It feels like Fast Five in that way, in that it’s an entry in a series where everything gels together. It sort of makes me hope someone dies in the next instalment; even though Ving Rhames’ Luther has been in every single one of these movies it wasn’t until this instalment that I realized I would hate to see him bite the dust - which means that after Ghost Protocol I’ve finally become emotionally attached to some of these guys!
The team ably assists Ethan, with Simon Pegg’s Benji getting the most screentime. The relationship between Benji and Ethan is, frankly, weird, and I like that about it. These two shouldn’t be pals, but the chemistry between Cruise and Pegg is real. At the same time Pegg seems to clearly be always aware that he’s sharing a scene with Tom Cruise, and that works for nerd turned field agent Benji as well - this guy is friends with Ethan Hunt, but Ethan is also his hero.
Meanwhile Jeremy Renner remains an odd fit. I think he’s an odd fit in almost everything, and like Avengers: Age of Ultron, Rogue Nation turns that to its advantage. The film keeps Renner’s Brandt out of the action for a long time, and when he does finally join Hunt in the field there’s a real sense of distrust; is Brandt truly part of the Impossible Mission Force family or is he planning on betraying Ethan? In Avengers it was the reveal of Hawkeye’s family that helped integrate him into the larger fabric by making him more whole, here it’s the way that Brandt… well, that would be spoiling.
This isn’t a spoiler: McQuarrie’s movie (written by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce) is so smart that it actually textualizes the fact that Tom Cruise will not die in one of these films. We all know the hero won’t die, but that everyone else is fair game, and in this film the bad guys realize the same thing. Textually it’s because Ethan has info they need, but metatextually it works just as well, with Ethan literally putting himself between his friends and bullets because he knows no one will shoot him.
That metatextual smartness extends to conflict at the center of the movie. Lane is using his training as a superspy to create havoc in the world in order to effect change. He accuses Ethan of using violence to maintain the status quo and to protect the system. In many ways this is indie actor Sean Harris talking to Hollywood superstar Tom Cruise, and Ethan’s reply is perfect - whether it be about the state of global power or the state of the movie industry - you can’t blame The System as though it is a thing that exists outside of us. We are all part of The System, and the choices we make impact it all. This is McQuarrie planting a flag, saying that you can walk into Hollywood and make a huge, expensive, star-driven franchise sequel based on a TV show and still make it really, really good. The System isn’t the problem, it’s how the people in The System approach it. And McQuarrie approaches it, like Ethan Hunt, as something that can be used for good as long as you believe and work hard and are willing to put it all on the line.
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation proves that theory by being absolutely fucking excellent; it is the best film in this series, and it is a perfectly realized piece of cinematic craftsmanship, one that would make any of the truly skilled great filmmakers proud. There’s no reason your TV adaptation has to suck. There’s no reason the fifth film in your franchise has to be a cynical cash grab. There’s no reason your big blockbuster movie has to be filled with incoherent pixels attacking other incoherent pixels. There’s no reason your big Hollywood movie star can’t get out there and work his ass off to entertain and thrill you. There’s no reason to make a bad movie. Christopher McQuarrie walked into The System and proved that one man can make a difference.