It’s very telling that I can remember almost nothing from the plot of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, yet I enjoyed every minute of it. From the film’s opening moments, where it sends Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt up into the sky hanging from the side of a cargo plane in one of the series’ trademark insane stunts, Rogue Nation is a gripping thrill ride, and things like plot, story, and character development be damned. Now on its fifth film, the Mission: Impossible series has evolved and changed over the past nineteen years through a rotating slate of directors, with Cruise’s guiding presence the only true constant, and it seems the series is finally hitting a consistent stride. In jettisoning everything extraneous to the adrenaline rush with which the films hope to jolt the audience, this franchise has become all about the action, and the evolution suits it. Mission: Impossible may only offer half of the James Bond equation for espionage thrillers, but it does so with humor, style, and exciting stunts that make it an excellent way to spend a weekend afternoon with a tub of popcorn by your side.
This latest film in the series begins with the end of the Impossible Missions Force, Ethan Hunt’s secret organization. Hunt is captured by a secret criminal organization known as the Syndicate, whom his superiors believe is a myth. Despite eventually escaping, he escapes to a world where the IMF has been disbanded by the director of the CIA and he is being hunted by the government he formerly served so that he can answer for much of the wide array of wreckage he’s caused as an agent. Months later, and still on the run, he’s narrowed down the Syndicate’s pattern, and is trying to predict their moves to reveal their motives. But he’ll need help, which means reuniting the old team, along with some new faces, and setting off on another globe-trotting, stunt-filled race against time to uncover the truth and stop the Syndicate in their tracks.
Honestly, the plot matters little in a Mission Impossible film. Other than the first, they’ve all revolved around acquiring (or preventing another group from acquiring) some device, technology, or information of some importance. J.J. Abrams even cleverly called attention to this with Mission Impossible III by never revealing what the “Rabbit’s Foot” that everyone was chasing really was. Instead, what we want to see are jaw-dropping stunts in gorgeous locations, with some humor and heart along the way for good measure. Rogue Nation doesn’t fail to disappoint, starting things off with an impressive sequence highlighted by Tom Cruise hanging off the side of a cargo plane in flight. Cruise’s commitment to the stuntwork involved in these films really helps set them apart from other similar action franchises, and it really allows the visuals of the series to stand out and burn themselves in your memory. The rest of the film keeps the adrenaline level high, with thrilling car chases, breathless underwater exploits, tense standoffs, and even a suspenseful scene set at the opera.
Writer/Director Christopher McQuarrie had some big shoes to fill, taking over from big name talent like Abrams, Brian De Palma, John Woo, and Brad Bird, and he proves to be more than up to the challenge. Rogue Nation knows when to get out of its own way, keeping the viewer in the moment rather than filling the screen with distractions. Despite a running length almost matching the series’ longest, it never feels sluggish and no sequence overstays its welcome. It takes more skill to pull off a film of this sort than people are often willing to give credit for, particularly when a star the size of Tom Cruise is involved. As for Cruise, at 53 years old he has a body that would put this 31 year old to shame, and his boyish good looks, energy, and enthusiasm go a long way to making the film a success. He’s helped by a game supporting cast, including regulars Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, and Ving Rhames, with new additions Alec Baldwin as the director of the CIA and Rebecca Ferguson as an agent of questionable loyalties.
Rogue Nation isn’t perfect, however. It’s an extremely solid entry in the series with a great balance to it, but in individual aspects it pales in comparison to some of its predecessors. McQuarrie lacks the visual style of Brad Bird, for instance. The film’s villain, played by Sean Harris, is never particularly interesting, nor is the threat he poses specific enough to get truly interested in. It does have some special things going for it, particularly the fact that there’s no push for a romantic subplot between Ferguson’s character and Hunt (who is, after all, married). In the end, the film itself might be rather forgettable: a fun, exciting way to spend an afternoon which fades to mere images by the next day. And that’s ok, because that’s all we should demand from Mission Impossible. Unlike some other series, James Bond for instance, which need to innovate or else they stagnate and die, this franchise is perfectly fine to continue doing what it’s doing. As long as Cruise is willing, I doubt we’ll see the end of the IMF any time soon. It’s as much his show these days as it is anything else, and it can be refreshing to simply revel in the familiar every now and then. Cruise and Mission Impossible may not be bringing anything new to the table, but there’s no harm in doing something well.