Back for a fifth instalment, “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” finds Ethan Hunt facing off against two distinct threats. One is The Syndicate, a shadow network which styles itself as ‘the anti-IMF’; the other is from the American government and the CIA who are pressing to have the IMF shut down.
The latter threat is not only understandable, but long overdue. Although consistently entertaining, the “Mission: Impossible” movies have a common thread running through them: the IMF, and Ethan Hunt in particular, are among the most spectacularly inept and ineffective secret agents ever to grace the silver screen. Throughout every one of their cinematic outings they have concocted convoluted, intricate plans which then habitually fail, requiring some kind of desperate last-gasp stunt to save the day. Hunt himself has failed to detect treachery in his own organisation on several occasions, has been repeatedly disavowed and invariably chooses the most extreme and thrill-seeking approach to solving problems. He’s not simply a dangerously incompetent secret agent; he’s a recklessly arrogant adrenaline junkie.
By now the movie franchise resembles its source TV series only in the quaint gimmicks of self-destructing mission briefings and Lalo Schifrin’s effortlessly cool theme tune. In place of the clever, innovative ensemble approach of the TV series, the movie franchise has mutated into an ego trip for its main star, relegating almost everyone else to comic relief sidekick status.
Tom Cruise continues to be fascinating dichotomy; unappealingly synonymous with crackpot religions and odd behaviour off screen yet eminently watchable on it. It has to be said that he’s starting to show his age on screen and the spectre of being past his prime may be the reason why so many (all) of the big action sequences are reserved for Ethan Hunt as the producers (also Cruise) make sure to flatter the leading man’s ego. Whether it’s hanging on the side of a plane as it takes off or hurtling through the streets of Morocco in cars or on motorbikes, Cruise’s commitment to performing as many of his own stunts as he can is as impressive as it is symptomatic of a cinematic mid-life crisis in progress.
The real victims of the gravitational lensing caused by Cruise’s star power are Jeremy Renner and Ving Rhames who end up playing third and fourth fiddle respectively and often spend time just twiddling their thumbs while the action unfolds elsewhere. Simon Pegg fares a little better but is still very much the comic relief that we’re directed to laugh at rather than with. Alec Baldwin brings a much needed gravitas and ambiguity to proceedings as CIA chief and would-be IMF axe man Alan Hunley but Sean Harris’ Solomon Lane – head of the sinister Syndicate – is a major let-down, mustering all the malice of a sleepy Sven Goran Erikson and affecting a comical whispering voice which would give even Tom Hardy pause for thought.
Despite all these problems, there’s no denying that “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” is an entertaining and sporadically action-packed thriller. In fact, there are times when “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” is quite simply brilliant. Some of those times are in the Cruise-centric big action sequences which are carried out with technical perfection and shot brilliantly by writer/ director Christopher McQuarrie. Most of the times the film achieves brilliance, though, are when Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust is on the screen. As the shadowy, double agent, constantly dancing on the line between hero and villain, Ferguson is a revelation here. She is not only a super-skilled bad-ass, but she’s shown to be every bit the equal – if not superior – of Hunt and any of the bad guys. Subverting the usual tropes, she’s never in need of Hunt’s help or last minute rescue and even gets to have her own drawn-out, knock-down showdown with some of The Syndicate’s most brutal henchmen. Rebecca Ferguson single-handedly salvages what could have been a self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing Cruise-heavy bro-fest and gets it back on track to being the well-balanced action adventure spy caper it needs to be. She is, by far, the franchise’s MVP by the end of the movie. If Paramount have any sense, they’ll be locking Ferguson down to a multi-picture deal and considering a spin-off film starring her on a solo mission as well as making sure she’s an integral part of “Mission: Impossible 6”.
The last third of the movie, although light on the big set-piece stunts, hews much closer to the TV series source material and by the end, the movie’s assets outweigh its liabilities. It’s as ambitious and flawed as one of Ethan Hunt’s elaborate schemes and like Hunt’s schemes, it manages to entertain and thrill even as it makes some pretty stupid blunders. It’s still good quality blockbuster fare but the sooner this franchise frees itself from its self-imposed dependency on the waning star power of Tom Cruise and gives every member of the team moments to shine, the better. After all, Rebecca Ferguson won’t always be around to save the day…