Apart from Mission: Impossible, I can’t think of another big budget action franchise that started off mediocre to bad, only to get better and more exhilarating with later installments. What other action franchise can you think of where the fourth and fifth episodes are better than the first three? As decent as the first three films were in their own right, they were Mission: Impossible in name only, a pet peeve that always bugged me as a fan of the original TV show. The fact that the last two installments managed to insert the show’s team spirit and clever heist/spy intrigue elements into the established action tropes of the franchise puts a big smile on my face.
The last Mission: Impossible flick, Ghost Protocol, was Brad Bird’s first live-action feature after animated hits like The Incredibles. Bird creatively implemented his trademark sense of genre fun, inspired by campy spy and sci-fi material from the 50s and 60s, into the established M:I rulebook in order to create easily the best chapter in the series so far. Following on the footsteps of Ghost Protocol’s emphasis on teamwork and goofy spy genre fun, Rogue Nation creates a slightly more grounded action/thriller while establishing the most delicate balance between the classic Mission: Impossible spy shenanigans and breathtaking action that refreshingly avoids excessive CGI in favor of insane real-life stunts. In a way, we get a double feature that’s expertly blended into one movie.
On one hand, there’s a balls-to-the-wall action flick with impressive and meticulously executed chase and fight scenes, one that takes full advantage of star Tom Cruise’s eagerness to reach whatever afterlife Scientologists believe in. As far as Cruise’s insane stunt work is concerned, the trailers all make a point of showing him hanging onto the side of a plane while it takes off. That sequence is taken care of during the prologue, yet this still leaves Cruise with many other death-defying stunts during the rest of the movie, enough to give the film crew their daily dose of panic attacks. If this franchise reaches double-digit episodes, I’m afraid of seeing a septuagenarian Cruise throwing himself into space wearing nothing but his shorts in order to top his stunts from the previous installments.
On the other hand, we get an exciting spy thriller that uses the team spirit and tech savvy qualities of the show in order to come up with intricate heists and double-crosses that will keep the audience guessing at every corner. Instead of taking a back seat to overlong action set pieces that cater to the lowest common denominator, the way most franchise attempts conduct themselves these days, the spy genre elements take an equal slice of the film’s runtime along with the stunning action sequences. With this balanced approach, the audience who want to see a Tom Cruise actioner, as well as fans of the original show’s emphasis on teamwork and smart writing, both get what they want out of Rogue Nation.
After taking down more than a handful of terrorist organizations hell-bent on destroying civilized world order, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his kick-ass IMF team face an enemy more frustrating and more impossible to beat than any they have ever faced before: American bureaucracy. The film begins with Hunley (Alec Baldwin), a typical cranky movie version of a high level CIA pencil pusher, doing everything he can to shut down IMF because of their unorthodox and destructive working methods. The timing couldn’t be worse for IMF, since a deep underground terrorist syndicate, simply named Syndicate, which consists of an army of rogue disgruntled agents, works overtime to take down Hunt and his kind. Even without the government’s support and the threat of being labeled a traitor, Hunt and his team decide to go after Syndicate and its ruthless mysterious leader (Sean Harris, who gives the most memorable villainous performance in the series).
The first Mission: Impossible gleefully destroyed the series’ team-oriented focus by subverting the expectations of a movie made out of the famous show. That’s what happens when you give such a Hollywood franchise starter to Brian DePalma. The John Woo-helmed second film steered further away from the show by presenting a generic Bond clone with slow-motion doves. The fourth film finally brought the spirit of the show to the forefront and the screenplay for Rogue Nation does an excellent job exploiting the strengths and the weaknesses of each team member. With the full inclusion of Ving Rhames’ Luther, who’s been around since the first movie, and newer team members like hacker Benji (Simon Pegg) and Brandt (Jeremy Renner), who’s the bureaucratic face of IMF, we finally get sort of a dream team of spies.
The franchise has never been forward thinking when it came to the depiction of female characters. The fact that the only purpose of the only woman in the second film was to sleep with the bad guy becomes more and more embarrassing as years pass. In Rogue Nation, we finally get a badass female spy, the mysterious Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), who can physically and intellectually compete with Hunt. Ferguson’s charismatic and soulful performance turns this character into M:I 5’s most original asset.
Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie proved that he knows how to use Cruise’s star power with 2012’s Jack Reacher. Working with a bigger budget and visual canvas this time around, McQuarrie manages to put together some of the most breathtaking action set pieces of the franchise. The thwarting of an assassination attempt in the Vienna Opera House, and an extended motorcycle chase sequence that relies on crazy stunt work (You can see stunt people’s knees almost hitting the asphalt while riding a hundred miles an hour) are only a couple of this episode’s highlights.