Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie || Produced by: Tom Cruise, J. J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger
Screenplay by: Christopher McQuarrie || Starring: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin
Music by: Joe Kraemer || Cinematography: Robert Elswit || Edited by: Eddie Hamilton || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 131 minutes
There is an action franchise that once upon a time began with promise, then quickly descended into mediocre action schlock which, during its best moments was suitable as a guilty pleasure, and at its worst demonstrated the most plain and forgettable of Hollywood spectacle; then in 2011, something happened — a spark was lit under that franchise’s belly and it kicked things into high-gear, becoming one of the (if not the) most potent blockbuster series in America. No, that series is not The Fast and the Furious (FF, 2001-2015), it’s Mission: Impossible. Mission Impossible (MI) is a property which, like the Alien series (1979-2012) or the Mad Max franchise (1979-2015, MM), favors the novelty and unique expression of individual entries in the series rather than the rigid, foolproof continuity of the franchise itself. MI, MM, and the Alien movies focus on the standalone quality of each film, and as a result I argue they’re much stronger and will remain much more enduring properties than either the FF franchise or the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008-present).
Similar to Alien(s), the MI canon consists of the same story told over and over again, but directed in a different way by a different filmmaker for every movie. While some films are better than others, each movie in MI, like in the Alien (or Predator) franchise, feels distinct. The first MI feature-film adaptation way back in 1996 was directed by Brian DePalma and resembled a stereotypical slow-burn spy-thriller; the second in 2000 was directed by John Woo and demonstrated the Hong Kong auteur’s penchant for acrobatic gun violence and slow-motion; the third in 2006 was J. J. Abrams’ directorial debut and unleashed his now universally recognizable lens flares and intense handheld style.
Finally in 2011, long-time animation-aficionado Brad Bird (The Iron Giant , The Incredibles , Ratatouille ) made his transition to big budget live-action features and gave the MI franchise the modern kick of adrenaline that it desperately needed. Though it featured the least interesting villain in a series that needs better bad guys even more than the MCU (an almost non-existent Michael Nyqvist), Ghost Protocol (GP) asserted itself as the best film in the series by far. This brings us to summer-2015 and writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s Rogue Nation (RN). Though I had my doubts about whether the man whose most recognizable directorial feature to date was the hopelessly generic Jack Reacher (2012), those doubts were nullified this Thursday. RN is an outstanding action film, and it’s a tossup as to whether this film or GP is the best of the MI franchise.
Something that has always been a major strength of the franchise, even during its lesser entries, is its dedication to physicality and practical stunts, the majority of which are performed by the films’ star himself, Tom Cruise. In an age where hulking giants like Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson resort to stunt doubles by default and CGI-spectacle dominates the mainstream, Cruise’s filmography is a decorated poster-child for hard-hitting, tasteful action. Nowhere is this more effective than GP and RN, whose blunt, on-location set-pieces put to shame the green-screen accolades of most superhero and FF features. If it weren’t for Fury Road (2015), RN would be my top blockbuster of the year.
While GP may still have the edge over RN in terms of sheer jaw-dropping action scenes (that Burj Khalifa climb has to be seen to be believed), RN brings the noise in its own way with powerful, intense sequences of highly organized mayhem and also manages to recall the earlier days of patient MI-espionage. The MI series has now officially become what the FF franchise desperately wants to be and what the James Bond series used to be: A high-octane yet effectively scripted spy-thriller.
Speaking of that script, McQuarrie continues the trend reignited by Bird in the previous film of focusing on ensemble casts and emphasizing the team-aspects of MI’s source material. Cruise remains the star of this series, of course, but like Max Rockatansky, he’s part of a bigger story. Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, and relative unknown Rebecca Ferguson build around their lead and make this story theirs as well as his; hell, even the villain played by Sean Harris is pretty good, though by MI bad-guy standards that’s not saying a ton.
Everything about Rogue Nation is polished — its characters, its dialogue, its wonderful action, and especially its pacing. It speaks to the confidence and sensibility of McQuarrie that he has the spectacular motorcycle chase-scene as the midpoint peak of his film, and then ends with a tensely shot yet low-key foot-chase between Cruise and Harris crosscut with a knife fight between Ferguson and henchman Jens Hulten in an alley.
General Hollywood action-formula dictates that you end with your most epic, over-the-top sequence and constantly crescendo excitement through the entire movie. What McQuarrie does (and what Bird also did in GP and Christopher Nolan did in The Dark Knight ), is peak in the middle and end the story on a smaller physical scale, which, combined with the smart script and characterizations, actually emphasizes the emotional drama at the story’s climax that much better. It’s harder to execute a story with the centerpiece in the actual center of the movie, which is why that format isn’t as common, but if you know what you’re doing, the end result is that much more effective.
All in all, Rogue Nation is yet another win for the Mission: Impossible series. Despite some obvious concessions made for the bloodless PG-13 rating here and there, Christopher McQuarrie’s latest sequel has the balls to go with its cannon and continues the series’ resurgence into some of the best blockbuster thrills modern Hollywood has to offer. 007, the ball is in your court, now.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Dynamite action sequences and a great cast give this new Mission: Impossible the entertainment value and “for-all-ages” appeal that most other tentpole blockbusters only wish they had. The motorcycle/car-chase centerpiece is one of the best examples of vehicular mayhem I’ve ever seen on film. Tom Cruise is the definitive American action-star. However, his supporting cast of Renner, Pegg, Rhames, and Ferguson are almost as dynamite as the action.
— However… whenever you execute someone with a bullet to the head and I see no blood, I will roll my eyes.
? So what kind of gun would a clarinet disassemble into?