With the new Mission: Impossible movie, even if it’s the most assured and satisfying of the five so far, it sounds foolish to even mention the things the characters say in between screeching tires, gunfights, knife fights, motorcycle derring-do, and the opening act featuring Tom Cruise dangling for real (real enough to make it look cool, and frightening) on the outside of a plane high over a Belarus airstrip.
But it isn’t foolish. One of the many pleasures of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is the snap and tension of writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s dialogue. At one point a character describes Cruise’s Ethan Hunt as an unstoppable force of destiny in such wittily florid terms, it’s like a love letter crossed with a term paper, dropped into a spy movie.
McQuarrie won an Oscar for the highly verbal ensemble foray The Usual Suspects. Then, for a long while, his Hollywood career cooled. Now it’s hot again, thanks to Cruise, who hired McQuarrie for Jack Reacher and then to rewrite the troubled (and ultimately entertaining) science fiction thriller Edge of Tomorrow. As a storyteller McQuarrie is smart enough to treat each character as the smartest person in any given room, in his or her own way. Even the disposable goons in Rogue Nation are rewarded with a line or two betraying some verifiable human intelligence before they get scissor-kicked in the face.
McQuarrie joins the tony list of Mission: Impossible directors past: Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird. His facility for straight-up, relatively traditional violent action takes on a new swagger in Rogue Nation. He has a mind, and an eye, for intricate setups, and if the results aren’t quite in the realm of movie heaven (the editing by Eddie Hamilton sometimes devolves into chaos), neither do they settle for generic head-bashing. As photographed in rich, gleaming light and shadow in London, Vienna and Casablanca by the great cinematographer Robert Elswit, Oscar winner for There Will Be Blood, the showcase scenes—such as a lengthy Man Who Knew Too Much-inspired assassination attempt inside the Vienna State Opera House—hark back to swank, consciously “exotic” Cold War thrillers, in the locales as well as the spirit.
The super-secret espionage agency known as the Impossible Mission Force becomes de-funded in Rogue Nation by the grumpy, competitive CIA director played by Alec Baldwin, lightening the load with extraordinarily dry line readings. This leaves Hunt and the gang without the leeway they need to capture the vicious head of an international terrorist syndicate known, expediently, as The Syndicate.
Sean Harris, whose vocal intonations suggest a lifetime of cigarettes and helium intake, is genuinely chilling as Hunt’s quarry. The IMF crew, familiar and welcome faces all, includes Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames. Rebecca Ferguson, Swedish-born, makes a formidable addition to the team (sub-group: “frenemy”) in the role of a British spy working every side of every street with her mad fighting skills and inevitable if extremely cautious interest in Cruise’s Hunt. Rogue Nation has only a fleeting, theoretical interest in sex. It’s more interested in Cruise, running, or Cruise, leaping, or Cruise, holding his breath underwater for a long time, in a genuinely tense tour-de-force.
The IMF oversight committee cites “wanton brinksmanship” as the reason for closing down the “throwback” that is the IMF. Rogue Nation revels in both those qualities. It’s daring of McQuarrie, in a big-budget internationally financed action picture such as this, to turn over a fair amount of narrative acreage to a lengthy, methodical scene cutting between a performance of Puccini’s Turandot and not one, not two, but three assassins lurking in the opera house wings. Other filmmakers would’ve condensed such a sequence down to a couple of minutes; this one presumes a little patience on the audience’s behalf. Lest we mistake Rogue Nation for Graham Greene, there’s a Moroccan car chase leading into a motorcycle chase leading into a telling moment of betrayal.
Cruise clearly has a death wish, judging from how he throws himself into Mission: Improbable stunts every time out. The opening gambit with the plane recalls Sean Connery atop the moving locomotive in the ’70s adventure The Great Train Robbery. For whatever sick reason, we enjoy seeing our stars in some degree of actual physical peril. Half of Rogue Nation belongs to the digital realm of trickery; the other half delivers a more gratifying combination of bodies in space, usually going at each other, along with crosses, double-crosses and settings reminiscent of everything from the 1966-1973 TV show to Hitchcock to Stanley Donen’s Charade. As for Lalo Schifrin’s famous 5/4 theme—one of the greatest of all “danger” themes in TV or the movies—well there’s cool. And then there’s “Theme from Mission: Impossible” cool.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (PG-13): ★★★★✩