Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
In Hollywood nowadays, franchises don’t last for too long. By the fourth or fifth movie, many major franchises end up stagnating, with the quality of the early instalments slowly eroded away. Sometimes, this ‘sequelitis’ is overcome by a long break followed by a refreshed entry that swaps in a mostly new cast, and sometimes, it’s not overcome at all. Mission: Impossible is not a franchise that had paid much attention to the norm – it’s nineteen years old as of this year, and the franchise has never been in better shape going into its latest, fifth instalment, Rogue Nation. Does Rogue Nation equal its extremely entertaining predecessor, or does it fall into the well-trodden path that many late franchise instalments have followed?
Very much like its predecessor, Rogue Nation is a madcap runaway train of a movie – placing carefully constructed, gleefully insane action sequences at its centre alongside broadly drawn yet meaningful character work, Rogue Nation impresses in many of the areas that Ghost Protocol also excelled in, even if it takes a vastly different approach in certain areas. Of course, it’s worth talking first and foremost about the action. Funnily enough, the action sequence that has fuelled a great deal of Rogue Nation’s marketing efforts isn’t even the most memorable here. Tom Cruise clinging to a plane with his fingertips without the use of a stunt double is as novel and as impressively crazy as it was in all the trailers, yet it fails to truly eclipse the jaw-dropping insanity of the Burj Khalifa stunt from Ghost Protocol – it’s hard to complain much about this, but it certainly seems that despite Cruise’s attempts to one-up himself every movie, the actor performed a stunt last time that seems impossible to top. More importantly, however, the plane stunt is overshadowed by the action sequences that follow – perhaps not in terms of shock value, but the immaculate presentation and clever construction of the rest of Rogue Nation’s myriad action sequences actually lead to this centrepiece stunt becoming one of the less memorable action scenes in the movie. That’s less a criticism of the undoubtedly commendable plane stunt that opens the movie, and more a statement of how good the rest of the action sequences are.
Where Rogue Nation’s action sequences triumph is not in scope, but in how impressively made they are – for instance, a first act battle at the opera makes clever and original use of the background opera music to stage a creative, often extremely quiet brawl that almost acts as a launching pad for the rest of the movie. An underwater heist later on exploits the well-worn trope of the ticking clock to deliver a quite literally breathtakingly tense scene that almost manages to convince the viewer that Ethan Hunt, invincible superhero, might not actually make it – and, seamlessly, that entertaining heist flows into two separate chase sequences that are perhaps not overly innovative on their own, but still work both as parts of a extended multi-part action sequence that never threatens to become dull, and as separate, entertaining action scenes on their own.
Rogue Nation also manages to weave some great comedy into the action, too – Simon Pegg, on top form here (even if IMF agent Benji’s character development this time is minimal), works excellently in the chase sequence as a terrified counterpart to the eternally focused and rarely fazed Cruise, and some of the central characters are reunited at one point with a gag that conveys a great deal of humour with just facial expressions and minimal dialogue. There’s a couple of unfortunately naff moments, such as a cartoonish stunt with a car during a chase and a weird conclusion to an action sequence that comes out of nowhere, but Rogue Nation still provides a hugely impressive array of varied action sequences that are linked by their ambitious stunts, great humour and strong direction.
Not entirely unexpectedly, Rogue Nation never quite equals the effectiveness of its action with either its plot or villain. The plot is often intriguing as it zigzags from betrayal to betrayal, and the central theme of loyalty within the morally fluid world of espionage is a fitting one that’s explored well through the characters, but Rogue Nation often falls back on a formulaic MacGuffin plot that employs a little too many of the typical clichés of recent blockbusters. It’s often overly convoluted, and the movie gets tangled up towards the end with the web of lies and betrayals it’s constructed – though it does manage to clean up some of this messiness to finish strongly. The villain, Solomon Lane, is admittedly an improvement over the non-entity that Ghost Protocol coughed up by virtue of receiving some relatively original motivations and stronger characterisation but Lane doesn’t get enough screen-time for his character arc to truly register, and the idea of the Syndicate is one that’s unfortunately getting rather popular nowadays in blockbusters. These are fundamental problems, but it’s hard for these faults to make a major dent on the film’s quality when Rogue Nation continuously compensates for its storytelling faults with superb action, and a handful of genuinely well-written characters.
One of those well-written characters is one that’s been highlighted in almost every review of this movie – Ilsa Faust, played by relative newcomer Rebecca Ferguson. Unlike the staunchly heroic female lead that Paula Patton played in Ghost Protocol, Ilsa is an enigmatic figure, with fluid allegiances that shape Ilsa into a compellingly ambiguous creation. It’s genuinely unclear for most of the movie as to what side Ilsa will actually end up on, with Rogue Nation delivering twist after twist that send Ilsa into unexpected, intriguing areas – yet the movie never manages to drain Faust of agency or power (despite threatening to at some points), with Faust remaining pretty much an equal to Ethan Hunt for all of the movie. Anchored by a cool, calm performance by Rebecca Ferguson that incorporates slivers of vulnerability in order to humanise the character, Ilsa effectively personifies the movie’s themes by becoming in turns sympathetic and dislikeable without these changes feeling inorganic, and in doing so becomes easily the most well-rounded character of the movie.
The rest of the heroes are perfectly adequate – Jeremy Renner gets a couple of Rogue Nation’s funniest lines as IMF agent William Brandt (and the movie follows up nicely on Brandt’s ambiguous role in Ghost Protocol by playing with the viewer perception of the character at points), and Tom Cruise is as unflappably charismatic as ever as Ethan Hunt, a character who probably possesses strength and endurance on level with a superhero at this point. Alec Baldwin’s character, Hunley, an obstructive CIA bigwig, could have done with a little more screen-time, but Baldwin is still enjoyable enough here, managing to sell a hilariously cheesy late-game monologue that contains, perhaps unintentionally, one of the most memorable lines of the movie.
Rogue Nation’s third act was actually rewritten during filming, with production briefly stopping while the writers worked on a new conclusion – and it’s easy to see that here, with the third act taking the movie into an entirely different area that’s powered more by dramatic exchanges between characters than explosive action. The movie wobbles a little in the transition towards the end of the second act, but it rights itself to deliver a final confrontation that’s tenser and better written (despite the movie lifting a plot point from an episode of Sherlock) than Ghost Protocol’s climatic battle, and a cathartically satisfying payoff that acts, cleverly, as the exact reverse of a scene from the first act. The choice to go smaller scale with the third act was an unusual one, but it’s hard to see how Rogue Nation could have topped the preceding action sequences; unlike Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation wisely recognises it’s not worth trying to one-up itself in terms of action.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is a flawed movie with a relatively weak plot and villain, but it achieves almost all of what it set out to do in considerable style, with original and inventive action that’s enhanced by decent thematic depth and a terrific female lead. It’s one of the best action movies this summer, proving that this veteran franchise still has plenty of gas in the tank – as long as Tom Cruise is still willing to perform utterly insane daredevil stunts, it’s hard to see Mission: Impossible fading into obscurity any time soon.