Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation Dir. Christopher McQuarrie

[Paramount Pictures; 2015]

Styles: action, espionage
Others: Mission: Impossible III, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, Jack Reacher,

It’s ironic that, for a franchise built on double crosses, espionage, and secrets, there are very little surprises in the Mission: Impossible films. The bare essentials always remain the same: Tom Cruise will do some spectacular stunts, there’ll be a question of loyalty amongst those around him, and ultimately there’ll be a pursuit of some dodgy MacGuffin (usually a list or a file about agents’ identities) to keep it out of the hands of some arms dealer or evil espionage doppelganger. That’s not necessarily a complete negative; this regularity provides a simple framework for each new director to lend his own signature while also creating excuses for spectacular stunt work and action sequences. Christopher McQuarrie directs the latest entry, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, and finds time to put in his focus for stripped down fighting and simple character development. The result is a pleasurable, if mostly forgettable, film that has some standout moments created by practical effects and Cruise’s devotion to being the best special effect in the film.

This installment finds the IMF (yes, still idiotically called Impossible Missions Force) shut down by the U.S. government and Ethan Hunt (Cruise) on the run. He’s in pursuit of The Syndicate, a shadowy group made up of former secret service types from all across the globe. Most people in the intelligence community think The Syndicate is a boogeyman, but not our man Hunt — so of course they are real. Soon enough he’s entangled with a possible double or triple agent from London (Rebecca Ferguson), and has roped in his former compatriots (Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, and Jeremy Renner) to help him thwart the plans of this cabal. This mission finds Hunt and company going from London, Vienna, Morocco, and back to London with some beautiful shots and well staged action as the clock runs out and the two factions collide.

Much of Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation is pretty easy to forget. I had to look up Ferguson’s character’s name to remember it, and most of the other characters are drawn in broad strokes. The stuff between the action scenes don’t feel like fluff while watching it, but it’s quick to evaporate in viewers’ minds when the film ends. But it’s all in McQuarrie’s workmanlike service to delivering a lean film that, while it occasionally dabbles in the moral ambiguity of previous Mission: Impossible installments, mostly sticks to a Good Guys vs Bad Guys dichotomy.

While Sean Harris does a serviceable job as the main villain, Solomon Lane, but really there are two stars in this film: Rebecca Ferguson and the stunt work. Despite my lack of remembering that she’s called “Ilsa,” Ferguson is nonetheless incredibly memorable in her role as a morally dubious agent who seems to be playing multiple sides, or perhaps is simply a do-gooder like Hunt, caught in an untenable situation. However, Ferguson plays the role perfectly and shines both in her dialogue scenes where she adds the much needed vagueness to her lines and motivation and in her fight scenes where she shows off serious moves and dispatches bad guys in a manner that puts her on par with most Hollywood action stars. She ignites the screen every time she’s on it and manages to draw out the best from her co-stars, whose characters constantly waiver on whether or not to trust her.

If you’re surprised I didn’t include Tom Cruise as one of the film’s major stars, I’d lump him in under “stunt work.” The man is a human stunt machine (performing most of the stunts himself in close-up), and his ability to pull off some incredibly daring setpieces helps sell the film because you’re so caught up in what he’s actually doing (with seemingly minimal assistance from CGI). He’s his own special effect and, working with an excellent stunt team, helps churn out some indelible moments that span land, sea, and air.

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation is not a great film. It’s the best in the series thus far, but for me that’s saying very little. It is akin to an amusement park ride, like a rollercoaster: there are some lulls as you climb to the top, but all you’ll walk away remembering are those precipitous drops and the rush of excitement when the speed cranks up. McQuarrie brings the same economic approach to fights and character work that he recently did in Jack Reacher, which makes it a simple and easy to follow story. But he joyously lets loose with the stunt work and action sequences that are actually thrilling. The film will keep your attention, occasionally stun you with a setpiece, and pay some lip service to having a complicated plot when it remains a fairly straightforward story. That may sound more like a perfect hangover film than the summer blockbuster, but perhaps that’s exactly where this film lies. Enjoyed, lazily, on a couch on some Sunday afternoon; marveling at the insanity momentarily displayed and then cozily lulled back to inattention whenever the plot tries to assert itself as something other than a stunt delivery service.

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