Nearly 20 years after the gobsmacking revelation that Mission: Impossible TV hero Jim Phelps had gone bad – and the torch was not passed so much as blasted out of his hands – his big-screen successor Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is showing no signs of slowing down.
Not even death (come on, it’s in the trailer) can stop Ethan’s insane risk-taking, with that big hanging-off-the-side-of-an-airplane stunt coming right at the start of the film. And yes, that is just the beginning, literally and figuratively.
In a fifth instalment that frequently matches the series’ best – Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol – Ethan and team face challenges on multiple fronts.
First, there’s CIA director Hunley (Alec Baldwin), who gets the Impossible Missions Force shut down for all the wanton destruction it has caused.
Ethan, who has been tracking a shadowy organisation known as the Syndicate, now finds himself an outlaw and must track down his target’s elusive leader Solomon Lane (Sean Harris, cold-eyed like a viper and subtly menacing) while evading Hunley’s hunters.
He may have an ally on the inside – the enigmatic Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson, deftly sketching a complicated and conflicted character). a disavowed British agent who is part of the Syndicate but keeps aiding and abetting Ethan (must be his megawatt smile) at every turn.
Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) does a terrific job of balancing the series’ extreme stunts with the shady cloak-and-dagger business, where double-crosses and lies shape the terrain.
There is wry acknowledgement of the M:I movies’ compulsion to pull out all the stops in thrilling their viewers – one character describes the IMF’s successes as being “indistinguishable from luck” – and also of its central character’s seeming need to make everything about him. Of course, anyone suggesting the latter to Ethan just gets a confused squint in response.
If the Syndicate is the anti-IMF, as alluded to in the trailers, then Lane is the anti-Ethan Hunt, an operative so ruthlessly committed to destroying the world order, who is so skilled at manipulation and deception, that he could be one villain our hero cannot hope to defeat.
There’s some poetic justice in the resolution of their conflict, with McQuarrie showing considerable restraint in pulling it off – and expecting the same of the viewer, too.
By that point, we’re willing to cooperate, considering how well entertained McQuarrie has kept us for the past two hours: from an elaborate “night at the opera” set-piece to a knuckle-whitening underwater sequence (on which another character’s life hinges as well), a high-speed road chase with dizzying point-of-view shots to a nicely done high-powered confrontation involving the British PM (Tom Hollander), and lots more in between.
Right in the thick of almost everything is the ever-spry Cruise, a few more crinkles – never call them wrinkles! – around the eyes maybe, but still determined to put his stunt double out of work. His second film with McQuarrie after Jack Reacher sees a comfortable collaboration where the director has managed to successfully translate whatever it is that drives Cruise into a reflection of what it is that drives Ethan (more on that later).
Even Ethan/Cruise can’t do it all on his own, of course, but given his (Ethan’s, that is) disavowed status, his resources are understandably limited. Fortunately, that “limit” includes the skilled and highly, er, effective Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), who is his go-to guy for most of the film. Which is also good for us, of course, since Pegg has frequently been a standout in the series since the third movie.
That’s not to say the rest of the gang just sits around. Diminished as their roles are here, William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) does run some helpful interference with officialdom, while Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) gets to make a stopover in Malaysia (!) among other things.
McQuarrie has crafted an elaborate action-thriller that is so obviously cinematic, yet has the trappings and structure of a (massive) M:I TV episode. It excites and entertains, amuses and occasionally surprises. Not just with jaw-dropping stunts or bursts of violence, but with how finely tuned the character dynamics are where Ethan and Ilsa are concerned.
She’s not just a convenient movie wife like Michelle Monaghan in No 3, or this film’s “Hunt girl”. As the story plays out, you realise that there is a good reason why Ilsa feels so compelled to help Ethan: they are flip sides of the same coin, two highly driven individuals with an overriding impulse to protect and serve their respective societies.
So overriding, that they have become the job, and when their respective countries turn on them, they have nothing but the job – so who better to rely on than another kindred soul? The romantic angle of their situation is (thankfully) downplayed, allowing this kind of character insight to really stand out and add yet another intriguing aspect to what has become, in the space of just two films, the most multidimensional of espionage franchises.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Hollander