Friday, July 31, 2015

Review: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Runtime: 111 minutes

It's extremely rare that film franchises get better with age, yet Tom Cruise's 19 year-old Mission: Impossible series continues to see significant improvements. Four years after Brad Bird's Ghost Protocol, Ethan Hunt is back and shows no signs of given into fatigue. Screenwriter-turned-director Christopher McQuarrie has taken control of the fifth Impossible film, and despite some missed opportunities, he's created a stellar spy adventure that keeps Cruise and co. gleefully on track. 

Despite the presence of a new director and new screenwriters, the latest installment - subtitled Rogue Nation - has quite a bit in common with its predecessor. Like Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation begins with the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) becoming compromised, albeit under different circumstances. Despite the nuclear disaster averted at the end of Ghost Protocol, the IMF has drawn the ire of Senator Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), who convinces the Senate to disband the cover ops organization. While agents like William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) begrudgingly go with the flow, Hunt goes MIA. He's convinced that there's an organization known as The Syndicate, the sole purpose of which is to instigate acts of terrorism across the globe. 

While Hunt and his co-workers have faced various obstacles before, Rogue Nation gets great mileage by introducing the less tangible roadblock of uncertainty. Is The Syndicate real? Is Ethan Hunt going out of his mind after years working for the US government? Some of these questions have easy answers that aren't worth pondering, but their inclusion does highlight an effort on McQuarrie's part to bring something new to this outlandish adventure series. 

Yet the biggest and best question mark comes not in the form of an existential dilemma, but a person. Specifically, Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa Faust, whose allegiance seems to change on a whim. The series has made good use of female characters in the past, but none have felt as complete as Ilsa. Frankly, by the end of Rogue Nation, I was ready for an entire movie dedicated solely to her exploits. Obviously no one's out to win awards here, but the actress does make quite an impression as woman who's equal parts Bond girl and Ingrid Bergman. 

In fact, despite Ethan Hunt's lone wolf status through the first chunk of the film, the film fares best when it works to incorporate as much of the supporting cast as possible. Cruise can play this role in his sleep and still be convincing, which leaves quite a bit of room for the rest of the cast to really make their mark. Of the returning cast, Pegg is easily the most enjoyable of the lot, playing the frenzied sidekick to Cruise's laser-focused leading man while still remaining grounded. Renner's role has much less to do this time around, but the actor manages to land a few solid quips, especially in his scenes opposite Baldwin. 

This being a Mission: Impossible film, however, the real question is: but what about the stunts?? Even though Mr. McQuarrie's experience behind the camera is limited, he and his technical collaborators have done an excellent job of providing Rogue Nation's required spectacle. If anything, McQuarrie overloads the film's first half with excellent set pieces, the crown jewel of which involves an assassination attempt set in the rafters of an opera house. The film's marketing has made a big deal of Cruise actually hanging off of the side of a plane, but by the film's end, that oddly weightless bit of stunt work is a distant memory.

The downside of overloading the film's first half is that McQuarrie compensates by padding the second half. The second hour takes far too long to reshuffle the deck, and McQuarrie's exception handle on the pacing goes too slack for what's supposed to be an high stakes adventure. There are also narrative developments (or rather, lack thereof) that mar Rogue Nation's ambitions. Overall, The Syndicate doesn't feel like much of a major threat (other than as some vague, amorphous "evil" entity). McQuarrie's concept of his villains far outstrips his execution, which struggles to move beyond square one. Ghost Protocol built to a definitive struggle to thwart a specific plot, while Rogue Nation's climax involves trying to get the bad guy because, well, he's probably planning on doing something the next few months (????).

Second act misgivings aside, McQuarrie deserves a lot of credit for taking the reigns of such a big action movie franchise and making a mostly seamless transition to the director's chair. Despite a few dramatic outbursts between characters, this is breezy, lightweight material that has been expertly assembled. From the opera sequence to a climactic chase that has visual nods to the finale of The Third Man, Rogue Nation is a well-oiled machine that knows how to deliver. McQuarrie knows he isn't reinventing the wheel, but at least he's trying his hardest to make the best damn wheel he can. If the result is a film like Rogue Nation, then he's more than accomplished his goal. 

Grade: B

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