I'm not quite sure how Tom Cruise has managed to pull it off with this franchise (the first entry of which marked his first time credited as producer), but it feels like each new MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie is better than the last—not by leaps and bounds, mind you, but the course correction is just enough that this fifth film, ROGUE NATION, finally feels damn near perfect. Nearly every aspect of the film feels stronger as both a pure action exercise and a intricate spy thriller with psychological tension to spare.
A great deal of the credit has to fall to writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, who previously directed THE WAY OF THE GUN, but more importantly has written scripts for Cruise, including fantastic ones for JACK REACHER and EDGE OF TOMORROW. The film feels both familiar and new, thanks to a handful of returning faces (Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, and recent Impossible Mission Force addition William Brandt, played by Jeremy Renner), and first-timer Sean Harris as a whispery, truly menacing villain Lane, who heads up a secret counter-IMF agency known as the Syndicate made up of rogue (believed dead) spies from all over the world. Lane is particularly menacing o Cruise's Ethan Hunt because he seems to have the uncanny ability to predict every move and counter-move the IMF agents will make, and he plans accordingly, sometimes getting them to do his bidding without them realizing it.
Lane's greatest potential weapon is a disgraced British agent named Ilsa Faust (Rebeca Ferguson, best known as the lead in "The White Queen" series), whom he's not quite sure is even 100 percent on his side. She helps Ethan escape more than once, but always in the name of creating ways to get the IMF to carry out impossible missions that the Syndicate can't be bothered to. For most of the film, we're never quite sure whose interests Ilsa is serving, other than her own, and even with fairly startling revelations about her true mission, we still don't know. Ferguson plays Ilsa with a rich combination of class, melancholy, and an absolute willingness to perform any dangerous task with as much gusto and Ethan. More importantly, Ilsa is the first MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE character who I've ever wanted to get their own film.
To talk about the specifics of any of these unthinkable missions is almost pointless, since the only thing you really need to know is that the Syndicate is ultimately trying to destroy the IMF and boosting its ranks with secret monies hidden so well that only the British Prime Minister (Tom Hollander) can get to it. From multiple chases (of the foot, car and motorcycle varieties), an underwater retrieval heist that requires Ethan to hold his breathe for many minutes at a time, and a fight scene that begins in the upper reaches of the Vienna Opera House and end with Cruise and Ferguson dropping from its roof to the street on a wire. The stunts are flawless and continue to give us variations we simply haven't seen before. Much has been discussed about how Cruise does all of his own stunts in his movies, including hanging off the side of a plane taking off in the first five minutes of Rogue Nation, but it makes all the difference in some of these scenes just seeing his face attached to that much danger.
I especially love that Pegg's Benji Dunn is not only getting more to do from the tech side of operations, but he's also been elevated to field agent. He's not doing the most death-defying action, but he's surrounded by it and it makes him more viable by association. The MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movies have always been good about not growing their casts beyond what is absolutely necessary. No actor has been brought on board unless they serve a purpose to the story. So many sequels add a few faces with each new chapter and rarely take away from the headcount, saddling us with what feels like dozens of faces with only enough juicy material for a few. But with Rogue Nation, everyone is active and vital.
The only non-essential thing about the film is the framework (more like bookends, I suppose) of the IMF getting dismantled with the help of overly ambitious CIA head Alan Hunley, played by Alec Baldwin. It doesn't add anything to the proceedings to have the American government attempting to absorb IMF agents into the CIA, but it does give Pegg and Renner an opportunity to use the agency's resources to help Ethan clandestinely.
More than once in ROGUE NATION, the point is made that these remaining team members are also friends, and I think that's an important turning point. With the IMF no longer operating, these men are doing this out of loyalty and friendship to Ethan, not as part of a mission. I like the odd couple of Ethan and Benji, and the way Rhames's Luther does everything he does to help old pal. There's more of a heart in this film than the more artificial macho friendships generated in the FAST & FURIOUS films.
Another great addition is Sean Harris, a television and indie film powerhouse ('71, PROMETHEUS, "The Borgias"), whose Lane might be the best-written character in the movie. He scares Ethan because he's smarter than Ethan, which makes him both dangerous and vulnerable. Ethan tells his comrades that going after Lane isn't personal, but they all know that's bullshit. There's something about Lane's speeches concerning Ethan's use of force in a world where extreme violence is frowned upon in most cases. I wouldn't go so far as to say MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - ROGUE NATION was the thinking-person's action film, but it's about as close as we've come. I hope McQuarrie and Cruise continue down this road of smart, thrilling, well-acted action pieces that care about story, character development, and being unapologetically entertaining. Who knew that would ever work?