Fast and Furious gets attention for being one of the rare series to completely reinvent itself over time (to both critical and financial success), but with Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, it has become clear that it is the latter series that has more firmly reinvented itself and finally found its footing. What started as a typically subversive and visceral Brian De Palma film, disguised as both a star vehicle for Tom Cruise and a high-budget adaptation of a television show, then transformed into a cheesy John Woo vehicle, eventually settled down into a more straightforward action picture with the underrated M:i3. To this point in time, each Mission had been drastically separate from its predecessor, every director leaving his distinct impression on the same general premise: disavowed agents, the IMF going rogue, etc. But the negative effect of this was that the character of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), along with his ever-changing roster of IMF crewmembers, was forced to continually adapt to the drastically altered aesthetics of each installment. So while the films were serviceable and fun, there was never really a sense of character building or continuity beyond Cruise and Ving Rhames appearing on screen together.
That changed with the third film, which placed an emphasis on Hunt’s home life, his marriage, and introduced the character of Benji (Simon Pegg), who was initially the M:I version of James Bond’s Q, but has since transformed into a major supporting player.
And it was with Ghost Protocol in 2011 that the series truly seemed to find its footing, carrying over the story continuity and characters from M:I 3 while still allowing its director, Brad Bird, to mold the film in his own style.
With this all said, Rogue Nation, directed by Christopher McQuarrie, is closer to Ghost Protocol than any of the other films, and by now we feel as though the Ethan Hunt we are seeing on screen has become something of a fully-formed and consistent character, as much as an action film may allow him to be. At the end of the day, this isn’t Cruise wildly diverting from his usual onscreen persona, but there’s a warmness and self-deprecation to Ethan Hunt here that we didn’t have in the transition from, say, the first film to the second, where he was just a generic glorified action figure who was way too cool to show any self-awareness or wit.
Despite rumours of troubled production (McQuarrie was reportedly still working out an ending to the film when the studio decided to push it up to a summer release from its original Christmas opening), you wouldn’t know it from the look of this picture. This is something it shares in common with George Miller’s Mad Max Fury Road, a long-delayed picture whose negative press had many convinced it would be a dud, but which turned out to be one of the more strongly-reviewed action films of the decade.
And here’s something else Rogue Nation shares with Miller’s film: a strong feminine role, one that almost threatens to steal the picture away from the leading man. Paula Patton did some fine work in Ghost Protocol, but her replacement, Rebecca Ferguson, is a revelation. McQuarrie and Cruise were reportedly in search of a “Golden Age” star, someone whose look reflected a bygone era, and they found her. (It almost seems a winking nod that part of the film takes place in Casablanca.) This is a star-making turn, and it’s a rare sign of humility for Cruise, 53, to allow a supporting player to potentially upstage him; harkening back to the Interview with a Vampire days, he has always been concerned about having his star status diminished by the people around him, which was in fact a major criticism of the original Mission from fans of the TV show, who claimed it abandoned the ensemble elements in favour of a one-man show. It was a fair criticism, but with Rogue Nation, Cruise has, ahem, disavowed this tendency, and it is to the benefit of the film.
Speaking of ensemble casting, even more so than Ghost Protocol, this is a team piece. Jeremy Renner, once touted as a possible successor to Cruise, is largely relegated to sideline scenes with Alec Baldwin, but these work more effectively than I imagined they might, and when he eventually reunites with the rest of the gang, it feels a bit more poignant. And it’s strangely satisfying to see Rhames back (apart from a cameo at the end, he was absent altogether from Protocol), his oft-referenced history with Ethan another example of the series’ sudden turn towards stressing its continuity.
And if you’re just here for the action sequences, well, there are plenty of those, too. Some of them are the best of the series: the motorcycle free-for-all in Casablanca is breathtaking, for example, and if Mad Max had not come out this year, it would be safe to say Rogue Nation had the best chase sequence in recent memory. It makes the CGI-laden Furious films look weak by comparison.
Deftly blending practical stunt work with minimal CGI, McQuarrie’s film is closer in tone and spirit to a traditional spy film than any of the other movies. A sequence at the Vienna Opera is, well, operatic, and so fluid and beautiful to look at and funny (McQuarrie enjoys riffing on Cruise’s stature as an action hero) that it could easily rank as one of the better Bond set pieces. And without spoiling anything, the movie sets itself up nicely for a direct sequel, something none of the other movies have ever really bothered to do.
Action films don’t get much better than this, especially for a series that is almost 20 years old and has starred the same actor for every installment. This is one of those movies where you’re swept up in the momentum from beginning to end, and any weaknesses are easily ignored because of how much fun you’re having while you watch it unfold.