It’s been almost twenty years since Brian DePalma first revived the 60s television series Mission: Impossible as a film. This fact is remarkable for a few reasons, the first being that it proves the remake/reboot trend has existed much, much longer than people realize (I’d bet that most who have seen the recent Mission: Impossible movies even know there was a TV series), the second being that unlike other franchises, specifically in the horror and superhero genre such as Paranormal Activity (five movies since 2007, with a sixth coming this year) and Spider-Man (5 films since 2002, with another series on the way), the M:I series has been remarkably spaced out and not suffered the same rapid decline in quality that other series have. But the most important thing about the Impossible series continuing after nineteen years is that Tom Cruise remains at the front of these films (while there are now three Spider-Men), doing even more insane stunts in his early 50s than he did in his mid-30s. At this point, Cruise doing his own stunt work is basically the reason to see one of his movies.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation begins with exactly what the audience expects from a Tom Cruise action flick: the star rushing onto the screen and clinging to side of an airplane as it takes off. Ubiquitous as it may be in the marketing, it’s still quite amazing to see Cruise himself tensing up as the plane speeds along, hair whipping and feet dangling as he’s lifted into the air. The sequence is wisely shot looking directly into the face of its star to show the audience that it’s really him, not some double or computer image.
If this summer has shown us anything following the release of Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World, and Terminator: Genisys, it’s the difference between practical effects and computer generated imagery. Like the aforementioned films (especially Mad Max and Jurassic) computer effects in Rogue Nation are easily noticeable. Granted, some of the sequences in the film would be too dangerous for even daredevil Cruise to undertake, but the difference between seeing his face in the opening sequence, and seeing either his back or barely seeing him at all as he flung around in inhuman ways, is glaring.
This isn’t to say that Cruise or anyone else needs to take even more risks (in fact Simon Pegg as Benji Dunn says that one day Cruise’s Ethan Hunt will push himself too far. This could just as easily apply to the actor as much as the character) it’s just that the best moments in the film are easily those when the action and the danger feel real, regardless of how many safety harnesses are later removed from the shot. The intensity of any action sequence is dependent upon believing that the characters are legitimately in danger. This is what has made Cruise’s recent work, like the previous M:I movie or last year’s underrated Edge of Tomorrow, so engaging. Few things add to that believability like seeing the performers do the work themselves, stuntmen or not, instead of computer models. That said, even when we can see the performers right up close during the action, that doesn’t necessary mean intensity will follow.
More than in any previous installment of the franchise this Mission: Impossible may be the most aptly named in that it has the unenviable task of following 2011’s stellar Ghost Protocol. While it isn’t fair to compare two completely different movies, it’s hard not to notice that Rogue Nation never reaches the metaphorical or literal heights of its predecessor. Individual sequences are very well made but there is nothing in Rogue Nation as phenomenal as the Burj Khalifa climb. Not even the CGI-heavy sequence equals its counterpart in Brad Bird’s installment. Similarly, there is one clear parallel to the famous wire scene in the very first Mission: Impossible (again, nineteen years ago) but it still doesn’t match in either tension or staging. None of this is to say that the action sequences in Rogue Nation are necessarily bad, or that they aren’t well crafted or well shot, but that there isn’t the same ambition in this film as there seemed to be in others. Whereas the best films in the franchise have their own identities, and even Mission: Impossible II is “the really, really John Woo one,” Rogue Nation feels merely serviceable. It’s fine but nothing else.
Sadly, the lack of really memorable sequences makes the absurdities of the story that much more obvious. Betrayals, disappearances, and convoluted logic are so prevalent that half way through it would be more surprising if there weren’t a double cross than when there inevitably is. Going back to the Burj Khalifa sequence again, I don’t even remember why Hunt had to make that climb, but the sequence itself was so good that it doesn’t matter. In Rogue Nation, the story and loyalties are again needlessly twisted, but the setpieces aren’t good enough to make us interest in them without a reason to care what happens. Christopher McQuarrie (who wrote one of my all-time favorite films) could write a taunt, action-packed, spy thriller. With more development, especially of the villain, Rogue Nation could have been an intense, politically-charged film about established power systems with a surprisingly touching love story. Instead, this script comes off as more of an attempt to play into audience expectations of constantly shifting loyalties, shallow characters, and a handful of cool stunts. Here again, Rogue Nation lacks the ambition to be anything more than a decent popcorn flick.
It should be noted that Cruise isn’t the only holdover from the first M:I film as Ving Rhames reprises his role after a mere cameo in Ghost Protocol. Rhames’s seeming replacement as hacker/comic relief Simon Pegg also returns, along with Jeremy Renner, the one-time heir-apparent for the franchise after Cruise hit 50. For some perspective, new addition Alec Baldwin is only four years older than Cruise, and the most intense movement he makes is raising his hands. However, even as all the guys return, the female lead is changed, as it has for each of the five films. It’s minor, inconsequential, and makes no difference to the film’s quality, but it is curious that while Cruise can last five films and nineteen years in the same role, none of the lead actresses could last more than one.