It was J.J. Abrams and Mission: Impossible III that finally got the formula right. (Predictably, by focusing less on “Tom Cruise, Action Star” and incorporating more of the team-based dynamics that drove the original television show.) Then Brad Bird perfected that formula with Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, proving that this series could hold its ground against, if not surpass, any other action franchise going. Cruise is no dummy. He knows they’ve hit a groove here, and there’s been a strong continuity in place since III, both on screen and off. The newest installment, Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, is once again preceded by the logo of Bad Robot, Abrams’ production company. And three of the series’ best used supporting players — Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner and Ving Rhames — return to fight, sneak and spy alongside of Cruise’s indefatigable and seemingly ageless secret agent.
Rogue Nation isn’t as good as Ghost Protocol, but that’s almost beside the point. The important thing to note is that where Cruise and company once struggled with how to turn Mission: Impossible into a creatively viable ongoing franchise, they now seem to be able to put together energetic new installments with hardly any effort at all. This series has become a well-oiled machine that’s only function is to spit out spy shenanigans that are a joy to watch every few years.
New Mission, new director, and it’s Jack Reacher’s Christopher McQuarrie who steps into the big chair this go-round. (He co-writes as well.) Within the first 15 minutes of the movie, there’s a great twist that will have fans smiling from ear to ear and sends Cruise’s Ethan Hunt on a quest to bring down “The Syndicate,” a sort of anti-IMF terrorist group that wants to burn the world down, League of Assassins-style. Unfortunately, Hunt doesn’t have the full power of the IMF behind him, as the director of the CIA (Alec Baldwin) has convinced the U.S. government to shutter the special unit put their assets under his control. Hunt has made a lot of buddies through four films though, and he is soon joined by Benji, Brandt and Luther, as well as a mysterious British agent named Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), as he embarks on what could be the IMF’s final and most important mission.
The plot isn’t the strongest. (Really? Another movie where everyone’s after a boring old list that’s on a hard drive somewhere?) But McQuarrie has a blast working within the spy genre. This is the kind of movie where an armed villain sneaks into well-guarded opera by carrying a flute that transforms into a sniper rifle. There are nail-biting heists and motorcycle chases and knife fights, all stacked gleefully on top of one another to the point where you’re having too much fun to worry about plot specifics. There are also laughs a-plenty; is it just me or do these things keep getting funnier? And a few of the big set-pieces are as beautiful as anything you’ll find in a recent Bond picture. (The aforementioned opera sequence comes to mind.)
Rogue Nation does have one advantage over Ghost Protocol: its villains are better. Sean Harris is all diabolically icy as the Syndicate’s snake-like head, and he’s followed around by some memorable underlings, especially the one they ominously call “The Bone Doctor.” However, whereas Ghost Protocol is continuously propulsive from start to finish, Rogue Nation sags a bit in its second half, as the weight of all the double-crosses and fake double-crosses comes bearing down, busting up the film’s momentum. And while the action is strong throughout, it’s not quite as smart a film as the previous entry. I still adore Bird’s plotting in Ghost Protocol, especially in the terrific Dubai section where Hunt and his team have to convince two bad guys that they just exchanged authentic nuclear launch codes when they totally didn’t. The IMF-ers use their brains instead of brawn to pull it off, and there’s nothing quite that clever in Rogue Nation.
Still, this is a damn fine popcorn movie. The actors look like they’re having a ball. During the film’s first half, the team is split in two with Cruise and Pegg working together while Renner and Rhames get paired up. Obviously the former get most of the screen time, but the latter have a natural chemistry together. (Eventually, the two pairs quite literally collide.) Baldwin’s patented smarminess is put to good use, and Ferguson continues this franchise’s recent trend of casting gorgeous, badass women and giving them roles bigger and more interesting than just being the token dame.
Truthfully, as much as I love Casino Royale, if I had to pick between the last three Mission: Impossibles and the Daniel Craig Bond films, I’d go with Cruise and the IMF. The more dour the Bonds get, the more light-hearted and fun the M:Is get, and that breeziness has served the series well. America’s super spy is on a roll.