Monday, August 3, 2015



- The Mission Impossible movies have always been unique among modern action franchise films. There's nothing particularly memorable about their characters or plotlines, yet the franchise has consistently delivered solid - even great - action thrills via a series of talented directors and a star, in Tom Cruise, who is always absolutely driven to ensure that each MI film pushes the limits. Cruise - not his character Ethan Hunt - is the real star of Mission Impossible. He brings an intensity and physicality to these movies - even at age 50 - that few other modern-day action stars can approach. And in ROGUE NATION, Cruise is paired with a director who is similarly old-school in his approach to visceral action - Christopher McQuarrie. McQuarrie, both as a writer and director, has a knack for infusing movies with clockwork precision in story and action. In a franchise that's gone extreme via John Woo and over-the-top big via Brad Bird, McQuarrie brings things back down to earth - crafting a visceral film that makes sure that each action scene is tightly crafted and tells a story. In my mind, that makes ROGUE NATION the best in the series to date. While other MI movies tend to be entertaining but ultimately somewhat forgettable, ROGUE NATION'S cleverly choreographed action scenes have stuck with me over the last few weeks. This one was a great way to close out the summer blockbuster season - an old-school action movie that works on all levels.

The short version of ROGUE NATION's premise is that Cruise's Hunt is on the run and separated from his team. The Mission: Impossible unit has been disbanded by a government that finds it too much of a liability. But instead of coming home to roost, Hunt goes rogue - convinced that a top-secret organization called The Syndicate is pulling the strings from behind the scenes - taking out MI operatives and plotting various nefarious acts of global terror. Jeremy Renner's William Brandt - the MI government liason introduced in the last film - finds his hands tied by the government's blacklisting of the whole MI program, but he decides to help out Hunt in secret. As does Simon Pegg's ever-loyal tech expert Benji, and Ving Rhames' bruising weapons guru Luther. Hunt desperately tries to find the mysterious man behind the curtain of The Syndicate - the villainous Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), even as he runs afoul of femme fatale Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), who may be working for The Syndicate, may be a double agent, or may have her own mysterious agenda.

So, a couple things to talk about there. The first is that McQuarrie does great things with the MI team. After five movies, this is the first one where I realized that I really dug this combo of actors and characters. McQuarrie infuses all of the team members with jolts of personality. I mean, sure, Pegg has the comic chops and charisma to make Benji entertaining regardless. But here, Benji is more than just comic relief - we really get insight into his friendship with /hero worship of Hunt - and there's an added emotional layer to the character. There's lots of great banter - and genuine tension - between Cruise, Pegg, Renner, and Rhames. Throw in Alec Baldwin as a melodramatic government suit at odds with Renner, and you've got lots of great character dynamics to play with.

I also really enjoyed Sean Harris as the villain. He's like Mike Myers' Dieter as the leader of a global criminal conspiracy. And man, the final confrontation between him and Hun is just ingeniously staged. But more than that, the way the villains are introduced here is just Action Movie Making 101. McQuarrie gives each of Harris' henchmen just enough personality to make every fight and chase feel personal.

But the biggest story here is clearly Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust (great character name, by the way). Begin your fan-casting for her in the role of every kick-ass female franchise part now, because she is flipping fantastic in ROGUE NATION. As much as we've seen the which-side-is-she-really-on? femme fatale done before, Ferguson owns the part in a way that's rare and noteworthy. In the past, we've seen female leads in the MI-verse that couldn't quite match Cruise's intensity and presence. But here, Ferguson proves herself to be the real deal. It helps that the film's script ultimately does right by her character - giving her an arc that ultimately makes sense, and emotional and dramatic stakes that matter. But you've also got to give credit to the presence and badassery of the actress bringing this character to life. Suffice it to say, there's a brutal fight scene towards the film's end in which a lesser movie would have sidelined Ilsa. But in ROGUE NATION, Ilsa is not only right in the middle of the fray, but she is a complete ninja.

To talk a little more about Cruise, I think we're all getting to the point where - whacked-out Scientology baggage aside - we've got to acknowledge Cruise as a modern cinematic treasure. The level of commitment the guy brings to these roles - whether it be via participating in insane stunts, or just in general with the ferocity and physicality of his acting - is unmatched. Cruise is one of the few actors who I'm basically okay watching play a version of himself. Not to say he can't also do great character roles. But what I'm saying is: I can forgive Ethan Hunt being sort of a blank slate, because really, we're here to watch the Cruise show. And what's sort of - again - ingenious about ROGUE NATION is how fully aware it is of that on a meta / script level. The movie's main themes - about Hunt being turned on by the cruel system that birthed him, and wondering if he should just chuck it all and disappear - nicely parallel Cruise's own story. In any case, Cruise 100% brings his A-game to this one, and it makes a difference.

Now, Cruise and McQuarrie had a nice little action-sleeper recently with Jack Reacher. But their skill-sets really sync perfectly here. ROGUE NATION has several standout set-piece action scenes that are just masterfully composed. I'm thinking about a gorgeously shot fight scene that takes place backstage at an opera house, as Hunt tangles with a Syndicate heavy atop suspended platforms that rise and fall depending on how they are weighted. I'm thinking about a nail-biting underwater sequence in which Hunt has to hold his breath while trying to open a computerized lock, all while giant rotors rotate around him, forcing him to dodge for his life. I'm thinking of a high-speed motorcycle chase that has you holding on to dear life in your seat. What makes these action scenes work so well? For one thing, each is big, elaborate - and yet, each is grounded in physics and logic and "rules." It's amazing how effective an action scene can be when we understand the physics of what's happening in a given moment - that's how you make something visceral. For another thing, each one tells a story. We understand what the characters are after, it's clear what the goal is, and we understand the underlying stakes. Again, it's movie-making 101, but it feels like a lost-art in today's blockbuster world.

My only complain with the film is that, occasionally, the tone feels a little off. McQuarrie tends towards the pulpy - which is cool - but I think that the movie occasionally has some dialogue and character stuff that serves as unintentional comic relief because it's so grandiose. Alec Baldwin, in particular, goes a little too Jack Donaghy in some places.

ROGUE NATION feels like a throwback - not because there's anything dated about it, but simply because it feels practical, real, and beholden to real-world logic even at its most extreme. This is the rare action movie that has you hanging on every punch, every leap, every bullet's trajectory.  The best Mission: Impossible movie and one of the summer's best.

My Grade: A-

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