In the opening sequence of Rogue Nation, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt clings to the side of a jet plane as it rises into the air. Talk about putting all your cards on the table. I’m happy to report that this is far from the coolest thing in the movie. The fifth installment in the long-running Mission: Impossible franchise is a sterling example of what I like to call “wow” cinema. I uttered the phrase so many times I lost count. Rogue Nation is almost a textbook definition of how to make a satisfying summer action flick.
Since the events of the previous film, Hunt has been leaping around the world attempting to track the Rogue Nation of the film’s title, a shadowy organization called the Syndicate that Hunt believes is behind a recent string of chaotic events that has incited wars and killed off important world leaders. Assisting him are returning IMF agents Benji (Simon Pegg), William (Jeremy Renner) and Luther (Ving Rhames). But the IMF is stymied by CIA Director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), who is convinced that the government’s off-the-books operations team is too chaotic and destructive to continue. With both their own government and the Syndicate attempting to take them down, Hunt and his team are forced to go into hiding even as they continue to search for the Syndicate’s leader and take him out.
I was not convinced that this installment could live up to the very high bar set by the last MI film, Ghost Protocol. That film rejuvenated the franchise, giving us a great new team, increased humor, improved writing and some truly jaw-dropping set piece action scenes. But Rogue Nation builds on the strengths of all its predecessors, delivering the most entertaining and arguably the best MI film to date.
Rogue Nation’s main strength is that it manages to feel fresh without actually doing anything particularly novel. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie clearly has a love and respect for the franchise, and it shows, with many homages to previous films. In fact, much of the story and even some of the scenarios here are essentially copies of things from its predecessors. We’ve seen IMF on the run from their own government before, and there’s even a sequence where the team is required to work for the bad guy in order to get what they want. There’s even an epic motorcycle chase (hello, MI2) and the story, as usual, is pretty complicated and nonsensical.
But none of that matters, because McQuarrie manages to fill Rogue Nation with so many of the things I want in an MI film. A great MI film needs to have both great action and great espionage, and this one really delivers. The most thrilling scene is the attempt to thwart an assassination inside a Viennese opera theater. Or maybe it’s the nail-biting drop into an underwater hydraulic tunnel. Or maybe it’s the aforementioned bike chase, so fast it may give some audience members whiplash. This movie is obsessed with topping itself, and it does so in nearly every scene.
It helps that the actors are committed to good, old-fashioned stunts. In a summer season often filled with unconvincing CGI, Rogue Nation is so thrilling because we remind ourselves that Tom Cruise is actually flying through the air on the outside of a plane oh my gosh! And, oh wow, it sure looks like he’s holding his breath underwater a long time oh wait, he is. These old-fashioned, do-or-die thrills are all too rare in contemporary action cinema, and it’s something Mission: Impossible always delivers on.
The script also gets the humor just right, relying on the strength of situational comedy rather than going for any cheap laughs. These characters are such a delight to be around: in particular, Simon Pegg is an absolute riot. I’m glad this franchise keeps giving his awesome character so much to do. The strength of the writing also shines in new character Isla Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a British agent with an agenda of her own. Her arc kept me guessing whose side she was really on, and even when I thought I had it figured out the film managed to throw in some twists I didn’t expect.
The issues in every Mission: Impossible film are still problems here. Sean Harris’ villain is not all that impressive. The plot still remains somewhat convoluted (though I would put its relatively clear plotting about even with Ghost Protocol). And the relentless pace and intensity of the movie’s multiple heart-stopping sequences may be a bit too much of a good thing for some viewers. I also found the climax a big underwhelming compared to what the rest of the film dished out.
Thankfully, Rogue Nation really has it where it counts. McQuarrie really plays to the strengths of this franchise, and this bad boy sings. One of the major reasons I love going to the movies is seeing things I haven’t seen before. Mission: Impossible always showcases something new. Despite its derivative story, Rogue Nation delivers and then some. Like this summer’s Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s willing to show us just how far some filmmakers and stars are willing to risk life and limb for our enjoyment. The raw danger of the cinema has come roaring back, and I hope films like Rogue Nation are the rule, not the exception.